Chicago Jazz Festival
Once again, Labor Day has come and gone. Here in Chicago, the jazz festival and Labor Day weekend have a decades-long connection. Labor Day is a holiday when we supposedly celebrate labor while in fact most of us ruefully acknowledge the end of summer; the jazz festival is an equally strange match of theory and reality. People come out to enjoy some of the last warm nights of the year, while improvisers take the assignment of providing a soundtrack for that experience, even if some of them offer music too complex for the job.
I havent always made it to the jazz festival. However, this year Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman were both appearing. To pass up the chance to see either of them for free would have been silly.
During Rollinss set, it struck me that going to see him in the last twenty years is like going to see Bob Dylan. Both have been loyal to a foundational, unflashy bassist (Bob Cranshaw in Rollinss case, Tony Garnier in Dylans) and their motives for picking the rest of their band often confound the rest of us. Both have believers who insist that any night of their music has the potential to be momentous, while many others think their important is long past. The difference is that Dylans key updates since 1997 have come when he has dumped his notebooks into an hour-plus CD once every five years or so. Rollins opens his notebook in front of the audience each time.
In Chicago, Rollinss notebook gained few new entries worth noting. The opener, Sonny Please, hit some sparks, although it may be partly because Rollins found a vamp provocative enough that sparks are guaranteed. As on his latest CD, that led to Someday Ill Find You. On disc, that song came with a long, willful episode of Sonny trading fours with his drummer. Live, this was even longer and even more willful, and the show drifted away at this point. Then, one song later, my wife and I left so we could be home in time to hear Barack Obamas acceptance speech.
The next day, a veteran Rollins watcher on an e-mail list I read wrote that the show was a total flop. Meanwhile, the newspaper critic wrote that Rollins was regal, although the show was less galvanic than his past work. As with Dylan, it is often the case these days with Rollins that one mans total flop is another mans regal but not galvanic.
Three days later, I went back downtown to hear Coleman. Ornette could simply recite his pet phrases, and it would be more regal than most musicians best night. Unfortunately, not much more than this happened on that Sunday.
Ornettes 1959 breakthrough would not have happened without the counterpoint bassist Charlie Haden was able to create, second by second, under Ornettes solos. With almost 50 years gone, there was inevitably some evidence that time had caught up with Ornette when I saw him. The key problem, though, was that the counterpoint was less strong. Electric bassist Al MacDowell sounded as if he knew Ornettes playing too well, and his replies and underpinnings were too obvious and leading. A couple times I saw Coleman glance towards MacDowell, and I couldnt help wondering whether these were approving glances. Acoustic bassist Tony Falanga seemed to fill Hadens role more capably, but it was hard to hear him. Drummer Denardo Coleman, Ornettes son, was sometimes startling when he accompanied his father in 1966 at age 10; on Labor Day 2008 he was just there.
Neither set ranks with these artists best work. Still, it was a chance to hear two of the best living improvisers for free, and to observe many other Chicagoans sharing the experience. When Rollins and Coleman are gone, will there be more artists regal enough to help us celebrate labor and mourn the end of summer?