New format, Elling and Freeman get 7-night fest off to a hot start

Bigger, brawnier and brainier than it has been in more than a decade, the Chicago Jazz Festival roared back into action on Monday-launching a seven-night run not seen since the 1980s.
Though shrinking coffers forced the city to scale back the event during the 1990s, a new generation of Chicago arts impresarios and civic programmers recently decided not to sit back and watch a once-beloved event wither away. So they joined forces, found money outside the usual sources and worked to restore a formerly magnificent festival to its stature of old.

Whether they’ve succeeded won’t be known until the end of the week, but if the rest of the fest proves as exuberant, dynamic and artistically free-wheeling as Monday night’s opener, happy days may be here again-at least as far as jazz listeners are concerned.

With vocalist Kurt Elling and tenor saxophonist Von Freeman fronting Jeff Lindberg’s mighty Chicago Jazz Orchestra, the new Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park swung as it never has before (since this was the first full-fledged jazz concert in the Frank Gehry-designed band shell).

The sheer marquee value of two esteemed Chicago soloists helped explain the evening’s huge turnout, but Elling and Freeman gave listeners more than they bargained for, even if admission was free. By mixing classic pop tunes and ballads with hard-hitting, iconoclastic fare, Elling, Freeman and the CJO proved that Chicago jazz audiences gladly will venture into the unknown-when led there by charismatic, technically brilliant performers.

By far the most thrilling moments of the evening came when Elling and Freeman ripped through the “Resolution” movement of John Coltrane’s classic suite, “A Love Supreme.” Though Elling has recorded the piece-using his own, characteristically incisive lyrics-he has not yet performed Bob Mintzer’s muscular orchestral version in Chicago. Add to the mix Freeman’s oft-excoriating tenor sax-his tone cutting through the orchestral fabric-and listeners heard an incendiary statement worthy of the hallowed Coltrane album itself.

As robustly expressive as Elling’s vocals were-his screams, shouts and other outbursts counterbalanced by remarkably dexterous, tautly controlled passages-Freeman sounded still more explosive. Lesser tenor saxophonists might have wilted at the prospect of stepping into Coltrane’s most celebrated repertoire, but the great Vonski unleashed gales of sound in distinctly autobiographical style. Fiendishly fast runs, aggressively attacked offbeats, pitches that defied the strictures of the traditional Western scale, sounds so raw and raucous as to extend the sonic possibilities of the tenor saxophone-Freeman left very little unsaid.

Not every Freeman and Elling duet, however, was about fire and fury. In the ballad “More Than You Know,” Freeman answered Elling’s exquisitely silken phrases with the duskiest, huskiest tenor tone this side of 1930s Ben Webster. And in “Nature Boy,” the two soloists turned one of Nat “King” Cole’s signature songs inside out, Freeman’s outrageously bent pitches and crying, sighing phrases provoking Elling’s phenomenally speedy scat singing and giddy falsetto hollers.

Earlier in the evening, Elling and the CJO revisited the Frank Sinatra homage they played last June at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, but this time Elling-to his credit-sounded less like Sinatra and more like Elling. By inventing lyrics as he went along, changing pitches to suit his fancy and generally swinging more freely on uptempo numbers and ballads alike, Elling liberated himself from Sinatra’s immortal versions of “Come Fly With Me,” “Please Be Kind” and “The Lady is a Tramp,” no small feat.

This indelible night would not have been imaginable under the old, tired formula of the Chicago Jazz Festival, which confined mainstage performances to the acoustically challenged Petrillo Music Shell and often crammed too many attractions onto a single evening’s bill.

A new era has begun, somewhat overdue but welcome nonetheless.