Thinking Outside the Park | Festival | Chicago Reader

Thinking Outside the Park 

A cruise, a brunch, and plenty of jamming

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At 25 the Jazz Fest is middle-aged by music-festival standards, and (thanks to the city's 9:30 curfew on Grant Park events) for the last several years it's been going to bed a little earlier than it used to. So the schedule of pre- and postconcert presentations--which began to take its current shape in the mid-80s and has continued to evolve since then--has become all the more important for serious jazzheads. Below, a nightly guide to the festival beyond the festival.

THURSDAY, AUGUST 28

If you're skipping the Symphony Center concert tonight, you might want to begin your festival experience with a film aperitif: the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State) is showing an ode to the current Chicago jazz scene called City of the Winds, produced in 2002 by a French documentary crew and hosted by the engaging Ellen Christi, a new-music vocalist who grew up on Chicago's North Shore and now splits her time between New York and Italy. Among those interviewed and featured are saxists Fred Anderson, Von Freeman, Ken Vandermark, and Ed Wilkerson, bassist Tatsu Aoki, and poet Sterling Plumpp. The film's informal, rambling approach gives it an unpolished and slightly goofy charm.

Following the screening, Christi will perform with Sterling Plumpp and several Chicago musicians at HotHouse (31 E. Balbo); it's part of a twin bill that also stars drummer (and former Chicagoan) Reggie Nicholson, who returns to lead his Afro-Asian-American quartet Concept, comprising locals Ed Wilkerson and Tatsu Aoki along with New York pianist Yuko Fujiyama. The movie's at 8, the music's at 9:30.

FRIDAY, AUGUST 29

Joe Segal's Jazz Showcase (59 W. Grand) has been the semiofficial after-hours hang since the days when it was even closer to the park, in the old Blackstone Hotel. Segal used to insist he couldn't make any money during Jazz Fest weekend with all that music available for free, but then he figured out how to piggyback on the fest's success, with nightly postpark jam sessions featuring festival performers hungry for a little more soloing time.

The sets start Thursday and run through Sunday; any night has the potential to shine, but tonight's my pick to click. Dave Holland's big band headlines at the park, and its lineup includes several likely Showcase visitors: the widely praised saxist Chris Potter (who, like Holland, has played the Showcase with his own group), the scintillating baritone saxist Gary Smulyan, trombonist Robin Eubanks, alto man Antonio Hart, and vibist Steve Nelson. Friday's festival program also features tenor saxist Ron Blake and trumpeter Maurice Brown, both former locals, and pianist Anthony Wonsey (another hometown boy made good) should be here in advance of his fest appearance Saturday in Elvin Jones's band; all are likely to drop by the Showcase tonight.

They'll play with a solid and pleasingly quirky rhythm section of drummer Robert Shy, bassist Larry Gray, and Stu Katz on piano and vibes; Ira Sullivan and Bunky Green, who cut their teeth in Chicago in the 50s and 60s, will host this year's sessions. Sullivan, a multi-instrumentalist who left town for Florida in the mid-60s, remains a magician on trumpet, saxes, and flute, and the frequent twists and turns he takes in directing even a pickup combo make him one of the most unpredictable musicians in jazz. And alto man Green, another Florida emigre, improvises using a critically acclaimed pantonal concept he developed in the 80s. To fully appreciate their music--a tapestry of mutually influenced evolution and interconnected Chicago roots--get in early enough for the first set, at 9:30, before the jammers arrive from the park.

Meanwhile tonight's show at HotHouse--the other prominent downtown site for after-hours activity--offers enough lure to have at least some folks shuttling between venues. As it's done for the last several years, HotHouse hosts 8 Bold Souls, the immensely entertaining and considerably influential octet run by reedist and composer Ed Wilkerson. The band records only sparingly, and doesn't perform too often either, so any chance to hear what Wilkerson's come up with lately demands consideration: he usually workshops at least a couple of his new compositions, which typically flower into dense fields of color and drive. It makes for a terrific and intoxicating afterfest dessert. And to get you warmed up for next month's World Music Festival, the bill also features the Guinean band Bembeya Jazz (see Critic's Choice), which recently released its first album in nearly 15 years. The club lists the start time as 9:30.

SATURDAY, AUGUST 30

If the fest lineup doesn't grab you tonight, the late-night new-music jams just might--especially if you're primed with Canned Beer (Southport), the latest mixed-media release from the husband-and-wife team of pianist-composer Bradley Parker-Sparrow and vocalist Joanie Pallatto. They'll take over Lange's Lounge (3500 N. Southport), right across the street from their recording studio, and they party hard. Onstage they'll offer live performances of music from the album--a melange of jazz melodies, pounding rock rhythms, psychotropic vocals, and odd poetic ponderings about the state of the music business and the state of the art (which, they'll tell you, are quite different things). Several other artists from the Southport label (and its Northport affiliate) will also perform, starting at 8.

Saturday night the festival presents the debut of the Crisis Ensemble, a new project from composer, bandleader, and instigator Ken Vandermark; for those who miss that set, the music keeps going tonight and tomorrow at the Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont) starting around 10:30. The Crisis Ensemble rounds up many of the usual suspects on Chicago's free-improv scene--and in Vandermark's other bands--such as saxists Dave Rempis and Aram Shelton, drummer Tim Daisy, and the underheard underground trumpeter Josh Berman, all of whom are expected to perform at the Brain at least one of the nights. The club plans to fill out the lineup with other musicians who've appeared there over the last couple years, including bassist Karl E.H. Seigfried.

The music promises to be just as wild at the Velvet Lounge (21281/2 S. Indiana), the workingman's bar owned by founding AACM saxophonist Fred Anderson. He took the place over in the early 80s, mostly to run as a tavern but also to create a showcase for his own rumbling expressionism, and saw it transformed in the 90s into an epicenter of Chicago's free-music explosion. While the club hosts afterfest sessions throughout the weekend, tonight marks the annual arrival of alto saxist Kidd Jordan, the freewheeling father figure to several generations of exploratory music in New Orleans; he's essentially Anderson's counterpart down there, and for over a decade he's made the trek north to join in the Velvet's weekend ballyhoo. This year, the versatile and original guitarist Jeff Parker and drum master Hamid Drake complete the house band, which is almost guaranteed to attract other Velvet regulars like the knockout young Chicago altoist Dennis Winslett and bassist Tatsu Aoki, as well as Detroiters Jaribu Shahid (bass) and Tani Tabbal (drums), both of whom will perform in Roscoe Mitchell's various groups at the fest.

SUNDAY, AUGUST 31

Start today with what has become the traditional breakfast of champions among Jazz Festival die-hards--the Delmark Records Jazz Brunch. Bob Koester, the label's crusty owner, springs for the spread (coffee, juice, fruit, bagels, and pastries) and music (featuring a dozen or more of those who've recorded for his label) at the home of his other business venture, the Jazz Record Mart (444 N. Wabash). He has more reason than usual to be magnanimous this year: it's the 50th anniversary of both the label and the store, and later today the Jazz Fest pays tribute with an entire afternoon of performances by Delmark artists. At press time, the brunch roster included the wonderful clarinetist Frank Chase (an inventive explorer barely known outside trad-jazz circles), a trio headed by the exemplary Chicago pianist Jodie Christian, saxists Fred Anderson and the rarely heard Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre, trumpeter Malachi Thompson, and guitarist Jeff Parker. Don't be late: the whole shebang runs only from 10 till noon.

After a full day in Grant Park, the options include another night of jamming at the Showcase--with the likelihood that such festival performers as trombonist Steve Turre, pianist McCoy Tyner, vocalist Karrin Allyson, and trumpeter Eddie Henderson may drop by--or another evening at HotHouse, where Malachi Thompson marks the 25th anniversary of his Freebop Band with a lineup starring Dennis Winslett and tenor titan Billy Harper.

But maybe the perpetual end-of-festival question--what now?--is best answered by a change of venue from land to sea. For the second time this summer Marshall Vente, the busy pianist, arranger, bandleader, and jazz-scene bon vivant, dons his captain's hat for a jazz cruise aboard the tall ship Windy. The lineup stars Vente's Tropicale, an ensemble inspired both by bossa nova and tropicalia; the duo Two for Brazil, made up of guitarist-vocalist Paulinho Garcia and tenor saxist Greg Fishman; and harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy (well acquainted with Latin rhythms through his work with Paquito D'Rivera). The ship departs from Navy Pier at 10:30, leaving plenty of time to amble over from Grant Park for a two-hour sail around the lake. Even with a $50 ticket price, so this summer's first Vente cruise back in June sold out quickly; if the prospect interests you, check on availability now (call 595-5472 or see www.marshallvente.com). The cruise is cosponsored by the radio program Miles Ahead (hosted by this writer).

Meanwhile, landlubbers with a taste for further exploration should head up to the Hungry Brain for a set by Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre and the Light, his tenor-tuba-drums trio. It's scheduled to start at 9:30 sharp (you'll have to miss most of the last set in the park to make it) and slated to run just 40 minutes; on the other hand, you'll get in free and have the chance to witness a live album in the making (Delmark Records will record the performance for an upcoming CD).

Whether cruising on the lake or cruising the clubs, there's one more stop on the schedule (especially for those whose appetite is only whetted by tonight's main-stage set from the Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez)--the Fiesta Boricua After-Fest Party at Joe's (940 W. Weed). The Chicago Salsa All-Stars, a group that brings together prominent members of four Chicago salsa bands, provide the music for serious dancing, and your fellow partygoers will include attendees of Fiesta Boricua, which takes place earlier in the day on Division west of Western. The party runs till 4 AM. Remember, tomorrow's a holiday: you can sleep in.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Jackson, Darlene Martin.

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