Chicago Jazz Festival 2023 in Review: A Perfect Cap on Summer and Joy Post-Pandemic

The Chicago Jazz Festival is 47 years old! I am trying to get my head around how long that is, and what a gift it is to know that Chicago is the cradle and the stomping grounds of immense talent. There is live jazz music to hear all over town, and one that is becoming a favorite is the Lighthouse Artspace at 108 W. Germania Place.

On Thursday I saw a trio of musicians surrounded by Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers." Guitarist Yotam Silberstein, bassist Omer Avital, and the legendary Billy Hart on the drums. It was an evening of straightforward jazz with some Brazilian samba vibes stirred in.

Yotam Silberstein, Omer Avital, and Billy Hart. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Silberstein plays in the mellow form like John Pizzarelli and Carlos Jobim. This isn’t music to break a sweat; to chill is the focus. Avital is one of the more melodic bassists that I have heard in quite a while, He plays the higher notes on the bass without the counterpoint improvisation that is a hallmark of bop and bebop jazz. His playing has a lovely clarity that makes me want to hum along. I loved their version of “Tea for Two”. No straw boater hats but rather a beret and palm trees.

Billy Hart has played with Herbie Hancock and Stan Getz, among a legion of jazz greats. The enjoyment of playing with Silberstein and Avital is evident in his seamless transitions and steady beats. He has some fun using different surfaces of the drum set to play and has on-point brush sounds with a gentle high hat. It was great music in an unexpected location. The Germania Club was a club for German-American immigrants back in the day. Now the building is the site of the popular immersive series and other tenants. I covered the Monet Immersion and this trio would have dialed up the enjoyment scale.

Victor Garcia, Dustin Laurenzi, and Juan Pastor. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

My first night at Jazz Fest 2023 in Millennium Park was so cool. I covered the Pritzker stage, which has excellent sound, fantastic sightlines, and a big screen projection so everyone has the best seat. The music kicked off with some Afro-Peruvian jams from Juan Pastor and a septet of all-star musicians. Pastor plays the drums accompanied by Greg Ward on alto sax, Victor Garcia on a blazing trumpet, and another Peruvian native Jhair Sala on percussion. Pianist Stu Mindeman played impeccable Latin rhythms and chords, with Dustin Laurenzi on tenor sax, and Matt Ulery on bass. Pastor also played the cajon—a Peruvian percussion box that has several pitches that can be played manually like a conga or with mallets. Pastor and his megawatt septet got the crowd jamming.

The Walter Smith III Quintet tore the roof off with a mix of bebop-influenced jams. Smith is a contemporary of Terence Blanchard and Christian McBride. He shared the stage with drummer Kendrick Scott, Chicago bassist Harish Raghaven, and drummer Kendrick Scott. An extra special guest was Sullivan Fortner out of New Orleans. Smith made a joke about how the audience cheered for the Chicago native and the New Orleans-born Fortner. Smith and Scott are from Houston, and each is a virtuoso. Scott made ethereal sounds with a cymbal and Fortner layered an etude motif on the song "The River Styx" from Smith's latest album Return to Casual. Smith and company were in perfect balance where every instrument was highlighted and yet still blending. Raghaven is one of the best bass players I have ever heard, with a solid rhythm and laser focus. This was my favorite group of the evening.

Harish Raghaven, Walter Smith III, and Kendrick Scott. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Ari Brown is not only a jazz treasure but a jewel in Chicago's crown as the best city for jazz. Brown rose up with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians ((AACM) and did a tour with master drummer, the late Elvin Jones. Like Jones, Brown has a mega-talented brother Kirk Brown who plays the piano as an extension of his hands. Yosef Ben-Israel on bass, Dr. Cuz on the congas, and Kwame Steve Cobb on the drums. This quintet was a ride back in time for me. The music that came out of AACM was avant-garde and in some cases took on a spiritual bent. These gentlemen just jam. Brown sits like a mellow Buddha in between playing and at one point did a little bit of stepping. Ari Brown is a newlywed and introduced his lovely wife to the audience and then played a song that he wrote for her, "Sheryl Lynn". The quintet's improvisation and perfect pitch showed that the veterans were still shining.

Yosef Ben Israel, Ari Brown, and Kwame Steve Cobb. Photo by Kathy D. Hey

The headliner for Friday was supposed to be the brilliant Dianne Reeves. She had to pull out for personal reasons and I was truly bummed that I would not get to see her on the Pritzker stage. However, the fill-in performer is no schlub. Jazz singer Kurt Elling burst onto the Chicago jazz scene like a supernova. He blends jazz standards, rock anthems, and gorgeous ballads with ease. His range is great from the lowest profundo to an amazing high note, Elling was on his game. He was accompanied by a band that was made for headlining. Charlie Hunter on guitar brought a serious blues vibe and DJ Harrison (from Butcher Brown) seemed to be every other instrument except horns. Harrison made musical magic on a Fender Rhodes bass keyboard along with keyboards and synthesizers. Corey Fonville came over from R&B and hip-hop sounds to make a smooth dive on the drums as part of Elling's SuperBlue album and tour.

Elling brought in a Chicago brass section that rocked the park. Derek Gardener on trumpet, John Wojciechowski on saxophone. He sure did jam on that saxophone! Kirby Kristy Fellis blew a mean trombone during a brass highlight for the band. I love that they are Chicago musicians and could jump in and be so tight with Elling's setup.

John Wojciechowski, Kurt Elling, and Charlie Hunter. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Elling is a very popular Chicagoan and he mixed in some Waits-like banter and hip talk. He is high energy and brought the funk as well as his signature scat singing and improvising. He gives a Torme/Jarreau vibe but is much more frenetic and audience-forward. He feels connected to the audience and draws them in. As a Chicago product, he threw in some fun stuff about Ashland being a smooth drive with fewer stoplights. My favorite was a rap on "Schoolhouse Rock," a line from a famous movie set in Chicago. "We've got a full tank of gas and a half-pack of cigarettes. It's nighttime and we are wearing dark glasses." If you guessed The Blues Brothers (1980), you can join the party that is Chicago. Elling and company were the perfect end to a warm summer night in Millennium Park.

The Chicago Jazz Festival 2023 runs through Sunday, September 3. The weather is perfect, the vibe is chill, and the music is hot. The Jazz Festival is free! Bring some friends, a blanket, and folding chairs, and enjoy the music that is an American art form that took hold in Chicago.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.