Jazz Fest 2012 | Steve Coleman, Allen Toussaint | Photos and review
Audible gusts of wind occasionally rumbled microphones during Allen Toussaint’s closing set Sunday, threatening to muddle an otherwise pristine conclusion to the 34th annual Jazz Fest. Fortunately, despite the weather forecasts that likely stunted overall attendance this year, rain never struck. Instead, the festival’s closing acts delivered thoroughly enjoyable sets that managed to overcome the sonic challenges of the Petrillo Music Shell.
The venue's sound system did not buckle under the intricate counterpoint of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements, as it did at times for the wry mélange of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra—that group’s raucous, globe-trotting ensemble pieces and avant-garde explorations alike became muddy in the band shell’s unforgiving acoustics. The New Jungle Orchestra’s rhythmically vibrant conceptual zigzags deserved more clarity than the outdoor venue could muster.
But Chicago-native Steve Coleman’s quartet suffered none of those pitfalls. The saxophonist played the Pritzker Pavilion last year in a tribute to his mentor, Von Freeman, who passed away last month. Coleman’s visionary sound, forged over a 40-year career, is a tribute to the jazz legend’s own uncompromising personality.
Their music was a bazaar of ideas. Coleman and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson coaxed bright, interlocking phrases out of fertile ground seeded by bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Five Elements are skilled conversationalists, practicing a musical language that is constantly evolving. Coleman’s intellectual acuity and commitment to conceptual growth might make him sound overly calculated if his music weren’t also steeped in emotional immediacy and far-flung cultural perspectives.
At times the bandleader drove from the passenger seat, gesturing against the rhythmic or melodic flow of the group. Elsewhere he rested his reed for some staccato scat singing, which the rhythm section smartly charged through with a whirling, oddly phrased groove. The quartet’s complex group improvisations merged seamlessly into composed passages, their set a sprawl of many moods and textures without a wasted moment.
Into the air cleared by Five Elements stepped New Orleans royalty Allen Toussaint. The singer-songwriter-pianist dipped into his widely circulated funk and R&B songbook, but mostly stuck to his stated intention of closing Jazz Fest with jazz. After a funky warm-up vamp and the 1974 composition “Sneakin’ Sally Through the Alley,” Toussaint welcomed the rest of the group. Guitarist Marc Ribot and reedist Don Byron joined Roland Guerrin (bass) and Herman LeBeaux (drums) onstage for Thelonious Monk’s “Bright Mississippi,” for which Toussaint’s 2007 Grammy-winning album and this ensemble are titled.
Known for their aggressive experimentation, Byron and Ribot nonetheless appeared at home in the roots jazz of Toussaint’s native New Orleans. Toussaint played duets with each of his guests. Byron unfurled sparkling phrases throughout, shining especially on clarinet during the eerie “St. James Infirmary,” while the spotlight drifted to Ribot for a crystalline rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Solitude.”
The affable and unassuming Toussaint had time to stretch out as well, interspersing jazz and funk standards with ragtime riffs, snippets from classical sonatas and his signature bluesy tremolos. Ribot’s delta blues intensity and plucky acoustic postmodernism evoked Duck Baker during solos, but the guitarist’s soldierly rhythmic strumming deferred to Toussaint when appropriate. Likewise, Byron’s soaring phrases on tenor sax and clarinet had him literally swinging on stage, but so did Toussaint’s spotless piano playing and warm vocal work.
It wasn’t hard to see why Byron swayed and snapped his fingers to the pianist’s refined playing. Toussaint’s virtuosity appeared so effortless it was almost taken for granted. He embodied a rich and timeless sound whose tradition exceeds nostalgia—a high-note for heritage spiked with progressive experimentation, and a graceful finish to the festival.