Though previous Jazz Festival concerts have unfolded in Millennium Park's Pritzker Pavilion, this year – for the first time – all the outdoor concerts are being be held in and around that superb venue, relieving jazz listeners of the acoustical and aesthetic ignominy of Grant Park. So listeners who packed the Pritzker seating area and spread across the lawn in effect were settling in for four days of jazz in Chicago's most felicitous outdoor musical setting (concerts earlier in the day had taken place in the Chicago Cultural Center and Roosevelt University's Ganz Hall).
Moreover, the opening night brought together leading-edge artists rarely heard on the same stage at the same time. The idea came from drummer Jack DeJohnette, who was born in Chicago and came of age musically here before conquering the world in multiple jazz contexts. Invited to assemble a dream band, DeJohnette enlisted players famously nurtured by the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-based collective that began to transform the music in the mid-1960s.
So DeJohnette shared the stage with pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, a co-founder of the AACM, and multi-instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. Though bassist Larry Gray does not come from this musical lineage, he was asked to join the ensemble and held his own, and then some.
This was often challenging, thorny, dense, dissonant music that avoided certain jazz conventions: backbeat, swing rhythm, familiar time signatures, easily discernible melody. Instead, DeJohnette and the somewhat grandly titled Special Legends Edition Chicago offered musical ideas steeped in AACM syntax: unpredictable structures, wide-ranging solos, ornately layered instrumental sound, avoidance of traditional meter and key.
In a word, exhilarating.
DeJohnette's distinctive quintet opened with Mitchell's "Chant," an aptly named piece built on the repetitive, incantatory, mesmerizing motifs that long have been at the heart of Mitchell's musical language. Mitchell's alto saxophone lines dovetailed, collided and overlapped with Threadgill's phrases on alto, the ensemble texture inexorably thickening as the piece progressed.
In Abrams' "Jack Five," DeJohnette reminded listeners why he's universally considered a master percussionist, the drummer conveying relentless forward motion without articulating any real sense of pulse. It was musical incident that drove this solo, DeJohnette quickening the pace of events without speeding up the tempo.
To hear pianist Abrams' wash of sound and color punctuated by DeJohnette's rumbling figures on drums was to admire the pastoral beauty of DeJohnette's "Museum of Time." Abrams produced his most effective solo of the night in Threadgill's "Leave, Don't Go Away," which also yielded lush, flowing phrases from Threadgill on bass flute. And the band create an austere, translucent textural beauty in Mitchell's "This," with exquisitely detailed duetting from Mitchell and Threadgill on winds.
By the time these musicians produced a spontaneous, explosive improvisation as an encore, there was no question that these players had cohered into a dynamic, potentially important ensemble.
Fortunately, the session was recorded, and the band's copious rehearsals during the past few days have been documented, as well.
The sooner this material is released to the world, the better.
Picks for the fest
All events take place in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; for details, phone 312-744-3316 or visit chicagojazzfestival.us.
"A Tribute to Ken Chaney": 5 p.m., Jazz and Heritage Pavilion
Geof Bradfield's "Melba!": 6:30 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Excerpts of Wadada Leo Smith's "Ten Freedom Summers": 7:40 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Charles Lloyd and Bill Frisell: 9 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion.
Hamid Drake Quartet: 1:10 p.m., Von Freeman Pavilion
Chevere de Chicago: 3:30 p.m., Jazz and Heritage Pavilion
Gregory Porter: 6:10 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Rudresh Mahanthappa: 7:25 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Jason Moran's Fats Waller Dance Party: 8:45 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Evan Christopher: 2:2 p.m., Von Freeman Pavilion
Jimmy Heath: 5 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Robert Glasper: 7:25 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion
Donald Harrison and the Congo Square Nation: 8:45 p.m., Pritzker Pavilion