Dawid’s ‘Requiem’ filled with promise
by Aaron Cohen
As Angel Bat Dawid conducted her newly commissioned orchestral “Requiem For Jazz,” on Saturday at the Logan Center Performance Hall, she ended with the declaration, “Everyone on this stage is the promise.” She was referring to the musicians in her ensemble and for their assurance that they will keep the music’s legacy alive. One could say the same thing about the entire Hyde Park Jazz Festival.
Since the festival debuted in 2007, the event has continued to expand while remaining tightly bound to the South Side. More international and locally based jazz stars are featured in a host of indoor venues and outdoor stages across the neighborhood. The range of accomplished artists who performed within an 11-hour span on Saturday represented a diverse cross section of jazz styles and a healthy audience turned out for all of it. No admission charge made these performances open to everyone.
That belief in community engagement became a crucial theme in Dawid’s multimedia work. Her 12-part piece looked back on the 1959 Chicago-based documentary “The Cry Of Jazz” through a historically minded perspective that connected with current themes, including the Black Lives Matter movement. Dawid’s ensemble was as large as the issues she addressed: Along with herself, 18 instrumentalists and vocalists collaborated with two visual artists and a pair of dancers. In both the film and Dawid’s performance, Sun Ra served as a touchstone.
Dawid and her ensemble featured onscreen collages, spoken lines and often surprising musical shifts. Sometimes, violinists directed pianist Charles Joseph Smith’s strong syncopation. Other times, the barefoot dancers carried the rhythms. Melodic motifs that echoed spirituals recurred at key emotional moments. Smith’s expertise in early 20th century stride and ragtime added another historical dimension while reaffirming that the artistic and social connections that Dawid highlights go way back.
While trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire has also included contemporary social issues on such recent albums as “Origami Harvest,” he let his vivid music speak for itself in a riveting set at the Logan Center’s Performance Penthouse later that night. Akinmusire led pianist Kris Davis and drummer Nasheet Waits through an hour of open-ended improvisation. This approach is always challenging, as is this rare trio format. Throughout the performance, an assemblage of contrasts blended with a sense of forward movement that built its own spontaneous structures. Playing softly—almost whispering through the mouthpiece—Akinmusire’s considerable technique came across through subtle gestures. Waits answered these tones through a flourish of mallets on cymbals. Davis then responded through sharply accented repeated chords before lightly plucking the piano strings. In such an intimate room, Akinmusire’s style of saying much without obvious lifts in volume spoke loudly.
Pianist Sylvie Courvoisier sometimes reflected Davis’ approach in her Logan Center performance hall duo with guitarist Mary Halvorson. And for all of Courvoisier’s shifts between dissonant and lyrical chord changes, Halvorson answered with a series of startling, yet low-key, effects. The guitarist—named a MacArthur Fellow three days earlier—demonstrated her consummate writing, particularly on “Absent Across Skies.” The piece’s sliding notes flowed into Courvoisier’s bold tone while also embracing silent passages. A sense of swing, and of fun, tied together the set’s rapidly changing directions.
Karuna, a different kind of duet, performed earlier that afternoon at Augustana Lutheran Church. But the pairing of percussionists Hamid Drake and Adam Rudolph were equally resourceful. Partners for decades, Drake and Rudolph’s quiet dialogue blended the drums’ melodic possibilities with vocal chants and such African instruments as the mbira and guimbri. While Drake kept his kit covered in a cloth (in deference to the high-ceiling room’s acoustics), he delivered sharp punctuation to Rudolph’s congas. Rudolph’s melodica merged with Drake’s chants. As Rudolph mentioned onstage, performing this conversation here had additional personal meaning as he grew up nearby on 56th and Blackstone Avenue.
Following Karuna’s set, guitarist Bill MacKay and cellist Katinka Kleijn combined contemporary classical music and jazz improvisation at Augustana Lutheran. The Chicago musicians also have been ongoing collaborators and recently released the stunning album, “Stir.” Kleijn’s bowed lines mixed with MacKay’s arpeggios balanced ethereal with rocking. Using a glass slide and reverb, MacKay’s fluidity also contrasted with the cellist’s dissonance and percussive strikes.
Throughout Saturday afternoon and evening, different groups of veteran Chicago-based musicians also showed how much diversity thrives within the city’s jazz scene today. Drummer Dana Hall’s quintet, Spring, featured sharp new original compositions at the Wagner Stage on the Midway Plaisance. Hall’s cymbals also directed a lively dialogue between saxophonists Geof Bradfield and John Wojciehowski. Trumpeter Orbert Davis paid tribute to the late pianist Willie Pickens at Hyde Park Union Church, the temple where he held court for many years. During exchanges with alto saxophonist Rajiv Halim, Davis reveled in Pickens’ enduring joyful spirit.
Festival artistic/executive director Kate Dumbleton continued building on the event’s global connections for the Chicago premiere of trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s “Ahwaal,” which he performed on Saturday night at Rockefeller Chapel. ElSaffar, an expert in different strains of Arabic and Persian music, brought his study of Sufism to his new piece, a collaboration with Poland’s Lutosławki Quartet. The performance felt like it was written for this historic venue, especially when ElSaffir’s incantatory vocals and the hammered strings of his santur (dulcimer) combined with bassist Ksawery Wójciński. While themes from Arabic and European chamber music were foundational for this composition, its improvised call-and-response clearly referenced jazz itself.