Hyde Park Jazz Festival transforms a neighborhood – with music

Howard Reich

11:22 AM CDT, September 30, 2012


What does a great Chicago jazz festival look like? Sound like? Feel like?

Overflow audiences found out over the weekend, when the sixth annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival unfolded in unconventional, richly appealing venues across the South Side neighborhood.

In a city practically overrun with music festivals, the Hyde Park event quickly has outpaced its older jazz counterparts, and it's not difficult to understand why. The event presents first-rate artists in settings specifically suited to the nature of their work, rather than on a one-size-fits-all stage.

Better still, the listening rooms are unique-to-Chicago spaces that invite audiences to explore the city while hearing jazz in unexpected contexts. Frank Lloyd Wright obviously didn't conceive his famous Robie House, on South Woodlawn Avenue, as a music club, but its low ceilings and sleekly horizontal spaces certainly make for intimate concert-going (and acoustically pristine listening).

The enormous crowds that turned out for some of the performances suggested that the Hyde Park Jazz Festival, for all its virtues, has room for both improvement and growth. With listeners unable to get into certain shows, especially some at the University of Chicago's plush new Logan Center for the Arts, the event's planners ought to consider initiating ticketed concerts next year.

Yes, the free-admission nature of the event generates excitement and welcomes the broadest possible public. But keeping listeners in long lines and then turning some of them away does not seem an ideal method for building audiences. A combination of free and ticketed concerts could help manage tremendous demand while drawing revenue for a festival that is evolving into a bona fide arts institution.

Nevertheless, this year's event arguably was the best yet, its combination of familiar names, unfamiliar music and idyllic weather a boon to casual and obsessive jazz listeners alike. The festival, which ends Sunday, produced an extraordinary range of sounds on Saturday. Here's one listener's diary:

1:30 p.m.: Taylor Moore at the Wagner Stage at the Midway. Outdoor presentations on makeshift stages do not always serve jazz well, but the Wagner Stage – named for festival co-founder James Wagner – worked better than most. The small proscenium and relatively confined space on the Midway helped manage the sound, and emerging drummer Moore launched the proceedings with the gusto of youth. An accomplished musician of considerable potential, Moore led a band that didn't match her energy. Even so, she came on a bit strong in her spoken (and shouted) exhortations to the audience and should allow her hard-driving, rhythmically gripping music to speak for itself.

2:51 p.m.: Dennis Carroll at the Smart Museum of Art. Too bad this set started 21 minutes late, an anomaly at a festival that otherwise proceeded like clockwork. Bassist Carroll took a big gamble, presenting original, deeply autobiographical tunes sung by Lacy Brown. Carroll needs to scrub a few of the cliches from lyrics that otherwise proved deeply affecting, especially an untitled song about longing for a father who isn't there. Melodically, Carroll's works were never less than intriguing, suggesting that he may have opened an important new artistic avenue for himself.

3:40 p.m.: Bossa Tres at the West Stage at the Midway. For the first time, the Hyde Park Jazz Festival presented a second outdoor stage, this one equipped with a dance floor. The musicians of Bossa Tres provided exquisitely idiomatic performances of Brazilian repertoire, and a few brave souls got up to dance to music that indeed cried out for a swaying audience. If the dance floor becomes an ongoing feature – and it should – perhaps audiences increasingly will lose their inhibitions and take the plunge.

4:32 p.m.: Tammy McCann and the Reunion Jazz Orchestra. Until this show, the majestic Chicago jazz singer never had played a full solo set with a roaring big band. What a revelation. To hear that extraordinary, larger-than-life voice backed by a powerhouse orchestra was to understand anew the breadth of McCann's gifts. She swung ferociously in "Old Devil Moon," produced luscious tones in "How High the Moon" and took it slow-and-slinky in "Do Nothin' Till You Hear From Me," with elegant solo turns from trumpeter Pharez Whitted and trombonist Audrey Morrison.

7 p.m.: Zach Brock at Frank Lloyd Wright's Robie House. Anyone who doubted that the former Chicagoan could become the next major jazz violinist should have heard this set. Somehow, Brock made figurations of considerable complexity and harmonic rigor easily accessible to even the most casual listener (many of whom listened outside, at the corner of 58th Street and Woodlawn Avenue). The warmth of Brock's tone and silken quality of his phrasing had a great deal to do with his appeal, as did his fluid dialogues with bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Jon Deitemyer.

9:02 p.m.: Dana Hall at the Logan Center Performance Hall. Ever since drummer Hall stepped down as artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, in May, Chicago listeners have had precious few opportunities to hear him. With this performance, though, Hall reignited his Chicago performance life, leading his quartet in searching interpretations of music of Andrew Hill. The repertoire proved so compelling as to invite further explorations by Hall and this group, with vibist Justin "Justefan" Thomas, bassist Clark Sommers and reedist Geof Bradfield. How satisfying to hear once again Hall's sharp attacks, explosive rhythms and fullness of sound.

11:05 p.m.: Miguel Zenon at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel. The festival took its biggest risk with this show – a solo performance in an echo chamber – and reaped its biggest reward. MacArthur Fellowship, or "genius grant," winner Zenon toyed with the acoustical challenge, taking time to let individual notes ring out and reverberate. He implied rhythms so consistently as to render the absence of a drummer nearly irrelevant. All the while, his lyric tone and encyclopedic rendering of Puerto Rican song forms meant this event could stand as a Hyde Park Jazz Festival high point for years to come.

The Hyde Park Jazz Festival continues from 1 to 8 p.m. Sunday at the Midway Plaisance, between Woodlawn and Ellis Avenues; admission is free; visit hydeparkjazzfestival.org or phone 773-324-6926.


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