On day three of this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, authors Kathy Hey and Bob Benenson spent the day taking in some modern jazz greats performing a myriad of styles from New Orleans jazz to a vocal marvel to more avant garde fare.
Dancing in the Heat with Aurora Nealand & the Royal Roses
Saturday’s weather forecast of a cool front arriving to break the heat wave proved correct, but not until late afternoon. That provided Aurora Nealand and the Royal Roses, a tradition-steeped New Orleans jazz sextet, with an at-home atmosphere of summer swelter—accented in Millennium Park’s North Promenade, essentially a giant tent that holds in heat and humidity very well.
It would hardly be a Jazz Festival without a time trip to the roots of this uniquely American art form, especially this year, the 100th anniversary of Louis Armstrong’s arrival from his hometown of New Orleans to join Chicago’s fast-rising jazz scene. And Nealand’s band proved to be great ambassadors.
Nealand is a versatile talent. She excels on the soprano saxophone, clarinet and vocals for the Royal Roses, while also performing one-woman performance art as “The Monocle” and leading Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers, a rockabilly band. She received strong support from David Boswell on trumpet, Jon Ramm on trombone, Matt Bell on guitar, Matt Perrine on Sousaphone and Brad Webb on drums, with some instruments looking older than the performers playing them.
Much of the setlist reached way back. Nealand channeled Bessie Smith on “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.” She gave a bow to long-gone Sidney Bechet, often described as the Father of Jazz Soprano Sax, on his Haitian-influenced “Ti Ralph.” Duke Ellington made the scene with “Old Man Blues,” first performed by his orchestra in 1930.
Nealand added poignancy by citing the recent passings of major jazz talents including Chicago-born trumpeter Jaimie Branch, New Orleans drummer and vocalist Carlo Nuccio, and organist Joey DeFrancesco. The band then finished its set with an appropriate tribute, a rendition of the hymn “We’ll Understand It Better By and By” and an upbeat, Second Line-style funeral march.
— Bob Benenson
Back-to-Back Sax Maestros, Exploring New Avenues
Saturday’s main stage in the Jay Pritzker Pavilion opened with two performances featuring the same instrument—the alto saxophone—yet two extraordinarily different visions by the sax master bandleaders.
Greg Ward, a familiar figure on Chicago’s modern jazz scene, led off with Rogue Parade, a quintet that is different, and much more electric, than most combos. Ward was flanked on stage by not one but two electric guitars played by Matt Gold and Dave Miller, with Gold performing the longer solos. Electric bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Quin Kircher provided supporting rhythm from the back tier.
Ward was literally front and center throughout and performed impeccably, maintaining his clear tone through both the rapid-fire fingering and soulful stretches of his own four compositions that made up the group’s 50-minute set. Gold’s and Miller’s guitars provided additional depth and energy.
A Peoria native and Northern Illinois University music grad, Ward was a young rising star when he arrived in Chicago in 2004. He returned to our city in 2016 after a sojourn in New York City, and at age 40 is a dedicated mentor to aspiring young jazz artists. He recently became an assistant professor at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music.
Ward’s approach may not be for everybody. While not exactly on the scale of Dylan-goes-electric, the presence of those electric guitars may be a bit jarring for some jazz traditionalists, and at times the concert felt a bit like a rock jam band with an exceptionally brilliant saxophonist. That took nothing away, though, from the entertaining and engaging set played by Ward and Rogue Parade.
While there are many, many talented musicians, few get labeled as “genius”—and far fewer earn such acclaim by age 31, which is how old Miguel Zenón was in 2008 when he received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, aka the “Genius Grant.” Along with being one of the most highly regarded saxophonists of his generation, Zenón—whose band was next up on the main stage—is also a composer and ethnomusicologist with a special emphasis on his native island of Puerto Rico.
It is there that Zenón has since 2011 staged a series of free concerts in rural areas under the title of Caravana Cultural. Zenón performs two to three times a year, with each concert focusing on the music of jazz legends such as Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, with a pre-concert lecture to broaden attendees’ knowledge about the art form.
His combo was more in the tradtional jazz vein than Ward’s, with Henry Cole on drums and Hans Glawischnig on bass backing Zenón’s brilliant sax playing and Luis Perdomo’s dynamic piano. Yet there was nothing imitative about the composer’s style, an amalgam of traditional, modern and ethnic jazz.
Saturday’s set focused entirely on Zenón’s latest project, Musica de Las Américas, which explores the impact of the indigenous cultures of North and South Americas on the Europeans who colonized this hemisphere (and vice versa).
Zenón pulls no punches about how he views those impacts. One cut on the album is titled “Opresión y Revolución.” Another, “América, el Continente,” pushes back on the use of the name America as synonymous with the United States.
The set opened with “Tainos y Caribes,” contrasting two indigenous tribes of the pre-Columbian Caribbean, one pastoral, the other warlike. This was followed by “Navegando,” about the seafaring culture of those indigenous people.
That set an already engaged audience up for a lengthy finale that combined multiple pieces from the album into a virtual jazz concerto, complete with pregnant pauses that drew premature applause from audience members who thought the piece was over. Taking nothing away from other artists, that performance was particularly extraordinary and mesmerizing.
— Bob Benenson
Carmen Lundy Does It Her Way
Carmen Lundy, an enduring jazz vocalist, graduated from University of Miami with a music degree and moved to New York at age 24 in 1978. During her Jazz Festival set Saturday evening, she told the audience she started out like most jazz singers, covering classic tunes, and she sang a couple of bars from “My Funny Valentine” to make the point.
But, Lundy added, that’s how you start out. In 1985 she composed her first song, “Good Morning Kiss,” which she performed as her encore. Since then, she has focused almost entirely on performing her own work, with her 15th album, Fade to Black, about to be released. Unlike most jazz vocal performances, only her dedicated fans could mouth the words to her songs, yet Lundy’s passionate renditions and regal presence commanded the audience’s attention.
Love songs made up most of Lundy’s set list, with titles such as “The Island, the Sea, and You,” “Lonesome Blue Butterfly,” “Meant for Each Other,” “So Amazing,” and “Don’t You Know How I Feel.” She added some Latin influence in “Ola de Color” (Spanish for heatwave), gospel in “Burden Down, Burden Down,” and a call for love and compassion in “Kumbaya” (her own jazz composition, not the familiar hymn by the same name).
Lundy also has not shied away from the political, and the new album has a cut titled “Ain’t I Human?” that goes after those who would take away her right to vote and her right to choose. (“Nothing you can do to keep me down.”)
Ably backed by Julius Rodriguez on piano, Andrew Renfroe on guitar, Kenny Davis on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums, Lundy proved why she has been such a major presence for more than 40 years, even without a funny valentine.
— Bob Benenson
William Parker is King of the Tundra
William Parker is certainly royalty in the jazz world. He has played with greats, Fred Anderson and Don Cherry. His closing set for day 3 of the Chicago Jazz Festival was a highlight of experimental jazz with Sun Ra’s influence on full display. Parker has honed a category called Afrofuturism steeped in music as spirituality and science fiction made real by the experiences of the Black diaspora. After all, the truth is stranger than fiction in the Black experience.
He dedicated some of his set to Cherry and Anderson as he regaled the audience with memories of the Velvet Lounge days. Parker’s music is both sound and motion through immersion in the instrument. Parker is a composer and a titan of the double bass. For this show, he assembled a quintet of veterans and new stars. James Brandon on tenor sax, Rob Brown on alto sax, and hometown star Hamid Drake shone with virtuosic playing. Journeyman organist Cooper Moore filled the fifth position in a performance that seemed teleported from another plane.
The quintet did a beautiful tribute to Jamie Branch playing “Prayer Lakota Song” in her honor. It was a fitting tribute to one who was carrying on the tradition of experimentation and boldness. The festival audience witnessed a performance filled with joy and celebration. Parker’s walking bass with the other musicians adding their own riffs and a voice-over repeating, “Don’t be afraid of the Holy Ghost.” Some of the set came from his 2010 album “Uncle Joe’s Spirit House,” which also featured Cooper Moore.
It was a perfect end to a perfect day of 10 hours at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The musicians are happy to be playing for an audience again, and the Chicago audience was elated and grateful to be out in the park under the stars listening to a legend of the avant garde on the Pritzker Pavilion stage. Parker, King of the Tundra, roared and Chicago roared with him.
– Kathy Hey