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IN PERFORMANCE

Jazz Fest launches with a warm tribute to Ella Fitzgerald

Howard Reich

10:46 AM CDT, August 31, 2012

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The pleasant, populist program that opened the 34th annual Chicago Jazz Festival on Thursday night certainly had a great deal going for it.

Three top Chicago vocalists. The splendid Chicago Jazz Orchestra. And the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, the best outdoor venue in the Loop by far.

An audience estimated at 12,000 packed the place for the occasion, and listeners were rewarded with a loving tribute to Ella Fitzgerald that, alas, didn't raise quite the sparks it could have. Everything was beautifully sung and sumptuously accompanied, and the opportunity to hear excerpts from Fitzgerald's famous "Songbook" recordings predictably drew an enthusiastic crowd.

Though vocalists Dee Alexander, Frieda Lee and Spider Saloff have sung various incarnations of their Fitzgerald tribute across town for years, the chance to hear them backed by Jeff Lindberg's big band in a spectacular outdoor setting very nearly justified the repeat performance (even if it represented a surprisingly tame launch for a festival that long has prided itself on original, adventurous programming).

But this evening, which not only launched the festival but also closed the summer's "Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz" series, did not make maximum use of the resources at hand.

In an event that chronically seems to prize talking almost as much as music-making, the evening opened with the usual speechifying, plus a segment in which the popular Chicago TV announcer Harry Porterfield read a biographical portrait of Fitzgerald. As Porterfield spoke, Lindberg's CJO swung exuberantly right along.

Bad move: The band often drowned out Porterfield, whose text – itself a compendium of cliches – was utterly unnecessary in the first place. Whose idea was this?

Once the verbiage ended and the music began, the evening instantly rose to a higher level, with compelling work from each of the vocalists.

Saloff opened, bringing a persuasive sense of swing to Johnny Mercer's "Something's Gotta Give" and an easy rhythmic sway to the Gershwins' "'S Wonderful." She turned in her best work in Duke Ellington's "Cotton Tail," which underscored her gifts as a scat singer, Saloff tossing off complex figurations.

Alexander, who commands the widest stylistic range of the singers, showed how much color that remarkable instrument of hers can produce in an unusually slow version of the Gershwins' "Oh, Lady Be Good." She slathered Ellington's "I Got it Bad and That Ain't Good" with luscious, bluesy swells of sound, and her instrument hardly could have sounded more voluptuous in his "Drop Me Off in Harlem."

Lee reached to the lower depths of her alto in the Gershwins' "Embraceable You" and made a dreamy aria of Jerome Kern's "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man."

But it wasn't until the last minutes of the concert that the singers joined forces, their trio work yielding a high degree of heat absent until then. This program cried out for more such tours de force, as well as duos in various combinations.

Instead, one singer marched off the stage while another marched on, over and over and over, giving the concert a repetitive quality that diminished its effect over time.

For all its unmistakable charms, this program could have been so much more, considering the vocal firepower on hand.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Picks for the weekend

Following are highlights for the weekend, with Friday's performances at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Street and Michigan Avenue; Saturday and Sunday's shows in Grant Park, with all stages near Columbus Drive and Jackson Boulevard; free; 312-744-3316 or chicagojazzfestival.us.

Friday

Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble at 6:30 p.m. and Roy Haynes Fountain of Youth Band at 8 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Saturday

Ken Vandemark and Paal Nilssen-Love at 2 p.m. at the Jazz and Heritage Stage.

Frank D'Rone at 2:20 p.m. and Ambrose Akinmusire at 3:30 p.m. at the Jazz on Jackson Stage.

Vandermark's Resonance Ensemble at 6 p.m. and Dianne Reeves at 8:30 p.m. at the Petrillo Music Shell.

Sunday

Jeremy Kahn Sextet at 1:10 p.m. at the Jazz on Jackson Stage.

Tito Carrillo at 3:30 p.m. at the Jazz and Heritage Stage.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements at 7:10 p.m. and Allen Toussaint at 8:30 p.m. at the Petrillo Music Shell.