2011 Chicago Jazz Festival, Sunday in Grant Park | Live review


The temperature dropped and the sun came out Sunday at Grant Park for the final day of Jazz Fest, and huge crowds showed up for what was arguably the best night of the festival. Even the early sidestage shows featured top-notch talent, but the night was dominated by headliner Roy Hargrove and Mike Reed’s Myth/Science Assembly, who presented two very different notions of how to address what might be the fundamental concern of jazz musicians of every era: how do you move the music forward while still paying tribute to the music’s rich history?

Hargrove is notorious for the wide range of styles he tries on for size, with successful forays into hard bop, big band, and even jazzy hip-hop with RH Factor. But Sunday at the Petrillo, Hargrove’s quintet explored a cool, laid back sound inspired by what many argue is the greatest jazz album of all time, Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue. The band took a “less is more” approach, stripping away all but the most essential elements of the music. Hargrove’s beautiful muted trumpet solo on “Love For Sale” was a lesson in the power of restraint. Later in the set, drummer Montez Coleman played one of the least showy drum solos you could ever expect to see, seeming to listen intently to the decay of each hit before proceeding. In less capable hands, this naked approach would be a disaster. But Hargrove’s band proved that beautiful tone and beautiful ideas don’t need much embellishment if you’re lucky enough to have them.

A different sort of reverence was on display when Myth/Science Assembly took the stage earlier in the evening. The subject was the music of controversial avant-garde keyboardist, composer and bandleader Sun Ra, and the twist was that the music performed by drummer Mike Reed’s band, in a sense, did not really exist. In a move that would have probably appealed to the quirky Sun Ra, who once claimed to have made a revelatory trip from Chicago to Saturn, Myth/Science drew on a recently unearthed trove of unlabeled Sun Ra tapes that are currently being restored and archived, focusing on a single trio rehearsal full of unfinished works-in-progress. With the help of vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, Reed arranged imagined, completed versions of these songs for his impressive band, which included New York guitarist Mary Halvorson, Chicago cellist Tomeka Reid, and former Chicagoan Greg Ward on saxophone. This sonic reclamation has become a bit of a habit for Reed, whose group People, Places, and Things is dedicated to new takes on under-appreciated Chicago jazz of the late '50s (and as such also performs several Sun Ra compositions.)

Reed alternated between a pair of laptop computers cued up with snippets of found sound from the archives and his familiar place on the drum throne. Once the entire band was assembled onstage, the complicated provenance of the material faded into the background. Halvorson’s shredding guitar solo got the crowd excited right off the bat, and later, a rumbling drum battle between Reed and Tomas Fujiwara descended into a searching duet by Halvorson and cellist Reid. The excitement after the set was palpable; here was a group that, by design, couldn’t help but drag the music of the past into the future.

Earlier at the Jazz on Jackson stage, 2011 artist-in-residence Orbert Davis unveiled a much smaller group than the orchestra he conducted the previous night, a sextet with AACM member Ari Brown on saxophone and young stars Brandon McCune on piano and Zack Brock on violin. Later at the Young Lions stage, Davis, McCune and Brock led a group of local youngsters through the Herbie Hancock standard “Cantaloupe Island,” with Davis leaning down and soloing with two tiny, adorable girls on reeds in the festival’s most touching moment (a close second was local legend Ira Sullivan blowing out candles on a cake served by Jazz Showcase impresario Joe Segal at the end of his 80th birthday celebration concert.) Occidental Brothers Dance Band International impressed with their take on Ghanaian Highlife, hitting a high point with an electrified version of the African acoustic guitar standard “Masanga.” 

Later in the evening, many of the local musicians who performed at the Fest could be found at their usual Sunday night hangout at the Hungry Brain on Belmont and Western, celebrating a job well done and getting back to business as usual. Members of the Myth/Science Assembly were onstage improvising while Reed, who not only performs but also organizes programming at the Brain and other local venues through his Umbrella Music Organization while somehow finding time to preside over the wildly successful Pitchfork Music Festival, solidified his reputation as one of the hardest working men in town by stepping behind the bar to serve drinks for the absent bartender. It’s always thrilling when the stars come to town for Jazz Festival, but it’s nice to remember that some of the best noise you can find is happening right here in Chicago all year round.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)