9:53 AM CDT, September 3, 2012
Some of the best music of the 34th annual Chicago Jazz Festival played during its finale on Sunday night. But so did some of the worst.
Several performances at the Petrillo Music Shell projected quite clearly from the acoustically challenged venue. But others proved nearly unlistenable.
That's how it always goes at this wildly inconsistent event, sublime sets alternating with duds, acoustical clarity followed by sonic mud. Overall, attendance at the event dropped precipitously from last year, 125,000 turning out for all four days (according to city estimates), compared with 175,000 last year, the fall-off likely due to dire weather forecasts that never materialized.
The most magical work on Sunday came from the evening's closer, New Orleans singer-songwriter-pianist Allen Toussaint, whose silky vocals, sleek pianism and ultra-elegant delivery represented a striking contrast to the dilapidated Petrillo stage on which he found himself. Yet through most of Toussaint's performance, one almost could forget the grungy Grant Park setting, so seductive was his presentation.
The man even tamed the park's sound system, his vocals, pianism and ensemble work neither over-amplified nor distorted. Then, again, Toussaint sang in such a low-key manner, played piano with such delicacy and presided over such a soft-spoken band that the challenges of high volumes and thick instrumental textures never arose.
Toussaint, though best-known for funk and R&B, appropriately focused on jazz, including music from his album "The Bright Mississippi." Here Toussaint outdid himself, producing a warm tonal glow in "St. James Infirmary," complete with piano quotations from Bizet's "Carmen." Clarinetist Don Byron spun exquisite melodic filigree in "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," his ornate phrasings evoking early-period New Orleans jazz and answered by Toussaint's tremolo chords and rolling rhythms on piano. Guitarist Marc Ribot strummed poetically throughout, but it was Toussaint's far-flung musical tastes – which drew on everything from "Sneakin' Sally through the Alley" to Grieg's Piano Concerto in A minor – that gave the set heightened interest.
Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra disarmed at least one listener with its witty juxtaposition of early-period Duke Ellington and whimsical, contemporary responses to it. Certainly it has been a long time since a song of Carl Nielsen – the great Danish symphonist – was heard at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The New Jungle Orchestra's version combined rambunctious ensemble vocals, 1920s jazz instrumentals and the haunting lyricism of trumpeter Gunnar Halle into an unlikely but strangely attractive whole.
Unfortunately, when Dorge and his band plunged wholly into the 21st century avant-garde – the ensemble pushing into fortissimo territory – the music devolved into an ear-splitting crush of nearly incomprehensible sound. This stage cannot handle music of such complexity and volume.
Former Chicagoan Steve Coleman fared better, the alto saxophonist leading a band built almost entirely on four-part counterpoint, each line crisply differentiated from the next. More interesting still, Coleman's ensemble offered an extended composition/improvisation in which tempo and intricacy of gesture increased inexorably over a long stretch of time. The sustained tension of this work built to a striking finish, with richly defined contributions from Coleman, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore.
Chicago singer Sarah Marie Young opened the evening, her performance as enticing and frustrating as the festival itself. At her best, she sang impeccably sculpted phrases opposite vocalist Saalik Ziyad in the old standard "Teach Me Tonight," the beauty of her tone matched by the ingenuity of her lines. But elsewhere in her set, she confused screaming with drama, her overwrought delivery and shrill high notes difficult to take. Some of her self-styled ballads addressed the ear far more warmly, yet they were so deeply indebted to the pop-jazz breakthroughs of Esperanza Spalding that Young needn't have bothered.
As for the low production values, unreliable sound and semi-pro staging of the festival, the event felt like a relic of the late 1970s and '80s. Counterparts in other cities now far outpace the Chicago Jazz Festival in budget, presentation and professionalism.
For next year, the city's Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events – which produces the event – ought to scrap the archaic formula and start over.
By inviting clubs, concert halls and music presenters to participate, Chicago might finally have a festival worthy of this city's pulsing jazz scene.
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