The Best Jazz Concerts of 2012

By Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

2012 was a characteristically plentiful year in jazz performance, Chicagoans hearing a tremendous range of music.

The best concerts, in chronological order:

March 1: Tammy McCann at the Jazz Showcase. The majestic Chicago singer designed her four-night run as a tribute to the late tenor-saxophone giant Von Freeman. An exalted goal, to be sure, but McCann fulfilled it, partnering with a different tenorist every evening. On opening night, she duetted poetically with Chicago tenor man Ari Brown, bringing languorous phrasing to “’S Wonderful,” luxuriant tone to Arthur Hamilton’s “Strayhorn” and a seeming inexhaustible array of colors to ballads, blues and bebop. When McCann unreeled her original lyrics to Sonny Rollins’ “Pent-Up House,” there was no doubt she stands among the most creative and accomplished vocalists in jazz today.

March 9: Nicholas Payton at Symphony Center. Music lovers already know that New Orleans trumpeter Payton commands an outsized tone and technique, but the range of his gifts became more apparent during this performance with his whimsically titled Television Studio Orchestra. Payton’s periodically active big band, after all, works in no television studio, but it draws inspiration from the versatility of the vintage Hollywood ensembles that accompanied everything from period epics to contemporary series. Better still, Payton’s scores and arrangements addressed practically the entire sweep of Western art music, from arialike melodies evoking George Frideric Handel to trancelike accompaniments that served as backdrop for Payton’s sometimes whirring, sometimes slithery solos. No one is going to call Payton’s vocals impressive (or even above average), but the daring of this venture, as well as the breadth of Payton’s musical thought, reaffirmed his stature as both jazz visionary and top-flight writer.

April 7: Arturo Sandoval at Pick-Staiger Concert Hall. The trumpet super-virtuoso can dazzle audiences and also can become overbearing. But in the company of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra, Sandoval played one of the most inspired concerts he has given Chicago. During Sandoval’s portion of the program, CJO artistic director Jeff Lindberg mostly (and graciously) stepped aside, allowing Sandoval to transform the evening and the sound of the CJO itself. All at once, the band became an Afro-Cuban powerhouse, fundamentally recalibrating its approach to color, phrase and rhythm. At last, Sandoval — a larger-than-life presence — had met his match: a sumptuous, well-trained big band that gave him precisely the full-bodied accompaniment he deserves.

May 13: Rembrandt Chamber Players at Nichols Concert Hall. This apparently fearless organization dared to take on both Wynton Marsalis’ “A Fiddler’s Tale” and the work that inspired it, Stravinsky’s “L’Histoire du Soldat” (“The Soldier’s Tale”). Rare is the ensemble that can finesse both the blues-inflected lines of Marsalis’ score and the brittle, neo-classical flavor of Stravinsky’s. The Rembrandt Chamber Players, augmented by musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, sounded compelling in both works, CSO violinist Yuan-Qing Yu shattering barriers that typically separate jazz and classical idioms. If actor Barbara Robertson sounded tentative during portions of the Stravinsky, humorist Aaron Freeman gave a full-blooded account of Stanley Crouch’s text to Marsalis’ opus. A rare, stylistically free-ranging double-bill.

May 24: Gerald Clayton at the Jazz Showcase. Fresh voices on any instrument don’t emerge very often, which made pianist Clayton’s appearance at the Showcase a signal event. Ignoring the usual orthodoxies of modern-day jazz pianism, Clayton offered an evening’s worth of daring original compositions and oft-bizarre but intriguing arrangements of standards — or, as he fittingly called them, “derangements.” If you didn’t know better, you might have sworn that several different pianists were responsible for the jagged lines and austere textures Clayton produced in his “Trapped in a Dream,” the fragile sound and cerebral musings he conjured in his “Sunny Day Go” and the layers of themes and counter-themes he wove into “If I Were a Bell.” Leading a trio, Clayton — the son of bassist-bandleader John Clayton — produced some of the most provocative mainstream pianism of the year.