Story and Photos by James Walker - Ken Chaney reformed his Awakening group last spring and according to James Walker this was JazzChicago's Concert of the Year for 2008. We hope you enjoy his account.
This writer had a dilemma when it became apparent that the Awakening Reunion Concert featuring, original members: saxophonist, Ari Brown, pianist Ken Chaney and trombonist T.S. Galloway, combined with phenom trumpeter Corey Wilkes, young bassist Josh Ramos and spectacular drummer Ernie Adams would directly conflict with the sold out Joshua Redman/Branford Marsalis concert at Orchestra Hall. Initially, he was angry and very disappointed that it would be physically impossible to witness both events. But after carefully reviewing the players expected to participate in both concerts, it became crystal clear that the players at the Awakening concert were equal to if not exceeding the Orchestra Hall participants. Ok, perhaps this writer is somewhat subjective in that he's had the advantage of reviewing the "locals" far more often than Branford and Joshua. For most jazz fans having the same option, their decision was to see the national headliners since the Awakening members could be seen at anytime. That's a valid point but this writer believed that the Awakening unit could and would hold their own with any national act.
Based on the response from the well informed and seasoned fans that packed the Sherman Park Hall, this writer's decision was the correct one. Sure, without having spoken to any observers of Redman's set, perhaps that was an outstanding concert also.
But it was such a pleasure to observe these veteran performers, in some cases debuting original music and reintroducing originals composed with the initial group. That group also included Frank Gordon, Oscar Brashear, Rufus Reid, John Whitfield and Reggie Willis, and performed together in the early '70s for four years. According to Ken Chaney,"their concept was to perform just a little more experimental music than the mainstream without being avant-garde, but also not being mainstream."
With that being said, let's talk about this concert. All of the music performed during the sensational concert was composed by the three original members. They began the set with Ken Chaney's "Spring Thing," recorded on their "Touch, Sense, Feel" album. Each member play parallel parts while improvising "avant-garde" style following Ari's lead. It's apparent that this is a unit performing together and all will share in the spotlight throughout the evening. It didn't take this standing room only crowd long to demonstrate their approval with a rousing ovation. They got off to such hot start that Corey had to remove his jacket before continuing.
It didn't take long for the group to reach an early climax on another Chaney composition entitled "Bronzeville Blues." The horn section began playing in unison, with Corey breaking out into a blusey, funky tone. That's part of the beauty of Awakening in that they cross many styles in their "unique brand of musical syncretism." All alternate with solos, but Ari was supurb belting some very high notes while digging deep for those low tones that Ari is so capable of finding. The crowd was really into this set, dancing, clapping, stomping and truly enjoying the music. The highlight of this piece and perhaps of the night came at the end of this number when Ari picked up both soprano and tenor sax and began playing them simultaneously. Not to be out done, Corey did the same with the trumpet and flugelhorn. What a sight to see these premire horn players standing side by side blowing four instruments. Needless to say, they received an standing ovation following this exciting number.
If there was any downside to this spectacular concert, it came when they followed the above piece with Ari's "Miles Like." This somber selection brought the jubliant crowd down and didn't appear to fit with the other pieces on the program. They never seemed to be in sync on this number. Nevertheless, they recovered quickly on T.S. Galloway's "What A Joy." Ari dedicated this beautiful ballad to his wife.
The first set was concluded with another T.S. composition, "Soul Afroesque." This soulful song included a very nice solo by Corey with those signature fast bursts that he is so noted for. It was also during his solo that one could distinguish the solid drumming of Ernie Adams. He repeatedly and very subtly answered Corey without fanfare and without stepping on Corey's notes. Ernie was spectaculiar as he struck the skins with two sticks in one hand and used his bare hand on another drum before totally releasing the sticks as he continued to "assault" the drum kit "congo style." The crowd roared its approval for this power-precision drumming.
The second half of this 2-1/2 hour concert began with a new Ken Chaney composition called," Secondtime." This tune also had a slight "Latin" flavor, with Ari demonstrating his skill on the soprano sax. The "old school" crowd gathered at Sherman Park again showed their appreciation for this veteran virtuoso with a warm ovation. Although all musicians assembled for this historic event were well received, this writer detected Ari as their favorite by the spontaneous ovations they showered upon him throughout the evening.
Chaney's "The Good Side" featured Cory on the trumpet. While soloing, he stepped toward the front of the stage and played to a group of young children assembled on the floor. They seemed to enjoy the moment of attention that Mr. Wilkes was giving them. Deep bass tones were discernible from Abrams' instrument during his extended solo for one of his finest moments of the night. In addition, Adams, while intermittently soloing, was producing a "second line"-like sound mostly found in New Orleans. This was another crowd pleaser.
"Lady Marion", penned by T.S. for his wife, was a beautiful ballad that showcased Ari's full golden tone. This smooth, soulful tenor sound demonstrated his patient and thoughtful touch. After listening to this song, this writer commented to vocalist Tammy McCann, who was sitting in the audience, that it would sound beautiful with lyrics. Tammy agreed and stated "they are already in my head."
Perhaps the absolute highlight for all came on the final number, Ari's "A Groove Awakening." This uptempo number was simply electrifying. Each band member was featured and did not disappoint. Again, Ari was outstanding on the tenor with some impressive long runs while "scatting" in between notes. Corey seemed to gain energy from Ari and began some passionate blowing, going into overdrive above the riffing rhythm section. Ramos found his groove and appeared to be in a "zone." The entire band with the exception of Adams joined in with some rhythmic hand clapping that also energized the audience. Finally, before concluding the night, Adams got a piece of the action with another rapid fire solo.
What a historic happening sponsored by the The Jazz Institute of Chicago in conjunction with the Chicago Park District. The best description of the evening was coined by one of Chicago's outstanding vocalist, Tammy McCann as she called the night's affair "A MASTER CLASS." She further reiterated that "the fellows at Orchestra Hall should have been HERE." Case closed!!!!!!!!!!!!
For future JazzCity and/or Jazz Institute programs, refer to their website at www.JazzInChicago.org.
For a review and photos from the second Awakening concert of 2008 we hope you check out this review as well.