The 15th annual World Music Festival Chicago opened with a thunderbolt Thursday night at Millennium Park, thanks to the apparently inexhaustible energies of 76-year-old Latin jazz pianist Eddie Palmieri and his Salsa Orchestra.
Playing music that pulsed relentlessly with dance rhythms – at all tempos – Palmieri and friends seemed intent on making listeners move. In that they succeeded, the ushers at the Pritzker Pavilion trying futilely to clear the aisles of people who wanted to sway, swing, sing, scream and, of course, snap photos.
The frenzy of it all probably delighted Palmieri, who has been rousing crowds in his native New York and around the world for more than half a century. But did he realize that the proceedings were so intensely over-amplified that some in the audience were seen plugging their ears? And were the sound engineers unaware that by turning the dials so high they distorted the colors and blurred the instrumental details of Palmieri's band? One expects better at the Pritzker Pavilion, its state-of-the-art sound environment only as good as those operating the controls.
If you could tune out the sonic excess, however, there was no question that Palmieri came to conquer and left triumphant. The revelations were in how he achieved this, the accomplished pianist yielding most of the spotlight to the band at large and, thereby, emphasizing its muscular horns, hard-driving rhythm section and ferociously declamatory vocalists.
Palmieri, in other words, assigned himself essentially a supporting role rather than a starring one. That's the polar opposite of the way he played last year at Mayne Stage, fronting the Eddie Palmieri/Brian Lynch Jazz Quartet. In that intimate context, Palmieri was all over the keyboard, challenging his colleagues with tricky rhythms and stop-start solos.
Leading the large ensemble at Millennium Park, Palmieri simply set the tempos and rode them, all the while reveling in the orchestral sound swirling around him. Even in this less prominent role, however, Palmieri could not resist puckishly subverting the proceedings, taking his comparatively brief solos into keys that brazenly clashed with what everyone else was playing. The man simply cannot settle into a comfortable routine. Bravo for that.
Some of the evening's most exciting work came from the brass players, most notably its trombonists. Conrad Herwig packed an avalanche of notes into practically every solo, his quick melodic leaps and other-worldly sound effects quite something to behold; yet this was all about music, not noise, Herwig building statements with considerable craft and structure. Jimmy Bosch took a dramatically contrasting approach, playing fewer pitches but applying tremendous force and rhythmic combustion to each one.
The evening opened with Plena Libre, a seasoned Puerto Rican band that brought vigor and virtuosity to Afro-Caribbean music, past and present. Addressing a variety of bomba rhythms, Plena Libre delivered this music with palpable ardor, at times assisted by the traditionally costumed dancers of Chicago's AfriCaribe. Once again, though, over-amplification got in the way.
Then, too, the Pritzker's enormous LED screen served as high-wattage backdrop, the camerawork even poorer this time than it had been during the recent Chicago Jazz Festival. Do these videographers have no clue how to frame a shot without cutting off the soloists or the other performers' legs?
What to catch
All performances at the World Music Festival Chicago are free; for complete schedule, visit worldmusicfestivalchicago.org or phone 312-744-3316. Among this weekend's highlights:
"RagaMala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music": 6 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. Also 9 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Saturday at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba (from Mali) with Chicago Afrobeat Project: 3 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.
Mamadou Kelly (Mali): 7 p.m. at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Szold Music & Dance Hall, 4545 N. Lincoln Ave.; Sidi Toure with Leila Gobi (Mali), 8:30 p.m. at the Old Town School's Maurer Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Krar Collective (Ethiopia/England) with Nicolae Feraru & His Gypsy Band (Romania/U.S.): 3 p.m. at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street.