Your comprehensive guide to the 37th annual Chicago Jazz Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

Your comprehensive guide to the 37th annual Chicago Jazz Festival 

Previews of every act in Millennium Park and beyond, including Fred Hersch in his overdue festival debut and AACM cofounder Muhal Richard Abrams leading a historic reunion of the Experimental Band

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Fred Hersch plays with his trio on Friday at 7:10 PM at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Fred Hersch plays with his trio on Friday at 7:10 PM at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

Martin Zeman

Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians turned 50 in 2015, and celebrations of this influential collective have been popping off worldwide all year—here in town, exhibits honoring the AACM's impact have opened at the DuSable Museum of African American History and the Museum of Contemporary Art. The 37th annual Chicago Jazz Festival marks this auspicious anniverary with performances by four AACM-related groups: Douglas Ewart & Inventions, the Jeff Parker Trio, Steve & Iqua Colson, and Muhal Richard Abrams's Experimental Band. The Experimental Band set—Sunday's marquee event and the capstone of the festival—features most of the AACM's greatest living figures, including Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell, George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, and Amina Claudine Myers.

This year's Jazz Festival also recognizes a milestone of a less explicitly musical sort: the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Pritzker Pavilion performances by pianists Fred Hersch (Friday) and Henry Butler (Thursday) are presented in partnership with ADA 25 Chicago; Hersch has been fighting HIV since the mid-80s, and Butler is blind, but in neither case has the artist's exquisite talent been diminished.

The festival relocated from Grant Park to Millennium Park in 2013, and last year it settled nicely into its new home. (Full disclosure: I volunteer on the committee that programs the fest.) Sound bleed between the two afternoon side stages was still occasionally an issue, but in general the technical aspects had definitely improved. Not much has changed for 2015, except for a slightly smaller slate of Thursday-afternoon concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center, where the fest has kicked off in recent years.

WDCB 90.9 FM, owned by the College of DuPage, will once again simulcast several shows—including two of those Thursday sets at the Cultural Center, by Ben Waltzer and James Davis's Beveled. The station's other festival-related broadcasts include five concerts at PianoForte Studios: Kim Cusack and Paul Asaro (Monday), Bethany & Willie Pickens (Tuesday), Rob Clearfield (Wednesday), Robert Irving III (Saturday), and Ryan Cohan (Sunday). Peter Margasak

Thursday, September 3

Chicago Cultural Center: Claudia Cassidy Theater

click to enlarge Andrew Trim - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Andrew Trim
  • Courtesy the artist

[Recommended] 12:15 PM | Andrew Trim's Hanami Quartet

Guitarist Andrew Trim and reedist Mai Sugimoto live in Chicago, but they both spent parts of their childhoods in Japan. Their repertoire in the Hanami Quartet contains Japanese classical music, children's songs, and pop tunes made famous by Kyu Sakamoto. The group's charged performances exploit contrasts between the instrumentalists (soft and loud, smooth and rough), creating tension that counterbalances the frequent sentimentality of the melodies. Drummer Charles Rumback reveals the influence of Paul Motian more explicitly than usual, bringing a rumbling bottom end to his sound, while Sugimoto and bass clarinetist Jason Stein play intertwined figures that toy with a delicious sour-sweet dichotomy. Trim's lovely underwater guitar tone softens the edges of his playing but retains a gentle bite, and he alternates between adding harmonies and anchoring the songs with bass lines. Peter Margasak

The Chicago Jazz Festival

Thu 9/3 12:15-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington) and Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph)

Fri 9/4-Sun 9/6 12:30 PM-9:30 PM, Millennium Park (201 E. Randolph)

Millennium Park stages: Pritzker Pavilion, the Von Freeman Pavilion (on the south promenade), the Jazz & Heritage Pavilion (on the north promenade), and the Young Jazz Lions Pavilion (on the roof of the Harris Theater).

All shows are free and open to all ages. More details at

Friday, September 4

Saturday, September 5

Sunday, September 6


Chicago Cultural Center: Preston Bradley Hall

[Recommended] 12:30 PM | Ben Waltzer

Since moving to Chicago a couple years ago, New York pianist Ben Waltzer has kept a pretty low profile: he's spent most of his time working at the University of Chicago, where he oversees a program for careers in journalism, arts, and media. But today he makes a big splash, presenting an excellent band that combines two of his New York cohorts, tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry and drummer Gerald Cleaver, with two Chicagoans: trumpeter Marquis Hill (who's moved to New York since Waltzer left) and bassist Yosef Ben Israel. Waltzer is rooted in postbop, but he's fluent in a wide range of styles, resulting in a driving sound that's historically minded and deeply gratifying. Peter Margasak

Chicago Cultural Center: Claudia Cassidy Theater

1:45 PM | Lucy Smith

Chicago singer Lucy Smith brings R&B polish to jazz standards, soul numbers, and original tunes. Her working band, Autumn in Augusta, features drummer Marcus Evans, pianist Marcin Fahmy, and bassist Joshua Ramos. Peter Margasak

Chicago Cultural Center: Preston Bradley Hall

click to enlarge James Davis - CBLINDSEY.COM
  • James Davis

2 PM | James Davis's Beveled

On the self-titled debut album from his sextet Beveled, local trumpeter James Davis demonstrates his acumen as a composer and arranger, his melodies blossoming from a calm, restrained aesthetic that recalls chamber music. Paired flugelhorns (Davis and Chad McCullough) and bass clarinets (Mike Salter and Anna Najoom) put flesh on rhythmic skeletons assembled by bassist Dan Thatcher and drummer Juan Pastor, and this unusual front-line instrumentation creates an elegant timbre that evokes dark polished wood and brass. Beveled plays Davis's tunes with measured resolve and crisp precision, so that solos emerge from the extended ensemble passages like comets streaking the sky. Peter Margasak

Chicago Cultural Center: Claudia Cassidy Theater

3:15 PM | "What's This Thing Called Jazz?" From Mainstream to AACM and Beyond, with Dee Alexander and Miguel de la Cerna

For this recurring educational initiative presented by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, Chicago singer Dee Alexander will discuss her involvement in the AACM and how it's affected her artistic process. She'll also perform with her regular pianist, Miguel de la Cerna. Peter Margasak

Jay Pritzker Pavilion

[Recommended] 6:30 PM | Marquis Hill Blacktet

Marquis Hill stil plays often in Chicago, despite relocating to New York earlier this year (at about the same time he won the Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition), but tonight's gig definitely feels like a homecoming. On last year's Modern Flows: EP Vol. 1 (Skiptone) he continues his convincing attempts to update hard bop with ideas from soul and hip-hop, creating something modern from something timeless. His long-running Blacktet consists of saxophonist Christopher McBride (another Chicagoan living in New York), bassist Joshua Ramos, drummer Makaya McCraven, and vibist Justin "Justefan" Thomas. This evening the group is joined by spoken-word artist Tumelo Khoza and singer Meagan McNeal. Peter Margasak

click to enlarge Henry Butler (with sunglasses), Steven Bernstein (with trumpet), and the Hot 9 - COURTESY DCASE
  • Henry Butler (with sunglasses), Steven Bernstein (with trumpet), and the Hot 9
  • Courtesy DCASE

[Recommended] 8 PM | Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein, and the Hot 9

Trumpeter Steven Bernstein is history minded but irreverent, so of course his salute to New Orleans jazz isn't straightforward. Partnered with the great Crescent City blues pianist and singer Henry Butler, he leads a sharp crew of collaborators dubbed the Hot 9—a tip of the cap to Louis Armstrong's small groups of the late 20s, the Hot Five and Hot Seven. On last year's delightful Viper's Drag (Impulse), Bernstein slyly jumbles eras in his vibrant arrangements of tunes by Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and other pioneering figures of jazz and blues, but the results never come off as John Zorn-style patchworks. The rhythms leap all over the place—trad-jazz strut, extroverted second-line brass-band grooves, present-day New York-style timekeeping loaded with complexities and displacements—but rather than sounding self-consciously clever, this approach gives chestnuts such as "Wolverine Blues" and the Bessie Smith vehicle "Gimme a Pigfoot" constantly shifting new complexions. For tonight's concert the rhythm section will consist of bassist Brad Jones, drummer Donald Edwards, and guitarist Matt Munisteri; the front line features trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, reedists Peter Apfelbaum, Doug Wieselman, and Erik Lawrence, and violinist Skye Steele. Peter Margasak

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