Review: A Chicago Jazz Festival on a Minor Scale With Major Talent

Trumpet virtuoso Marquis Hill at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Photo by Bob Benenson. The word jazz evolved over many decades into so many innovations and sub-genres that it is hard to encompass in a multi-day festival.   Yet the three performances presented over two hours at the Chicago Jazz Festival on September 4 provided at least a glimpse of how much resides under the umbrella of jazz, featuring tenor sax senior statesmanship of Ari Brown, the blazing trumpet playing of Marquis Hill, and genre-crossing brilliance of vocalist Lizz Wright .  The Jazz Festival, on stage at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, was part of Chicago In Tune, presented by City of Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE). This month-long (August 19 – September 19) city-wide, multi-venue event is described by DCASE as a celebration of “music in the key of Chicago during the 2021 Year of Chicago Music.”  It was a dramatically condensed Chicago Jazz Festival compared to pre-pandemic years: The 2019 festival showcased 58 acts across four days. The reopening of Chicago to live music events took place only three months ago and the threats of COVID variants led city officials to eschew massive events for single-day stage shows. A similar approach was taken by DCASE for the Gospel Festival (September 3), the House Festival (September 11) and the Blues Festival (September 18).  But outgoing DCASE Commissioner Mark Kelly, who rightly calls Chicago “one of the great music capitals of the world”—fired up the audience with a statement in which he promised that “the Jazz Festival is coming back bigger and better than ever,” reaching out from its downtown base to venues across the city, “especially on the South and West sides.”  Tenor saxophonist Ari Brown has been a fixture at the Chicago Jazz Festival for four decades. Photo by Bob Benenson. Whatever size the Chicago Jazz Festival has been over the years, Ari Brown has been a fixture. The mild-mannered 77-year-old Chicago native generally lets his sax speak for him, though he did note at the start of his set that he’s been playing at the Jazz Festival for 40 years.  Brown is one of those figures who isn’t a household name in the general community but is known to everyone in the jazz world. After a 1974 car accident cost him some teeth and forced him to take a sax hiatus, he recovered to become a leading sideman and virtuoso of bebop, post-bebop and avant-garde jazz (styles that once were cutting edge and now feel mainstreamed compared to the more experimental modern jazz styles). He didn’t cut an album of his own until 1994, when he was nearing 50 years old.  Brown provided plenty of opportunities for extended solos by his bandmates on his self-composed pieces, Veda’s Dance (a 2013 tune that Brown described as a tribute to his wife, who died in 2019) and Big V. He closed with perhaps the chillest version of the traditional Black spiritual Nobody Knows the Troubles I've Seen, which he said came to him while he was stuck in self-isolation during the COVID pandemic.  Marquis Hill, a major talent, has surrounded himself with other young stars from Chicago's jazz scene, including bassist Junius Paul (top) and drummer Makaya McCraven. Photos by Bob Benenson. While Brown’s troupe is composed of seasoned veterans from the local jazz scene, Marquis Hill has created an all-star Millennial band that includes standouts such as Makaya McCraven, drummer and self-described “beat scientist,” and bassist Junius Paul, both of whom are composers and bandleaders in their own right. Though firmly in the jazz camp, his compositions are infused with other genres from the Black American experience, including hip-hop, R&B and house music.  “It all comes from the same tree,” Hill says in the bio on his website. “They simply blossomed from different branches.”  Lizz Wright, with a stage presence as powerful as her voice, closed out the program on a high note. Raised in Georgia in the gospel tradition, Wright made an immediate impact when she released her first album, Salt, in 2003 (when she was 23). The recording reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Top Contemporary Jazz chart; her second album, Dreaming While Awake (2005), hit No. 1. After living in Asheville, North Carolina, for several years, she relocated to Chicago four years ago. Lizz Wright puts her heart into a song (top) and enjoys a light moment with her band. Photos by Bob Benenson. Wright’s set list reflected stages of her career, with jazz vocals such as The New Game and Salt, and gospel-inflected songs such as Freedom and Walk With Me, Lord. Her covers showed a range of interests, including a stunning version of rock star Neil Young’s Old Man and country singer Gillian Welch’s I Made a Lover’s Prayer (which Wright referred to as “my medicine.”)  The show was a pleasure, though one left with the hope of a COVID-free 2022 and fulfillment of that bigger and better Chicago Jazz Festival that Commissioner Kelly promised. 
This special showcase was a part of DCASE’s Chicago in Tune! This new citywide festival celebrates music in the key of Chicago during the 2021 Year of Chicago Music. This month-long event is meant to bring us all together through the whole spectrum of music events in a variety of venues. Check out all the participating venues and shows over at their website!
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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.