No, it wasn’t quite the same as spending a day running around Hyde Park catching jazz sets in concert halls, courtyards, churches and whatnot.
But the folks who stage the annual Hyde Park Jazz Festival weren’t going to let the pandemic derail the 14th annual event. So the two-day soirée opened Saturday with a series of stylistically wide-ranging shows livestreamed from the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts.
True, it was a little weird to hear a musician’s big solo answered by silence in the hall, since no audience was present. After a while, however, you got used to that, focusing entirely on the pure pleasure of hearing music (albeit through computer speakers).
Several of Chicago’s most admired musicians were the stars, and judging by what they played, you’d never guess that most have had few — if any — gigs since March. Clearly, they’ve been practicing.
Following is a diary of what happened, set by set:
4p.m.-ish: Alexis Lombre Quartet. Over the past few years, singer-pianist Lombre has been building a following in Chicago, her hometown, and Detroit, and her opening set at the festival explained way. An emerging composer-bandleader of uncommon maturity and poise, Lombre launched her set chanting softly and wordlessly, thereby inducing the listener at home to lean in a bit, the better to catch the nuances of her work. Before long, her singing had swelled into an all-out cry, at once piercing in expression yet cushioned in tone. Her keyboard solos were fluid and sometimes virtuosic but never ostentatious. With Jahari Stampley providing vivid accompaniment on piano and bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer driving rhythm forward, Lombre led a notably cohesive band. The set’s high point came with “Slow Down,” an original work Lombre credited to the entire ensemble, its message of calm and peace well-suited to our troubled times.
5 p.m.: Greg Ward’s Rogue Parade. Chicago alto saxophonist Ward made a splash in 2019 leading his Rogue Parade band in “Stomping Off From Greenwood,” one of the best jazz albums of the year. That ensemble’s vitality continues, as this set proved. The music-making ranged from hushed reverie to hard-driving declamation, with Ward’s sometimes piercing, sometimes tender saxophone lines as focal point. “Metropolis,” from the “Stomping” album, provided the set’s joyous high point, its contrasts between surging and stately rhythms attesting to Rogue Parade’s expressive range. Between numbers, Ward said he hoped to get the band back into the recording studio; the sooner the better.
6 p.m.: Charles Heath Quartet. It was standards time when drummer Heath and his quartet took the stage. They began with Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays,” a testament to Kern’s art as melodist and this quartet’s methods of celebrating it. Chicago alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity, a formidable bandleader in her own right, produced the gorgeously rounded tone listeners have come to expect from her, as well as a fast-flying technique rooted in the art of bebop. “When You Wish Upon a Star” may seem like Disney treacle to some, but Heath’s band made a compelling case for it. Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia” underscored the band’s fidelity to jazz history, pianist Richard Johnson (Cassity’s husband) offering glistening pianism here and elsewhere. With Christian Dillingham on bass, Heath’s quartet reaffirmed jazz fundamentals. Johnson’s “Last Minute” (featured on Cassity’s new album “Fearless”) closed the set with a burst of unstoppable energy, fueled by Heath’s hard-hitting virtuosity.
7 p.m.: Dee Alexander and the A-Team. Leave it to Chicago singer-songwriter Alexander to confront this fraught moment in American life. Earlier in the day, she and pianist Miguel de la Cerna, her longtime music director, had completed a searing song, “Protest,” which became the centerpiece of their set. “People taking to the streets/marching against racism,” Alexander sang. “It’s about time, because this has been going on too long/Young and old are full of rage.” Yet the intertwining of Miguel’s incantatory music and Alexander’s unflinching lyrics felt less like a lament than a ferocious call to action. So as Alexander decried the killings we see on our TVs every night, the rhythmically surging music embodied a spirit of resistance. This new work is bound to become key to Alexander’s future performances, recalling Abbey Lincoln’s work in Max Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.’s landmark “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.” When Alexander next began chanting “Baba Fred Anderson,” invoking the name of a past giant of Chicago jazz, there was no doubt she was communing with the ancestors.
8 p.m.: Marquis Hill’s Circle in the Round. Trumpeter Hill has come up with an intriguing concept for his Circle in the Round project: Rather than all the musicians playing each composition, the personnel constantly changed, with different instrumentalists exiting and entering the stage as the tunes demanded. This gave Circle in the Round an appealingly fluid character, as if several different bands were operating under the same name. As a result, listeners heard the stop-start rhythms of music by drummer Dana Hall (director of jazz studies at DePaul University’s School of Music), the straight-ahead sensibility of work by pianist Michael King, the melodic poetry of a ballad by saxophonist Irvin Pierce and the full-throated exhortations of Hill’s “Abracadabra.”
9 p.m.: The Silent Hour. With a sound as alluring as its name, The Silent Hour conjured a music predicated on subtlety and nuance. Listeners heard soft-spoken tones, shimmering colors and textural spaciousness from drummer Mike Reed, cellist Tomeka Reid, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, trumpeter Russ Johnson and bassist Jakob Heinemann. The delicate tintinnabulation of Adasiewicz’s vibes dovetailed with Reed’s telegraphic drum work, Reid’s amber cellos lines, Johnson’s silvery trumpet phrases and Heinemann’s warmly resonant bass. This was music that didn’t reach for climaxes, instead ebbing and flowing from one color palette to the next. What an appealing way to close the Hyde Park Jazz Festival’s first and most important day — not with a roar, but with a balm.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
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