Sunday, September 05, 2010

You Missed Out: Chicago Jazz Festival


It's over. Chicago's summer outdoor concert season has come to an end with blue note ease. Scarves appeared this weekend at Grant Park, heralding the end of a way too hot summer. Chicagoans enjoyed jazz without cost, both young and old bringing blankets and bottles of wine for some park lawn bliss. We are so done with outdoor music. After weekend lows in the 40s, we're ready to get inside.

But it felt great out there today. The fest was extended this year, starting on Thursday in the Cultural Center, continuing on Friday in Millennium Park, and then the same old Jazz Fest on Saturday and Sunday in Grant Park. The kids came out for Sunday though, because NOMO and the Brad Mehldau Trio played this afternoon.

NOMO was hidden away in a shady corner of Grant Park, where music fans could enjoy the group's experimental indie-jazz without any possibility of sunshine discomfort. The six-piece brought synthesizers and samples along with their extra drum kit and homemade kalimbas. Of course, the purists enjoyed the horns. Trumpet, baritone and tenor sax kept the old-school in session. But afro-beats got the suburban white guys dancing on the Metra on their ride home. Even though the price went up, that weekend pass is still a great deal.

I'm no expert on jazz. I love Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis as much as the next guy, but I wonder what the majority of jazz nuts think of a group like NOMO. On the one hand, I imagine they'd find the synths and samples unorthodox. But if any music fan would be open-minded enough to see their genre go through vast changes, it should be that one founded in improvisation and experimentation.

Either way, I don't care I guess. Because I love NOMO. I wish more groups at the Jazz Fest sounded like them. It's not just another group of musicians playing pitch perfect lounge jazz. That gets painfully boring after a while. The trumpeter in NOMO was playing a weird electronic flute instrument with some twisty knob at the end, something I've never seen before. Once a jazz group starts playing instruments I'm unable to identify, they're doing something right.

A couple hours later at the main stage, a young man named Brad Mehldau played a grand piano while two other gentlemen accompanied him with upright bass and drums. His claim to fame is composing jazz arrangements of rock and pop music. He's dabbled in Radiohead, Soundgarden, Nick Drake, and today at the fest, Sufjan Stevens.

The highlight of his set was that final song, Holland, from Sufjan's Michigan album. It reminded me of how musically complex and adventurous Sufjan's music can be. Without lyrics, Mehldau tinkered around Holland's tonic for over 10 minutes. He did him proud, keeping things long and ambitious like that.

So yes, jazz is chill. It can be awful, redundant and embarrassing much of the time (especially now that it's become more of a white person's music...). But if it can get into the hands of the right generation, jazz still has plenty of pep. I'm not going to put it into a time capsule just yet.

Next time, though, I hope I can enjoy jazz under a roof. Enough of this sunshine.

1 comment:

Josh Langhoff said...

I wondered if you were around there somewhere! Did you stick around for Henry Threadgill? Mindblowing, I need to write something up. I dug Mehldau, but my buddy and I did leave in the middle of that Sufjan song because I was hungry.