Perspectives: September Songs

Autumn Leaves

By Jean Timmons and Mary Lou Wade

In Chicago, the end of summer is notably marked by jazz—in the parks, Pritzker and Petrello, at Symphony Center, in nightclubs and other fetching venues. Some performances are mediocre; some are outstanding; some just background for a picnic. It’s all fun. Being there, enjoying all the music by the lake, at the end of summer, is its own reward. This summer, with such gorgeous weather, it was easy to bask in the pleasure of listening to music that culminated with the 29th Chicago Jazz Festival.

We started off the week of the fest with Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic on Monday, August 27, 2007, at the Pritzker Pavilion. The Pritzker is a perfect place to listen to music, for the acoustics are state-of-the-art, as is the seating arrangement. Quite fitting for music leading up to the Jazz Festival to be held there. The show was titled Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic on Tap: Songs from the Chicago Songbook. Davis, trumpet player extraordinaire, featured Maggie Brown, Terisa Griffin, Jackie Allen, the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, and Kurt Elling.

It was a long show, which started at 6:30. The first number arrested one’s attention with its Lester Bowie-type opening to a Davis composition, “Fanfare for Cloudgate,” which Davis launched with a piercing herald from his trumpet. Then it was Maggie Brown with a long tribute to her father, Oscar Brown, Jr.; next came newcomer Terisa Griffin with a long tribute to Sarah Vaugh; followed by Jackie Allen with a long tribute to Jackie Allen. In spite of strong support from the Davis orchestra, with David taking brilliant solos, Brown’s performance set the tone of indulgence with which the women’s performances were marked. On this night, the singers were not powerful enough to sustain their stage time. Between those acts and Kurt Elling, there were performances by The Chicago Human Rhythm Project, tap dancers (four guys and three tiny young women). These tappers proved a bit gimmicky and distracting, although the audience was exceedingly polite with its applause. Finally Kurt Elling, presumably the headliner, took the stage around 8:30 and brought back the jazz focus. Yet, his performance had a hurried aspect to it, as if he were truncating songs to wrap up the show and dash off to a late supper, perhaps at the Park Grill.

In retrospect, Songs from the Chicago Songbook was a good idea, poorly executed. Nevertheless, the audience was awfully encouraging to the hard-working performers and thankful to be in the open air, listening to music. It was time to look forward to the week of music ahead.

On to the week’s highlights:

Renowned bassist Charlie Haden, honored as Artist in Residence for the entire festival, was on three stages. He led the Jazz Institute of Chicago’s Jazz Links students at the Heritage on Friday, letting the audience know that the music is alive and well with young people. Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra thrilled the Petrillo audience at Saturday’s closing act. On Sunday he participated in “A Windy City Jam” on the Jackson stage with local musicians, and all the performances were stunning. He told the audience he didn’t want to leave Chicago; and Lauren Deutsch, Executive Director of the Jazz Institute, told him she didn’t want him to go, thanking him sincerely for his participation, energy, talent, and teaching skills.

At the Petrillo on Friday, keyboardist Robert Irving III lit up the stage with his quintet’s tribute to Thelonious Monk. The program included such Monk compositions as “Evidence,” “In Walked Bud,” “Ruby, My Dear,” and “’Round Midnight.” Each member of the group was in top shape—the drummer was like a young Elvin Jones. It was a great, bebop-inspired set that ended too soon.
On Saturday, September 1, the Mulligan Mosaics Big Band performed at the Jazz on Jackson stage. Saxophonist Ted Horgath leads the group, and he was joined by other local musicians. With this group, the music of the late baritone saxophonist Gerry “Jeru” Mulligan should find a new audience. Later, the legendary Ernestine Anderson and Frank Weiss took the Petrello stage. Weiss was in good form; Anderson wasn’t in as good a form—but there were some miking problems during her performance. We would like to hear her in a smaller venue, an intimate nightclub, perhaps.

On Sunday, the Mingus Big Band closed the festival. The band was a fitting crowd pleaser. But the music was not quite over. Jazz lovers got lucky. The August 23rd Dee Alexander concert, cancelled because of the tremendous storm, was rescheduled for September 11.

The concert was titled Sirens of Song: Dee Alexander’s Tribute to Nina Simone and Dinah Washington. One might expect any singer taking on that task to engage in a bit of impersonation. Singers with styles as singular as Simone and Washington brand the major songs in their repertoires. Alexander was intrepid. While respectful, she put her own little stamp on the program. The audience belonged to her from the beginning (Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”) to the end (Simone’s “Don’t Smoke in Bed”). Pianist Miguel De La Serna (who got wonderfully jiggy with “Difference”) did the arrangements, which were just excellent. The band also included a string quartet (with James Sanders on violin) and brass (with James Perkins on saxophone). The evening was a nostalgic one, a trip back in time with perspective on the present. For instance, Alexander adjusted the lyrics to a couple Simone numbers, but the adjustments were on target. In the end, we’re sure, though, that some in the audience departed remembering the original sarcastic lines to such songs as “My Baby Just Cares for Me”—

Liz Taylor is not his style,
And even Lana Turner’s smile
Is something, he can’t see.
Wonder what’s wrong with baby.
My baby just cares for—
He just says his prayers for—
My baby just cares, for me.

as it should be, at the close of an exceptional tribute, and a Chicago summer, in the Park.

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