Art Hoyle Sextet: They played a tribute to the immortal Clark Terry. It was straight-ahead, swinging jazz. Piano solos featured big blocky chords. Definitely a decent way to start my time at the festival.
Neusa Sauer: It was fun to pop in to Neusa Sauer’s performance; she’s a Brazilian bossa nova singer; her voice is smoothly fluent in the genre, which is especially fun when her son (I think?) sang along with her; his voice is in the slightly-scratchy vein of Tom Jobim. The whole time she sang, she was also dancing. Listening was pure joy.
Craig Taborn Trio: I had two must-see performances. The Craig Taborn Trio was one. I loved him in Prism, both on their self-titled album and at the Chicago Jazz Festival last year, and I was excited to see him in a trio setting. And he absolutely met—and, perhaps, exceeded—my expectations. In contrast to his playing with Prism, this was an acoustic set. But it was a very contemporary acoustic set; his rhythms and harmonies were astounding, and the speed at which his fingers react to his mind is amazing, as was the interplay between the three musicians. Definitely a high point of the festival.
Chico Freeman: Chico Freeman is the son of the late Von Freeman, a legendary Chicago saxophonist (so legendary, in fact, that one of the tents at the festival is the Von Freeman Pavilion). Chico showed up in a white suite with a black tenor. The performance ranged from straight-ahead jazz to funk and blues.
José James: Honestly, I had tried to listen to his tribute album to Billie Holiday, and I didn’t love it. But after hearing him live, I’m up for giving it another listen. Maybe the computer speakers didn’t do his voice justice, because his performance was stunning. He’s not trying to sound like Holiday; rather, his sound is tremendously contemporary. But that his versions sound different doesn’t mean they sound wrong; somehow, when James sings the songs, they sound legitimately his.
Fred Hersch Trio: This was my other must-see performance. I’m sadly deficient in my Fred Hersch listening. It’s not that he slipped under my radar—I’ve been aware of him for some time, but just never really listened to him. But I’ve been doing my best to make up for lost time with his recent release “Solo.” There’s something beautiful and floating about his piano, alone but full. At the festival, though, Hersch was playing with his trio. Frankly, he almost couldn’t be more different than Taborn, except that both are virtuosos who care deeply about the song. Like Taborn, Hersch didn’t disappoint; his hour of music could have lasted many hours more.
Juan Pastor’s Chinchano: Solid Latin jazz. I left after about fifteen minutes to see the Brian Gephart Sextet, though.
Brian Gephart Sextet: Like I said, I had two must-see performances. This wasn’t one, which made it one of my two biggest surprises. The sextet played funky, aggressive postbop, in the best sense of the word. The front line tenor and trombone played off of each other perfectly, and the rhythm section drove the band forward aggressively. They weren’t as experimental as other groups, but they helped my remember why postbop was really my first jazz love. (I was there with my preschooler son, who couldn’t take his eyes off the stage for the first half of their performance, and I totally get why not.)
Ryan Cohen Quartet featuring Joe Locke: After Brian Gephart was the Ryan Cohen Quartet with Joe Locke. Look, I’m a sucker for vibes (Tyler Blanton’s Gotham was one of my favorite albums of 2014), and man can Locke play the vibes. His stage presence was spectacular, but dwarfed by the sheer power of his playing. And he fit in with the piano-led quartet. This is another set of musicians I was unfamiliar with, but will be looking for going forward.
Jason Roebke Octet: A very avant-garde ensemble; when we were there, it was a lot of floating, arrhythmic sounds playing together. I dig that, but my son had been sitting still for a couple hours without a nap, and listening just wasn’t going to work. Which kind of made me sad, because as we were walking away, they snapped into a really funky groove; based on the snippets I heard, I think I would have enjoyed them.
Cyrille Aimée: A French gypsy-jazz singer (kind of, at least); she was born in the same town as Django Reinhardt. Though there was definitely a gypsy jazz vibe (her band had two guitarists, one on acoustic and the other on electric, a bass player, and a drummer), though it was a modernized version.
Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band: The Experimental Band finished this year’s jazz festival. Frankly, I don’t entirely get what they were doing. But that’s a reflection on my ears, not their performance. Because the performance was great. Everybody soloed, but the songs were more about texture and mood. And honestly, I went because I wanted to hear Wadada Leo Smith, whose Great Lakes Suite was another of my favorite albums of 2014. And it was so worth hearing him, and the rest of the experimental band. While I’m not entirely sure of everything they were doing, the music pushed me, and I’m glad I was pushed,