1:03 PM CST, December 13, 2012
For those who prefer holiday music that's performed at a high artistic level, this will be a noteworthy weekend – as well as an historic one.
Specifically, a Christmas-music tradition in Chicago is coming to an end, while a Hanukkah musical tradition is taking flight.
For the past 17 years, leonine Chicago pianist Willie Pickens has presided over a "Jazz Christmas" concert at Hyde Park Union Church, on the South Side, that has featured some of the country's most admired soloists. Through the years, no less than Branford Marsalis, Tom Harrell, Nicholas Payton, Orbert Davis, Donald Harrison, Terell Stafford, Bunky Green, Ed Petersen, Charles McPherson, Randy Brecker and Gary Bartz have shared the stage with Pickens and his trio to play Pickens' sophisticated arrangements of holiday repertoire.
"Every year, we were able to give it a little different flavor, little different twists by having different artists," says Pickens, who will end the run this Friday evening at Hyde Park Union Church.
"So even if every year it was the same music, it always sounded different – it sounded alive."
Moreover, hearing Christmas music played by artists of this stature in the warm, embracing confines of Hyde Park Union Church represented a singular experience in Chicago's holiday season.
Not that Pickens ever planned to create such a long-lived tradition. The project started informally, with Pickens performing hymns on piano with what he calls "a jazz flavor." The ministers at Hyde Park Union Church – who obviously know profound music-making when they hear it – loved Pickens' work and asked him to create a formal concert, which he did in 1995.
Each year since then, "Jazz Christmas" has gained artistic heft and audience appeal, which makes you wonder why Pickens has decided to make this 18th annual edition his last.
"It's just that I felt we've been doing it a long time," says Pickens, 81. "Sometimes, when something goes on for so long, maybe people get tired of it, and it fizzles out. I'd rather it go out with a bang, while it's still on a high level, rather than you have to stop.
"It's just like great TV shows. They go on for many years, and then (they) start to fall. People get tired. You need something different."
It's worth noting that the "Jazz Christmas" always has been more than just a concert. For starters, it has raised funds for the Centers for New Horizons, a non-profit that "assists children, youth and families to become self-reliant," according to the organization's web site. In addition, trumpeter Payton appeared with Pickens and his trio on "A Jazz Christmas" (Southport), a recording that beautifully documented the venture.
How does Pickens feel about bringing down the curtain on this noble effort?
"I kind of feel sad," says the pianist. "But I will be doing other Christmas concerts, hopefully."
Trumpeter Jon Faddis will appear with the Willie Pickens Trio at 8 p.m. Friday at Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn Ave.; $40; 773-363-6063 or hpuc.org.
A holiday musicale of a different sort will unfold Sunday afternoon, when esteemed Chicago cantor Alberto Mizrahi collaborates with Chicago harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy and Trio Globo at Anshe Emet Synagogue, on the North Side.
Mizrahi and Levy planted the seed for this Jewish-jazz event last year, when they partnered for an ebullient, one-of-a-kind Hanukkah concert at Spertus, in the Loop. The capacity audience heard the two musicians take on ancient psalms and contemporary originals, reimagining both with jazz techniques and considerable Hebraic-Yiddish flavor.
"When we did the thing last year, it was an embryo of what we've ended up with," says Mizrahi, drawing a contrast between last year's loosely improvised series of duos and this year's more fully developed program featuring the world-music ensemble Trio Globo.
Earlier this year, these musicians recorded the holiday repertoire for the album "Matzah to Menorah," which will be available at the concert.
After last year's success, says Mizrahi, he and Levy "looked at each other and said: 'We should make a recording – there's nothing like this, people will want this,'" says Mizrahi.
Certainly an album and concert featuring Jewish music transformed by Levy, arguably the world's greatest jazz harmonica player, and Mizrahi, a widely admired and remarkably versatile cantor, commands attention. If last year's event featuring just the two musicians enriched our understanding of what Hebraic culture and American jazz share, the addition of Trio Globo could deepen the effect.
But Sunday's concert will have an additional feature, as well: a tribute to Dave Brubeck, who died Wednesday morning, one day shy of his 92nd birthday.
Brubeck's work looms large in any jazz musician's life, but especially so in Mizrahi's, for he performed with Brubeck several times in the pianist-composer's epic oratorio "The Gates of Justice," including an indelible rendition at Anshe Emet in 1993. "Gates" poetically explores the common roots of Jewish and African-American culture, making Brubeck a cultural hero to both communities.
"The piece was obviously a synergy of Afro-American and Jewish music," says Mizrahi, who will perform "Lord, Lord" from "Gates" during Sunday's concert.
In addition, Levy and Trio Globo will take on Brubeck's "Blue Rondo a la Turk."
"We became close," says Mizrahi of his collaborations with Brubeck. "And to actually have him in the synagogue – I don't have the words. People heard that Dave Brubeck was coming to our synagogue – they couldn't believe it.
"I have met less than a handful of people of Dave's genius and stature," adds Mizrahi. "But it was his humanity that was so incredible.
"Between his genius and his humanity, you didn't know what to admire more."
Amen to that.
"Matzah to Menorah: A Holiday Jazz Celebration" will begin at 4 p.m. Sunday at Anshe Emet Synagogue, 3751 N. Broadway; $18-$36; children age 17 and under are free; 773-281-1423 or ansheemet.org.
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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