Howard Reich’s 10 Best Jazz Concerts of 2018
The most memorable jazz performances of 2018:
Amir ElSaffar, Orchestra Hall, Feb. 9. Musical languages intertwined when former Chicago trumpeter and bandleader ElSaffar led his Rivers of Sound Orchestra in its Orchestra Hall debut. For more than a decade, ElSaffar has been studying the music of his Iraqi heritage and imbuing it with jazz syntax. But elements of blues, classical and other idioms also emerged in this concert, as Western and non-Western sounds embraced one another. Yet for all the far-flung instruments on stage, the music proved as texturally transparent as it was harmonically complex, as intricately conceived as it was freely improvised.
“Porgy and Bess,” University of Michigan’s Hill Auditorium, Feb. 17.Performances of George Gershwin’s masterpiece are not rare, but one as complete as this hasn’t happened since the composer penned the piece, in 1935. Because the University of Michigan is creating performance and critical editions of all Gershwin’s scores, it was the first to present a concert reading of “Porgy” with every note Gershwin wrote (the opera had been cut on opening night and ever since). The performance proved revelatory, “Porgy and Bess” standing as a still more detailed and profound work than previously understood.
Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Orchestra Hall, Feb. 23. Two giants of Afro-Cuban pianism shared a stage and showed everyone what brilliant improvisation and collaboration are all about. Though they represented distinct generations, Valdes and Rubalcaba met each other halfway, Valdes’ Art Tatum-like hyper-virtuosity answered by Rubalcaba’s more modern, edgier keyboard wizardry. The marvel was in how these two musicians listened and responded to one another, creating a music that was still greater than the sum of its parts.
Johnny O’Neal, Winter’s Jazz Club, March 31. Fine jazz pianists who sing a little and accomplished singers who play some piano are not hard to find. But musicians who do both at an equally high level, as Nat King Cole once did, represent an endangered species. With this performance, O’Neal proved that he belongs to that elite group, thanks to the majesty of his baritone and the acuity of his pianism.
Willie Pickens tribute, Studebaker Theater, April 18. On the day Pickens — an eminent Chicago pianist — would have turned 87, several top musicians from across the city and the country paid homage to their late mentor, friend and role model. Beautifully organized by Pickens’ daughter, pianist Bethany Pickens, the event featured indelible performances by pianist Stu Katz, saxophonist Donald Harrison, trumpeters Orbert Davis and Marquis Hill and many more. Said pianist Benny Green in a pre-recorded video, “Like every pianist watching this, I play the same instrument as Willie Pickens, but not as well.”
Paul Marinaro and the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Studebaker Theater, May 12.It takes a measure of gumption for a contemporary singer to perform the repertoire of one of Frank Sinatra’s greatest albums, “Sinatra at the Sands.” But that’s what Chicago vocalist Marinaro did, in the company of Jeff Lindberg’s mighty CJO. This wasn’t a mere imitation, however, Marinaro singing the music his way, that luxuriant baritone and singular interpretations making these songs utterly his own.
Dee Dee Bridgewater, Orchestra Hall, June 1. Everyone knows that Bridgewater can sing just about anything persuasively, and she underscored the point in music from her recent album, “Memphis … Yes, I’m Ready.” The songs were all about soul, and Bridgewater offered softly purring lines at some moments, fire and brimstone at others. Though battling an inexcusably over-reverberant sound system, the singer triumphed by virtue of how deeply she dug into this repertoire and how expressively she moved about the stage.
Orbert Davis’ Chicago Jazz Philharmonic, June 14, Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. As our country has become increasingly polarized, Chicago trumpeter Davis dared to suggest an alternative: respect for everyone’s culture and faith. He did so through the world premiere of his “Chicago Immigrant Stories” suite, which proved that Chinese, Indian, West African and all-American jazz can speak the same language, when musicians are so inclined. For those who somehow missed Davis’ message, Chicago cultural commissioner Mark Kelly spelled it out. “How timely that is,” he told the crowd, “as literally, at our border, children are being separated from their parents.”
Tony Bennett, Ravinia Festival, Sept. 8. Hard to believe, but at 92 Bennett maintained the exalted standards that listeners have come to expect from him. He painted dark tones in “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” made a prayer of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude,” explored the ache of love in “But Beautiful” and conveyed innocence and wonder in “The Way You Look Tonight.” It was an extraordinary feat and a testament to Bennett’s apparently ageless art.
Ahmad Jamal, Oct. 12, Orchestra Hall. Like Bennett, pianist Jamal seems to defy the passage of time. His performance in the city that launched his international career was as melodically buoyant and rhythmically volatile as his work on his breakthrough album, “Ahmad Jamal at the Pershing: But Not for Me.” Sixty years had passed since Jamal released that recording, but he somehow has maintained the fire of youth, while gathering the wisdom of the ages.