The Reader’s Jazz Festival jukebox

Like any music fest, the Chicago Jazz Festival is basically a Choose Your Own Adventure that you listen to. It’s even more multifarious than most—not only does it take over Millennium Park for four days, it also books events at the Cultural Center and Maxwell Street Market and a series of neighborhood concerts (copresented with local promoters) that begins the week before.

There’s no best way through the fest, of course. My recommendation? Hit the homegrown acts. I’ve put together a sort of Jazz Festival jukebox featuring six records that dropped (or will drop) in 2022, all by Chicago-based artists appearing at the fest. My selections are hardly exhaustive, but they still convey the breadth and variety of this year’s bookings. Think of this as an appetizer for the ears.

Chicago Jazz FestivalThu 9/1, 11 AM-9 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, and Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; Fri 9/2-Sat 9/3, 11:30 AM-9 PM, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; Sun 9/4, 11 AM-9 PM, Maxwell Street Market, 800 S. Desplaines, and Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph; free, all ages

In order of festival appearance: 

Mike Allemana Credit: Thomas Mohr

Mike Allemana, Vonology (Ears & Eyes)

It’s a tall order to sum up Von Freeman: a once-in-a-generation tenor saxophone talent, a mentor to countless musicians, a paradigm of Chicago-over-everything obstinacy. (He famously turned down an invitation to join Miles Davis’s band so he could stay in his hometown.) But guitarist Mike Allemana, who played with Freeman for nearly 15 years in his final quartet, is the right guy to give it a shot.

Allemana’s album-length suite Vonology goes beyond mere tribute, instead aiming to evoke something more essential about the late saxophonist. The music is influenced by Freeman’s abiding interest in astrology, and Allemana went so far as to analyze Freeman’s birth chart and assign musical modes to its elements. The way Freeman embodied his own sun sign inspired two movements: “The Mediator” derives its melodies and its lopsided groove from Allemana’s interpretation of Von’s chart, and “Libra Channeling” features a brambly and expansive tenor saxophone solo by Geof Bradfield. The piece closes as it opens, with a sunburst-like chorus of vocalists from Allemana’s Come Sunday gospel project. This August 11 was the tenth anniversary of Freeman’s death, but Vonology declares that his spirit has gone nowhere.

Mike Allemana and his ensemble perform Vonology on Thu 9/1 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion.

The five tracks on Vonology feature a total of 16 musicians.

Roya Naldi Credit: Tyler Core

Roya Naldi, This Madness (Rivermont)

The term “historically informed performance” (HIP for short) usually refers to Western classical musicians adopting defunct performance practices or instrumentation, determined by consulting primary sources. But why restrict it to that genre? Roya Naldi sings century-old jazz with the directness and sparing vibrato of a 1920s chanteuse—she and her band sound like an old 78 with the static cleaned up. The arrangements on Naldi’s new EP, This Madness, belong in a cramped speakeasy, not a large dance hall—her pocket-size acoustic ensemble has a muted, velvety sound, with a delightfully tinny upright piano and wide-wobbling winds. That “ensemble” is really just two members of the Chicago Cellar Boys, the swing-era specialists in residence at the Green Mill on Tuesdays: banjoist Jimmy Barrett and multi-instrumentalist Andy Schumm, who covers piano, tenor sax, clarinet, and cornet. 

This Madness is a postscript to Naldi’s full-length debut, A Night in June (2020). Its four songs represent a delectable slice of her repertoire, including the foxtrotting “He’s the Hottest Man in Town” and the ballad “You Call It Madness (But I Call It Love),” first recorded in 1931 by its co-composer, baritone Russ Columbo. Naldi’s delivery on the latter sometimes out-suaves Columbo’s in its apparent effortlessness, more a nonchalant shrug than a wink. 

Roya Naldi performs Fri 9/2 at noon on the Harris Theater rooftop (entrance at 205 E. Randolph). 

This Madness includes four of Roya Naldi’s favorite songs from the jazz age.The LowDown Brass Band Credit: Alan Maniacek

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LowDown Brass Band, LowDown Nights (self-released)

As a brass band with a genre-defying spin, LowDown are a close cousin of the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen brass bands from New Orleans. The distinctive second-line sound seeps into LowDown too, but in combination with local referents. LowDown’s sound calls back to the muscular horn sections of Earth, Wind & Fire and Chicago, and their ebullient stylings—not least the smoothly delivered bars of MC and front man Anthony “Billa Camp” Evora—evoke hip-hop projects such as the Social Experiment and Sidewalk Chalk. To quote the liner notes to LowDown’s self-titled 2008 debut, “It’s the New Orleans hump with a Chi-town bump.”

LowDown Nights is one of two albums the band recorded during the pandemic shutdown, along with last year’s The Reel Sessions, and it’s fast-paced, high-energy fun from start to finish. That’s good news for fans who wear their dancing shoes to the Chicago Jazz Festival, since LowDown’s set will likely have something for everyone. The bilingual “Ranura de la Noche” rides on tango rhythms, “Be the One Tonight” announces itself with a groove reminiscent of early house music, and “We Dem Boys” is thick, syncopated funk held down by Lance Loiselle’s sousaphone. 

The LowDown Brass Band perform Fri 9/2 at 3 PM on the Harris Theater rooftop (entrance at 205 E. Randolph). 

More than half the tracks on LowDown Nights use remote recordings made during the pandemic.

Ethan Philion onstage at the Green Mill with members of his Mingus tribute project Credit: Isabel Firpo

Ethan Philion, Meditations on Mingus (Sunnyside) 

Charles Mingus would’ve turned 100 this year, and tributes are pouring in around the globe. Chicago bassist Ethan Philion homes in on Mingus’s compositional legacy, focusing on material where Mingus spoke truth to power and confronted injustice. To execute his arrangements, Philion enlists a star-powered ten-piece that includes drummer Dana Hall, trumpeter Victor Garcia, pianist Alexis Lombre, and saxophonist Geof Bradfield. (Garcia and Bradfield also appear on Mike Allemana’s Vonology.) 

For the most part, Philion faithfully follows each work’s blueprint, building it up with muscular vamps, lush textures, and virtuosic soloing from his large-format band. He also leans into Mingus’s offbeat grit, which is plentiful in the mercurial “Once Upon a Time There Was a Holding Corporation Called Old America” and an increasingly frenetic version of “Meditations for a Pair of Wirecutters.” (The latter tune, the first of the set that Philion arranged, gave the project its name.) Mingus composed “Prayer for Passive Resistance” as a showcase for an alto saxophonist, and it assumes the same role in Philion’s version—Rajiv Halim stumps energetically throughout the track. 

Meditations on Mingus perform Philion’s arrangements on Fri 9/2 at 4:15 PM at Pritzker Pavilion.

Mingus wrote the first piece in this collection in response to inhumane imprisonment in the south.

Christy Bennett’s Fumée Credit: Sandy Babusci

Fumée, Good Morning Heartache: The Music of Irene Higginbotham (self-released)

Irene Higginbotham (1918–1988) could keep up with Tin Pan Alley’s most prolific songwriters, and her tunes were performed and popularized by the likes of Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Nat King Cole. Her most famous song is “Good Morning Heartache,” one of several she composed for Billie Holiday. Holiday first recorded it in 1946, and it roared belatedly onto the charts after Diana Ross portrayed her in the 1972 film Lady Sings the Blues.

Higginbotham advocated extensively for the intellectual property rights of Black songwriters. However, despite many high-profile recordings of her songs, she posthumously fell victim to the broken system she organized against. To work around restrictive agreements with publishers and performing-rights agencies, Higginbotham published material under many names (most commonly “Glenn Gibson,” which sounded not just male but also white). This had the tragic side effect of relegating her to the margins of jazz history. 

Fumée bandleader and vocalist Christy Bennett searched the archives at the Library of Congress, whose copyright records document Higginbotham’s song submissions, and at Brigham Young University, which somehow ended up with a trove of her work. Due in October, Fumée’s Good Morning Heartache: The Music of Irene Higginbothammight be the first album-length tribute to the songwriter. It renders her work with Fumée’s distinctive instrumentation, drumless and inflected with Eastern European sounds: though the group’s personnel varies, mandolin (Don Stiernberg), accordion (Don Stille), and bass (Christian Dillingham or Ethan Philion) hold down the rhythms onstage and on the album.

Fumée performs Sat 9/3 at 11:30 AM at the Von Freeman Pavilion (North Promenade).

Nothing from Good Morning Heartache is streaming yet, but Fumée have been playing some of its material for years.Gustavo Cortiñas (center) with the band on his new album: from left, Emily Kuhn, Katie Ernst, Meghan Stagl, and Erik Skov Credit: Courtesy the artists

Gustavo Cortiñas, Kind Regards/Saludos Afectuosos (Desafío Candente) 

For a few fleeting minutes in 2019, children on opposite sides of the U.S.-Mexico border shared seesaws. Bubblegum pink and slim enough to fit through the slots in the border fence separating El Paso and Juárez, they were designed by two California professors who later won an award for their design.

That moment is captured, not without some cynicism, in the illustration on the cover of Kind Regards/Saludos Afectuosos, which drummer Gustavo Cortiñas releases this week as a follow-up to last year’s Desafío Candente. The latter is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime achievement that an artist often needs years to complete, then years to recover from—it’s as lush as an untroubled forest yet just as searing as its inspiration, Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 anti-imperialist book Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

Miraculously, Saludos Afectuosos manages to be just as staggering. Cortiñas tries his hand at songwriting (in both English and Spanish) and proves himself just as savvy a lyricist as a composer. It helps that he has a secret weapon in Meghan Stagl, doing double duty on piano and bilingual vocals and sounding weightless on both. “You rode the beast and migrated north,” she sings over desolate synths in “Emigraste”; that image, with everything it implies, is still darkening the air when the band picks up with a buoyant 6/8 groove. This technique is more or less a constant on Saludos Afectuosos: the tension between gutting lyrics and breezy delivery. It feels true to our twisted reality, just like those garish pink seesaws.

Gustavo Cortiñas celebrates the release of Kind Regards/Saludos Afectuosos on Sun 9/4 at 1:30 PM on the Harris Theater rooftop (entrance at 205 E. Randolph).

The Bandcamp page for the new Gustavo Cortiñas album says that it “gives life through music to words that attempt to build bridges and understanding in times of borders and ignorance.”

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