Review: Exuberant sounds at Englewood Jazz Festival

Several of the city's best jazz musicians converged on one of its toughest neighborhoods over the weekend for the 14th annual Englewood Jazz Festival, a small but indefatigable institution conceived by Chicago saxophonist-bandleader Ernest Dawkins.

Though Dawkins never has had much funding for the event – this year he staged it for about $15,000 – he has persevered, to the benefit of many.

For starters, a neighborhood that often makes headlines because of violent crime became a kind of cultural oasis Thursday evening through Saturday afternoon. Residents and visitors gathered at sprawling Hamilton Park, on West 72nd Street, to revel in music and conversation. In so doing, they celebrated a neighborhood that has produced such jazz titans as Joe Williams, Jack DeJohnette, Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill.

Equally important, the festival offered several world premieres, making it a notable event of the fall season.

The high point arrived Friday evening, when Dawkins – who grew up in and around Englewood and lives there still – led the first performance of "A Dream Come True or a Dream Deferred?" As its title suggests, Dawkins' hour-long opus invokes the "I Have a Dream" speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to dramatic effect.

Like all of Dawkins' epic suites dealing with America's racial and social history, "Dream" combined the churning, burning sounds of a jazz orchestra with narration from the exceptional Chicago poet Khari B. This kind of narrated jazz suite has become a Dawkins specialty, the eruptions of his Live the Spirit Big Band further stoked by Khari B.'s oration.

The piece opened majestically, the band members chanting King's name and other phrases as they walked onto the stage of the Hamilton Park Cultural Center. Before long, the musicians established a buoyant swing rhythm, providing joyous backdrop for a clarion solo from trumpeter Corey Wilkes, wide-open horn calls from trombonist Steve Barry and gravelly riffs from baritone saxophonist Aaron Getsug.

Khari B.'s poetry evoked the racism of King's era in unflinching terms, his delivery as ferocious as his words. Though the auditorium's somewhat boomy acoustics meant listeners couldn't catch every word, the message was pungently clear.

All the fire and brimstone was underscored by many of the solos to come, none more effective than the duo passages shared by alto saxophonist Christopher McBride and tenor saxophonist Irvin Pierce. Trading incendiary phrases at some moments, wailing simultaneously in others, they obliterated distinctions among swing-era, bebop and avant-garde idioms. The audience understandably shouted its approval.

Each movement of "Dream" explored a distinct sonic environment, from uptempo romps to deep-blues laments. Next, Dawkins should perform the piece in a club or concert hall setting, so that listeners can come to better understand the piece and hear Khari B.'s text in full.

The Saturday afternoon session, held outdoors, proved a little looser but also made impact with two additional premieres.

Trombonist Berry led the Great Black Music Ensemble in his "Thank You So Much," a tribute to the veteran Chicago trumpeter Art Hoyle. Essentially, the piece unfolded as a series of solos riding an orchestral ostinato. And Mwata Bowden led the Great Black Music Ensemble in Tomeka Reid's "Night," a work-in-progress that inspired ornate incantations from vocalists Saalik Ziyad and his father, Taalib-Din Ziyad.

With additional funding, the Englewood Jazz Festival – which this year expanded to three days from one – could become an anchor for cultural activity in the neighborhood. Here's hoping Dawkins can get the support this festival deserves.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

CHICAGO

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