By Dennis Polkow
Columbia College is honoring its first-ever full-time faculty member and the legendary founder of its music department, the late William Russo, with a two-day festival called “Celebrating William Russo: Artist & Educator.”
A Chicago native, Russo’s influence and legacy must be measured in decades and across genres and disciplines. Having studied with pianist Lennie Tristano as a boy, Russo was composing music of his own as a teenager and soon leading jazz bands.
Although Russo joined Stan Kenton’s forty-piece Innovations Orchestra as a trombonist in the early 1950s, he ushered in a pioneering style of orchestral jazz as arranger and composer for that ensemble that remains unparalleled.
Iconic Russo works such as “23 Degrees North, 82 Degrees West” and “Frank Speaking”—both of which will be performed as part of a December 7 concert of Russo’s works at the Jazz Showcase—spotlight Russo’s fascination with cross-fertilizing multiple forms.
“People may not realize how much of a surprising and interesting influence Bill has been on American music,” assesses bluesman Corky Siegel, himself one who loves to bridge musical worlds, and who considers Russo his mentor in doing so. Read the rest of this entry »
It’s that time of year again, when artists of pretty much every genre do everything possible to grab your attention with new recordings of holiday classics. From major stars like Kelly Clarkson to obscure indie bands—everybody wants a piece of the holiday action. Last year, my roundup contained quite a few compilations and original releases, but this time I will keep it short and point out two favorites that came across my desk during this joyous season.
First on the list is Grammy-nominated jazz veteran Nnenna Freelon, whose “Christmas” collection features familiar favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night,” but man, does she swing those tunes, freely improvising around the melodies with the help of the John Brown Big Band, who expertly add their own nuanced grooves. This is not your traditional singer-backed-by-a-big-band disc. In tracks like “Spiritual Medley,” the arrangements are quite subtle, while things get hot with Duke Ellington’s “I Like The Sunrise,” and even “Silent Night,” is subjected to a Gospel treatment. The album closes with a New Orleans take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” that immediately gets your feet tapping. Read the rest of this entry »
Photo: Rikkard Häggbom
By Kenneth Preski
At the forefront of Herculean horn playing stands a sweaty Mats Gustafsson, eternally finishing up his latest saxophone symphony. The prolific Swede performs with enough muscularity to rival Schwarzenegger. He plays with the force of a jet engine, and given his recording schedule, he’s busier than most airports. Just shy of age fifty, this year alone Gustafsson has contributed to fourteen different releases, ranging from playful free jazz collaborations with Chicagoan Ken Vandermark on “Verses,” to noise experiments with Merzbow on “Cuts,” to duo work with Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore on “Vi Är Alla Guds Slavar.” His unceasing care for the craft has yielded two outfits in particular, Fire!, and The Thing, which have both garnered worldwide acclaim.
Fresh off remarkable recordings with experimental stalwarts Jim O’Rourke and Oren Ambarchi, Fire! released two full-length records in 2013—one as a thirty-piece orchestra, and another as a slimmed-down trio—both efforts among the finest free jazz releases this year. An upcoming album from The Thing, appropriately titled “BOOT!” sounds like jazz and punk got into a street fight. It’s a surprising set from a band whose last outing was a collaboration with vocalist Neneh Cherry (yes, that Neneh Cherry, of “Buffalo Stance” fame), a collection of unpredictable avant-garde jazz covers from source material as desperate as The Stooges and Madvillain. The Thing, after all, formed to explore the work of Neneh Cherry’s stepfather, legendary trumpeter Don Cherry, whose methodology was firmly embedded in experimental expression. Read the rest of this entry »
After dabbling with electronic music in collaboration with Karsh Kale on “Breathing Under Water,” and then pursuing flamenco-fusion on her own “Traveller,” sitarist Anoushka Shankar returns to her classical roots with “Traces of You” while still keeping other genres within arm’s reach. The opening track “The Sun Won’t Set,” for instance, is a beautiful ballad recorded in collaboration with her half-sister Norah Jones, and is much closer to Jones’ alt-folk style than to Indian music.
Though much of the disc is dedicated to Indian ragas, some of the tunes venture into completely different directions. “Metamorphosis” brings together traditional and modern sounds, including electronics and electric bass, while the soft, piano-centric ballad “Fathers” has elements of modern jazz. Read the rest of this entry »
The music of Joni Mitchell has been praised by critics throughout the years for its lyrical beauty and musicality, and lately her songs have re-emerged as jazz standards, most notably with Herbie Hancock’s “River: The Joni Letters” (Verve, 2007), the first jazz album to be named “Album of the Year” by the Grammy Awards since “Getz/Gilberto” (Verve, 1965) four decades earlier.
West Coast vocalist Tierney Sutton, already on a run of theme-based albums, decided to do her own take on Mitchell’s music, and for this project she did not work with her longtime band. Instead, she worked with several musicians—most notably Peter Erskine, a drummer featured on many of Mitchell’s discs. Read the rest of this entry »
Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca is one of those talents you cannot put in a specific corner. Sure, his groove has a lot of his Latin roots (especially in the percussive manner in which he plays the keyboards), but he surprises you at every turn, as heard on his 2013 album “Yo” (Concord), where he showcases influences from American jazz and Afro-Cuban polyrhythms, to African music and samba.
For instance, the gentle ballad “Así Es La Vida” is reminiscent of the work of Herbie Hancock, but “Rachel” has elements of electronic music taken up a notch. “Quien Soy Yo” blends a lot of sounds, and even features a cavaquinho (a Brazilian instrument that could be considered a cousin of the ukulele), while elements of African music (with the participation of singer Fatoumata Diawara, Baba Sissoko on n’goni and Sekou Kouyate on kora) are peppered throughout. Read the rest of this entry »
Dee Alexander/Photo: Jim Newberry
High expectations for a festival in the neighborhood where the current President of the United States makes his home is a given. That the festival actually delivers on these expectations is quite remarkable, especially since there are no truly big names scheduled to perform. Instead, the focus is sharply attuned to the local free jazz scene. Perhaps the support of the festival’s lead and founding sponsor, the University of Chicago’s Office of Civic Engagement, had an impact on the amount of research done to cater such an excellent set of Chicago musicians. Now in their seventh year, the festival opens with a panel devoted to the legendary Sun Ra, whose earliest Chicago performances often took place in the now defunct Club DeLisa nestled in the far less affluent, adjacent Washington Park neighborhood. To be sure, the University has done much to market to a broad range of Chicagoans, hence the importance of the inclusion of the DuSable Museum, and Little Black Pearl in Kenwood as venues for performances. Read the rest of this entry »
Sun Ra Orchestra alum Francisco Mora Catlett is a highly talented drummer and composer, and his AfroHorn project is where he explores his creativity, painting a musical canvas that turns listeners into thinkers. Every track brings a surprise, and even after repeated listens sounds still pop up at you unexpectedly. The tunes on “Rare Metal” are permeated with Yoruba chants which not only frame the music but seem to be a source of inspiration for each composition. This should not be considered a simple contemporary jazz disc, as the music is too adventurous to be cleanly labeled. Read the rest of this entry »
In the beginning of his career, saxophonist Harrison was billed as Donald Harrison Jr. out of respect for his well-known father, Donald Harrison Sr., whose stature as Big Chief in New Orleans cannot be overstated. The Mardi Gras Indians to this day foster a tradition centuries old, where slaves would gather on Sundays in Congo Square, the liberal epicenter of African dance and music in a city fraught with violence and death. Contemporary Mardi Gras Indians are known for their elaborate warrior outfits, fitted with feathers and beads of eye-catching beauty, immaculately placed atop a design of intimate political resonance. During parades, the Indians find solace in singing, their chants burst through crowds of tourists during Mardi Gras, their march unmistakable and moving and surprisingly joyful and invigorating. During the off season, Big Chiefs are community leaders, and every so often their roaring voices are beckoned forth by recording artists like Harrison, as evidenced by his vastly underrated 1992 classic “Indian Blues.” Read the rest of this entry »
Taxpaying Chicagoans have grown weary from decades of superfluous government spending, and events like the Chicago Jazz Festival should not be free from the same scrutiny that every other city program faces. The proper justification for the event is to be found in Saturday night’s festivities, with propulsive pianist Jason Moran set to headline the most popular evening of the four. That jazz music is a uniquely American treasure is no longer popular opinion among our country’s youth, but Moran’s performance promises such a wide appeal as to turn even the most strident challengers into active participants. All that’s to say, if you are in attendance this Saturday evening, you should expect to dance. For some, a free dance party is justification enough. The hypnotic ability of music to move its listeners is self-evident. It renders criticism obsolete. But to lay out the legacy of twentieth-century American musicality requires the nuance of a gifted player. Read the rest of this entry »