Chicago Jazz Festival 2023 in Review: Music Is a Healer and Teacher on Day 3

Tammy McCann is a classically trained singer who could easily grace the world’s stages singing Mozart, Purcell, or Bizet. McCann felt a calling encouraged by Von Freeman and Ramsey Lewis, among others, to use her gift of singing jazz. Oh, what a gift it is. McCann opened the afternoon at the Pritzker Pavilion with guitar master Fareed Haque.

McCann gave grace to songs by Nina Simone with an astounding bass-only accompaniment from bassist John Sutton of “Feeling Good.” Sutton did the arrangement suited to McCann’s rich alto. McCann and Haque did a moving rendition of War’s “The World is a Ghetto.” Haque’s virtuosity on the sitar and McCann’s powerful voice proved that song to be the theme for every level of society. 

Tammy McCann and Fareed Haque. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

All of the performers at this year’s festival have mentioned coming out of the pandemic as well as the social unrest—particularly in 2020 after the murders of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. McCann spoke words of encouragement to those who came out of nothing and were told, “You’re shit and always gonna be shit.”  She launched into a Mahalia Jackson classic “I’m on my way to Canaan.” Justin Dillard on the Hammond B3 took everybody to church.

Tammy McCann. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

In addition to Haque, Dillard, and Sutton, the band was rounded out by pianist Tom Viastas and drummer Sam Jewell. McCann and the band are all Chicago-born or based. Chitown in the house!

Harp player Brandee Younger grew up in Alice Coltrane’s ashram when Coltrane became known as Swamini Turiyasangitananda or simply Turiya. It is not an understatement to say what an influence Turiya (Alice) was for Younger who is putting the harp on the world stage again. Younger was accompanied by bassist Rashaan Carter and Allan Mednard on drums. Once again, jazz was a spiritual balm with the sweeping glissandi as a soothing yin to the yang of the bass and drums.

Fareed Haque. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Younger played two compositions of Turiya including the meditative and yet seriously jamming “Rama Rama.” Younger was also influenced by jazz harp pioneer Dorothy Ashby who mastered the complicated chords and runs of jazz music. Younger adds hip-hop and funk to her musical equations and performs her own magic on the harp for a mesmerizing and ethereal music buzz.

Younger’s new album Brand New Life was produced by the evening’s headliner, percussionist Makaya McCraven. She also joined him in a powerhouse lineup for the closing performance. Younger immerses herself in the harp onstage taking the audience to another dimension. Her music was a healing and sensuous balm for a beautiful day in Millennium Park.

Rashaan Carter and Brandee Younger. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Nduduzo Makhathini brought another level of spiritual and otherworldly jazz to the festival stage in a performance that was also a lesson on understanding and interpretation. Makhathini recently got his PhD in music but was already a musical legend from Cape Town, South Africa.

He is accompanied by fellow South African Zwelakhe-Duma Bell La Pere and Afro-Cuban drummer Francisco Mela. The trio is woven together mentally and spiritually, bringing the roots of church shouts and being overcome with ecstatic movement.

Nduduzo Makhathini. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Makhathini danced behind the piano as Bell Le Pere and Mela soloed. Mela got lost in the music and emitted several passionate shouts before beating on the cymbal. Mela also played a wove on a wooden flute to the piano playing and spoken word/singing. Makhathini added the percussive sound of the click (!) native to the isiZulu language. The bond between the trio was palpable in the moving looks of admiration exchanged.

Makhathini gave a short but much-appreciated talk where he was the griot narrating the nature of human cosmology and how Black and brown bodies have survived unkind human interference. He referred to linguicide and the forced assimilation of European culture. Our language was taken as well as our bodies and there is no typical understanding through music. Makhathini referred to his set as a ritual where everyone was invited to explore their cosmology. It was a very moving experience spoken from the soul and a gift to the audience being called to participate.

Nduduzo Makhathini and Zwelahke-Duma Bell LePere. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Makaya McCraven and an all-star lineup was the headliner for the evening. He brought Chicago talent Greg Ward on alto sax, Marquis Hill on trumpet, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Junius Paul on bass, and Matt Gold on guitar. Chicago was all over the stage. He introduced harp player Brandee Younger as an honorary Chicagoan to the delight of the audience.

McCraven was born in Paris but is a Chicago-based maestro of percussion.  He grew up steeped in jazz music by his mother, singer and flutist Agnes Zsigmondi and his father Stephen McCraven, who played with the Yusef Lateef and African Gnawa musicians. McCraven brought all of that into his headlining set. The band played music from his new album In These Times.

McCraven calls himself a Beat Scientist and for me, that calls up the Beat Generation's definition of beat. Beatitude is a state of consciousness allowing the sound, music, and words to flow. To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg, the Beats and music are holy. Watching these musicians was a holy experience. McCraven seems to be in a trance and everyone is in perfect timing and harmony with him.

Makaya McCraven. Photo by Kathy D. Hey.

Joel Ross has an altar called the vibraphone and not since Roy Ayers have I heard such soulful and intuitive sounds from the vibraphone. McCraven gave the spotlight to all of the people on the stage. Ward and Hill had solos that were rapturous as much as blisteringly hot. Gold’s guitar was woven into the music beautifully with echoes of Wes Montgomery's sounds. Paul kept a steady beat on the electric bass as percussion as much as the bass line. Brandee Younger wove her magic into the music, especially on the title track “In These Times.”

Once again, the music is a gift of healing from McCraven who is influenced by hip-hop and the state of the world. His music is the cultural and political state of the world in the past and now. McCraven’s music is the soul medicine that is needed in the world. It’s not always comfortable or traditional but that is the point of jazz and of spiritual uplift from music.

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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.