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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Hyde Park Jazz Festival 2021 - Chicago, IL (Day 1 of 2)

Isaiah Collier, Photograph by Marc Monaghan

Sept 25th - The 15th Annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival unfolded under perfect blue skies during the last weekend of September, 2021. I’d been itching to drive up and catch a show in the Windy City over the summer but never made it due to lack of time or other circumstances, and after a last minute change of plans tragically caused me to miss the Natural Information Society/Drum Divas concert at Millennium Park back in mid-August, I began to firm up my plans to attend this years’ HPJF in earnest. As luck would have it my brother, also a seasoned jazz-head, was able to join me on the trip. First, a little background, the festival was initially conceptualized in 2006 by the Hyde Park Jazz Society with other South Side cultural leaders and first realized in 2007 with the help of the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement. The festival is held annually at various sites across the University of Chicago and the neighborhood of Hyde Park which is on Chicago’s South Side. It unfolds both within various local venues as well as outdoors at some of the many culturally significant locations across the neighborhood. Everything is easily within walking distance and there’s a free shuttle if you have mobility problems or are in a hurry. Speaking of free, the festival itself is has no price for admission, but a $5 donation is requested to help pay the artists and keep things going - obviously the more you can give the better. I know that after sitting on my wallet for the better part of a year and some change it felt really good to be able to support such a special event.

HPJF Crowd: Night, by Marc Monaghan

Obviously this and last year’s festivals were run a little bit differently than in prior years. For HPJF 2020 the first day of performances was streamed from the Logan Center for the Arts sans audience, while the on the second day the artists performed in smaller groups outdoors across the neighborhood. This year’s festival was similar in that most of the performances were outdoors while a couple of concerts were held indoors at the Logan Center, though attendance was limited. You had to RSVP for these concerts online, but they were also streamed on YouTube the following day, similar to HPJF 2020. Two large stages (Wagner at Woodlawn Ave and West At Ellis Ave) were set up at either end of Midway Plaisance Park which connects Washington Park on the west side of campus with Jackson Park and Lake Michigan on the east. Directly south is the University of Chicago Law School where Barack Obama taught constitutional law for 12 years (Michelle Obama is a born and raised South Sider). There were a handful of additional venues hosting sets, namely the Smart Museum Courtyard, the Dusable Roundhouse Museum Plaza and North Terrace, as well as outside the Augustana Church, but I came with a pretty specific agenda that was mainly tied to the Midway stages and the Logan Center.

Makaya McCraven, by Marc Monaghan

After getting off to a late start (of course) and arriving at the hotel - the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place, which offered a generous rate for HPJF attendees - around the time the festival started, we grabbed a cab and headed for the South Side, arriving with enough time to stop by the media booth before shuffling over to the Logan Center for Makaya McCraven’s first set at 2:30 PM. The Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts is a conspicuously modern building on a campus known for its architectural diversity, which ranges from gothic to contemporary. The concert was held in the Performance Hall of the building, which provided comfortable seating with ample social distancing. All RSVP’d attendees were required to wear a mask. The stage was set for six musicians, four chairs, a drum kit, a harp, and a couple of amplifiers. In the back of the Performance Hall the capable, improvising painter Lewis Archenbach was setting up shop for a Jazz Occurrence , capturing the performance in a way only he can. Chicago bassist Junius Paul gave away his participation in the set when he delivered his double bass to the stage and made brief, friendly small talk with the audience in the front row. After an introduction and thanks from the organizers McCraven hit the stage with Paul, guitarist Matt Gold, harpist Brandee Younger, saxophonist Greg Ward, and trumpeter Marquis Hill to the enthusiastic whoops of the crowd.

McCraven & Band (l to r, Marquis Hill, Greg Ward, Brandee Younger,
Matt Gold, Junius Paul, Makaya McCraven)

The HPJF commissioned a new piece from McCraven which he debuted at the beginning of his set. The piece featured a simple 4-note guitar ear worm that stuck with me the rest of the weekend. The acoustics of the Performance Hall are especially good and despite sitting some distance from the group I felt like I was right up next to them. McCraven was a flurry of activity on the drum set, constantly evolving his patterns and which parts of his kit he utilized. He punctuated his tight, crisp precision with explosions of power and density, all the while delivering transition signals to the group. A wink or a nod and the song would shift. That’s part of the magic I missed listening on the stereo for so long. And the band was excellent, obviously. I won’t detail the performance too much since you can watch it for yourselves on the HPJF YouTube channel - link below. I will say that the intensity of the delivery in such a quiet space was incredible. There wasn’t a peep from the crowd save the occasional holler or round of applause after solos. The performance went over time by about fifteen minutes, and I was keen to see Mwata Bowden on the Midway, but there was no way we were budging until the set was over. Once McCraven’s sextet had taken their bows we rushed over to the West stage for Mwata Bowden’s 1 Foot In, 1 Foot Out.

1 Foot In, 1 Foot Out (l to r, Harrison Bankhead, Ari Brown,
Leon Q, Avreeayl Rawas, Khari B, Mwata Bowden), by Marc Monaghan

The second generation AACM member (former chair, actually) and U-of-C Director of Jazz Ensembles’ group includes fellow AACM colleagues Ari Brown on tenor saxophone, Harrison Bankhead on bass, and Avreeayl Rawas on percussion, as well as trumpet player Leon Q and Bowden’s son, the spoken word musician Khari B. The band was in full throat by the time I got back over to the West Stage and they gave a powerful performance. The group played several pieces from their eponymous debut, which is a gem if you haven’t had the pleasure; it has a really nice blend of older and newer traditions, jazz and poetry. It was a real privilege to get to see Bowden and his band perform live, one of the Chicago’s all-time greats, and that was a recurring feeling I had throughout the festival. We were torn b/w two of the 4:30-5:30 PM sets, as the New String Trio (Regis Carter, Tomeka Reid, and Junius Paul) were set to perform on the Wagner Stage during the same time that Trio WAZ (Ed Wilkerson Jr, Tatsu Ainu, and Michael Zerang) were playing at the Dusable Roundhouse Museum Plaza. The intent was to catch the first half of the New String Trio and then take the shuttle over to catch the end of the Trio WAZ set, so we headed over to the Wagner to find a spot off to the side, in the shade.

New String Trio (l to r, Tomeka Reid, Junius Paul, Regina Carter), by by Besflores Nievera Jr

When we got there Tomeka Reid and Regina Carter were getting tuned up and working with the sound team. Regina Carter is a celebrated musical chameleon whose style eludes categorization and a recipient of the prestigious MacArthur ‘genius’ award. I can’t overstate how thrilled I was to get a chance to see Tomeka Reid in a live setting, having been a fan of her music for quite a while now, and in a string trio to boot. Bassist Junius Paul had managed to get his enormous instrument and set of traps from the Logan Center to the Wagner Stage as we were taking in the last 2/3 of Bowden’s set. The group began by playing Mark Helias’ composition Pentahouve and I was spellbound by the instant warmth of the trio. Next they played a piece of Reid’s called August 6th, which Carter explained was also coincidentally her birth date, though Reid had named it b/c that was simply the date she wrote it. It was swooping and masterfully rendered by the trio. The smooth lines were then juxtaposed with a Carter fiddle tune called Black Bottom Stomp that had the crowd clapping and stomping along. You could tell by the group’s body language that they were having fun, as there were lots of sideways glances, grins, and nose-scrunches happening through the performance. Paul conjured harmonics from a small bell during his gorgeous composition Cadmium that had the exact opposite effect. You could’ve heard a pin drop, such was the crowd’s focus. To close the set the trio played a Tomeka Reid piece called Woodlawn. The experience bordered on the supernatural as the trio performed the piece just as the evening shadows were coming on. Wispy tendrils of incense scented the cool afternoon air that rustled the leaves of the shade trees that lined either side of Midway Plaisance. We sat in the sandy grass, soaking in the surreal scene, appreciative of the chance to feel semi-normal again and to be able to witness such a magic moment. As the trios’ final notes faded out I realized that we had completely forgotten to catch the last half of the Trio WAZ set. And though disappointed, there was no way we would have left the New String Trio set. I’m hoping for a record, we’ll see, and Trio WAZ gets priority next time.

Isaiah Collier’s 3-6 Project featuring JD Allen (l to r, Isaiah Spencer, Isaiah Collier,
Jeremiah Hunt, James Wenzel, JD Allen, and Jeremiah Collier) by Besflores Nievera Jr

Collier’s set on the Wagner Stage wasn’t due to start until 6:15 PM, so we headed over to investigate the food vendors (fantastic options by the way) and then headed for the grass of the midway where a sizable portion of the multi-generational, multi-cultural crowd was hanging out. The vibe was so pleasant and laid back that even though show time was approaching and Collier’s was one of the acts we were most excited to see, we had talked ourselves into listening to the opening of the set from the lawn while we took a load off and ate. That all changed once Isaiah Collier’s 3-6 Project featuring JD Allen began their set with all the urgency of a meteor impact, and we quickly scuttled back up the hill to bear witness. It was now dusk and the stage lights illuminated the band, a double saxophone trio with Jeremiah Collier & Isaiah Spencer flanking the stage on drums, bassists Jeremiah Hunt (who plays in Collier’s group The Chosen Few) & James Wenzel mirrored across stage center and JD Allen and Isaiah Collier out front melting faces with their horns. Collier’s Cosmic Transitions has been a favorite of mine this year and the young saxophonist was blowing fire for the ecstatic masses gathered before the Wagner Stage. His friend and mentor JD Allen was as loose and free blowing as I’ve ever heard him, absolutely absorbed in the collective energy. The rest of the group was also incredible, trading high energy solos and colliding in explosions of ecstatic group interplay and heavy rhythm. It was one of the best sets of the night and one that we again couldn’t bring ourselves to leave until it was over, which meant having to seriously rush back over to see Vandermark and Ensemble Dal Niente play at the Logan Center.

Vandermark Solo

The wildly exuberant crowd and atmosphere of the midway stage was starkly contrasted with our silent anticipation in the Performance Hall. Off to the side of the stage I saw none other than the great Roscoe Mitchell greeting some folks in the audience. He took a seat with the rest of us and the lights dimmed. Ensemble Dal Niente with conductor Michael Lewanski began the show after a brief introduction by the organizers, playing a 2020 Nicole Mitchell composition call Cult of Electromagnetic Connectivity for flute (Constance Volk), bass clarinet (Zach Good), percussion (Kyle Flens), violin (Tara Lynn Ramsey), and cello (Juan Horie). The piece had a plodding quality that was heavy on percussion and bass clarinet with the other instruments contrasting with scattered aural shrapnel. The next piece was the 2012 George Lewis composition Merce and Baby for flute, percussion, violin, and cello. It started with a flurry of glissando and percussion, very pointillist, and then it opened up momentarily with solos from the violin and drums before receding back into short statements. Next Ken Vandermark played a brief solo set of Fred Andersen compositions and shared stories about his old friend and mentor. Andersen was a stalwart of the Chicago jazz scene, a ground floor member of the AACM, owner/operator of the former South Loop institution the Velvet Lounge, and one of the best tenor sax players to ever pick up the instrument. Vandermark played beautiful renditions of Bernice, The Birdhouse, and Ladies in Love in honor of his colleague.

Vandermark + Ensemble + Mitchell

He was then joined on stage by the full Ensemble Dal Niente for the premiere of Roscoe Mitchell’s composition Last Trane to Clover Five for baritone sax and ensemble. The full group included guitarist Jesse Lange, harpist Ben Melsky, and pianist Mabel Kwan. The piece was heavy with orchestral fanfare in Mitchell’s style, which is quite distinct at this point, buttressed with the husky bellow of Vandermark on baritone and the persistent rustle of Kyle Flens’ kit. From this emerged a sustained, twinkling drone that gradually softened and then dissolved altogether. After the Ensemble + 1 took their bows Mitchell was brought up in stage where he was showered with applause. And again, you can’t help but feel humbled in the face of such talent. The set went over slightly so we hurried back across Ellis to the Wagner Stage to catch the remainder of McCraven’s second set. The crowd was really into it and the sextet delivered another knockout performance. Since I missed the beginning it’s hard to say if the set was identical to the Logan Center performance, but it was at the least very similar, which you’d expect. This set felt a lot looser comparatively as the band played upright with the exception of Younger and McCraven and Paul added some punch to the rhythm on electric bass. The set concluded what was one of the best days of music that I’ve seen in a long time, including the pre-pandemic timeline. By this point it was getting on 9:30 pm so we caught another taxi and headed into the night in search of food and refreshment, which we found in abundance.

McCraven Night Set

Logan Center Performances

Read Day 2