At 87, the revered Chicago jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran still tours the world and just returned from sold-out concerts in Brazil.
But his appearances in Chicago are not frequent, which made Saturday evening's performance at the Garfield Park Conservatory a must-see event. Not surprisingly, a capacity audience turned out for the occasion, and what they heard was classic Cohran: A free-wheeling, loosely improvised, deeply rewarding concert led by a Chicago master who has inspired generations (and was a co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians).
Cohran was leading his Kelan Zulu Ensemble, its title indicating the African-inspired nature of music that, nonetheless, transcended easy categorization. For when Cohran is on stage, ancient and avant-garde impulses intertwine, the bandleader making scant distinction between sounds of the past and the future, the East and the West. It's all part of one continuum, Cohran seems to be saying, the hypnotic rhythmic undercurrents of his work holding everything together.
The evening began somewhat inauspiciously, with only some of the performers present. As time went on, more musicians and a dancer joined the proceedings, giving fuller voice to Cohran's ideas.
Even at the outset, however, Cohran made a striking impression, performing "Angelina," based on the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem of the same name. To hear Cohran delivering these words so passionately was to understand both the timelessness of Dunbar's writing and the depth of Cohran's commitment to it. Joined by sons Tycho Cohran on tuba and Malik Cohran on keyboard and other instruments, the elder Cohran brought forth the music inherent in Dunbar's poetry.
By the time Cohran got to his "Affirmation," the full ensemble was in place, and listeners could perceive the majesty of Cohran's art. Vocalist Maggie Brown took the lead, her declamatory phrases serving Cohran's music well but also reflecting the social consciousness of her father, Oscar Brown, Jr. In a way, Maggie Brown carries forth the political advocacy of both her father and Cohran, and she does it with an amber-toned instrument that cuts through instrumental textures.
But Brown wasn't the only vocalist on stage, Fanta Celah often harmonizing with the rest of the ensemble to warm effect. Celah took the lead in "The Black Hole," an other-worldly tone poem that expressed Cohran's fascination with astronomy and referenced his age-old work with Sun Ra (who often exclaimed "space is the place!"). Celah's mesmerizing, melismatic lines suited the gently meandering nature of this music, the instrumentalists meanwhile producing atmospheric clouds of sound.
And in "Boon to a Loon," everyone in the band sang slowly and in unison, the ethereal sound of so many hushed voices befitting the hymn-like quality of this music. The hand-claps with which the musicians punctuated their sung phrases added to the drama of it all.
Cohran's performance, which featured him on harp and other instruments, was presented as part of the Neighborhood Nights series, designed as a prelude to the Chicago Jazz Festival, which takes place during Labor Day weekend. The concert's connection to the festival seemed remote, considering that the event is a month away (though Cohran's link to Sun Ra certainly reflected the festival's celebration of this year's Sun Ra centennial).
Nevertheless, when music as ethereally beautiful as this unfolds in a setting as exotic and appealing as the Garfield Park Conservatory, no other rationale is needed.
Neighborhood Nights continues with singer Margaret Murphy Webb at 5 p.m. Friday at the Arts Incubator, 301 E. Garfield Blvd.; admission is free; for more information, phone the Jazz Institute of Chicago at 312-427-1676 or visit jazzinchicago.org.