The final day of the Chicago Jazz Festival is always a blast and a perfect sendoff to summer. Now, I say summer until the Autumnal Equinox and dare anyone to offer me pumpkin anything. None of that early Halloween jazz was happening but the best jazz players in the world made the temperature even hotter, and yes- there was a conga line!
Pharez Whitted may have been born in Indianapolis but calls Chicago home. Whitted has played his trumpet and flugelhorn for jazz and soul artists including the O’Jays and Freddie Hubbard. His quintet hit the stage at 4:00 and went right into funky harp bop and straight-ahead jazz. Joining him was Eddie Bayard on saxophone, Reggie Thomas on piano, Jonathan Wood on electric bass, and drummer Kenny Phelps.
Whitted’s quintet kept the overarching theme of remembrance, love, and hope going during their set. This was more than playing notes when they hit the stage, these players were the instruments. The first two songs were named for popular dances. “Lindy Bop” and “Watusi Bugaloo” reclaimed the dances and the sounds that emerged from Black people and musicians back in the mid-century.
Whitted shared the time with his fellow artists. Everyone got a chance to jam individually and it was a mutual admiration jam. Bayard and Whitted exchanged solos that recall the sounds of jazz before it became “smooth”. This is music that rolls through a person and everyone in the crowd is under that spell.
Thomas, Wood, and Phelps also got in on the solo action and I felt the same trance vibe. Good music draws you in and it is good to get lost in that feeling. They also played the classic “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and closed their set with “Duke” which is a tribute to Duke Ellington. It was so fitting as the first jazz festival started in 1974 as a tribute to Ellington who had just passed away.
It was a perfect blend of current and classic jazz music. I loved watching the faces of this amazing band. There was such respect and a collective consciousness that gave us a smoking start to the evening.
It would not be right if the Jazz Festival did not feature Dee Alexander who is a local treasure and at the top of her game. The Chicago Soul Jazz Collective (CSJC) played songs from their latest album “On the Way to be Free” which is full of beautiful and socially conscious music composed by the tenor sax player John Fournier.
Songs such as the title “On the Way to Be Free” belong in the Great American song canon. Alexander has a magnetic stage presence with a gorgeous smile and sensuous eyes. She reminded the audience of what a blessing it is to be alive and together. Fournier’s “Carry Me” was a song about spiritual sanctuary where Alexander riffed on being free of guns, violence, racism, sexism, and hatred.
CSJC guitarist Larry Brown Jr. penned “Crazy Wrong” which is one of the sexiest songs I have heard in a while. The band also sings along with Alexander as she sings of trying to resist and not wanting to do wrong. The band is made up of amazing Chicago musicians including Marques Carroll on trumpet, Amr Fahmy on electric piano, Micah Collier on bass, and Keith Brooks on drums.
Alexander showed off her vocal chops in full. Only she can to that scat/yodel trill. Her voice is an instrument even without words. This group played for those who wanted to slow dance and for those who just wanted to chill. Chicago artistry rules again.
Billy Valentine is a veteran of the jazz world having played with Red Holt Unlimited and as a songwriter with his brother Jonathan. He also wrote, “Money’s Too Tight to Mention” which was a huge hit for Simply Red and was also done by the O’Jays. Valentine has been behind the scenes for years writing for movies and television. He is now back as a performer with a new album “Billy Valentine and the Universal Truth.”
Valentine’s new album was made in reaction to the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing unrest. A good portion of this year’s festival was dedicated to protesting, affirmations of peace, and putting politicians on notice. Valentine did songs by other politically astute composers including Gil Scott Heron’s “Home is Where the Hatred Is” and “Lady Day and John Coltrane”. A huge cheer erupted when he covered Curtis Mayfield’s “We Who Are Darker than Blue”. It is a song about colorism and caste separations that revealed some painful truths for people back in the day when such things were not openly discussed.
In another tribute to Chicago talent, Valentine’s band was made up of Greg Ward on tenor sax (his third appearance on the main stage this year), Julius Tucker on piano, Junius Paul on bass, and drummer Sam Jewell. If they sound familiar it’s because they played with Makaya McCraven and Tammy McCann. When Valentine introduced them, he had to use a cheat sheet to say their names as he proclaimed he had met them earlier that day.
Valentine has a silky voice that is tinged with gospel, hints of Syl Johnson’s tenor, and the improvisational acuity of Al Jarreau. He closed his set with Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” The audience’s reception brought tears to his eyes and tears to others as Cooke wrote that song in protest of racial discrimination and to support the Civil Rights Movement. Valentine is heading out on a world tour and expressed his gratitude to Chicago for being the first leg of his “comeback”. I am sure that he will be welcome anytime.
I told you there was a conga line! Juan De Marcos Gonzalez leads an old-school big band right out of the Tropicana or Cotton Club back when people dressed up to go out and danced all night. Gonzalez’s orchestra is Yoris Goiticelaya on bass, Orlando Cardoso on piano, Tony Allende on congas, Caleb Michel on timbales, Asly Rosell on bongos and cowbell, Orlando Fraga, Carlos Frank Iraola, and Tony Perigo on trumpets and flugelhorn, Carlos Averhoff Jr. on saxophone and flute, and Gliceria Abreu (Mrs. Gonzalez) on percussion.
Oh yeah, there are two lead singers as well. Jose “Pepito” Gomez and Alberto-Alberto got the crowd to its feet and never let them sit down. This was high energy from start to conga line. De Marcos Gonzales is a charming and frisky leader doing some of the risqué movements and inviting his wife up to the front so that they could dance and he could kiss her. He announced that they had been married for 43 years and it was evident that the love and passion were still there.
Alberto-Alberto led the singing with a smooth tenor and mellow steps. “Pepito” Gomez was the electric live wire in this show. He cha-cha’d from one end to the other of the stage making eye contact with an infectious smile. De Marcos Gonzalez often shouted his name cheering him on.
De Marco Gonzalez dedicated the performance to the late Ibrahim Ferrer of Buena Vista Social Club which put Cuban music on the international radar after years of embargos and political machinations. Cardoso played the piano with riffs from Ferrer’s music. De Marcos Gonzalez was the first music director for Buena Vista Social Club and was instrumental in getting them launched onto the world music scene.
The band was having such a great time performing and went over time when the lady with the timer came out. I was watching her in the wings for the entire festival. She kept everything running like a clock but I did not want the night to end. My ears were ringing and I think everyone lost a couple of pounds. The Afro Cuban All Stars made music so hot that no one could sit still. It was the perfect ending to the Chicago Jazz Festival.
We are a great city where musical artists love to perform. Chicago is the incubator and cradle of jazz. Make a point of getting out to some or all of the great free events that the city and Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) produce. Turn your dial or your streaming service to the jazz channel and fall in love with this uniquely American genre of music.