Jazz music, when done right, is free flowing, adventurous, and has no boundaries. This experimental side of the genre was on full display Friday night at the Chicago Symphony Center.
The night started out with the Steve Wilson / Lewis Nash Duo. It was just two men, Nash on drums and Wilson playing the saxophone, but it sounded like a 100-piece symphony. The sound that these two produced was enormous. Both men are masters of their instruments, with massively impressive resumes, but Lewis Nash on drums stood out. He is not a typical drummer: most drummers keep the time and allow the rest of the band to be in the spotlight. Nash not only played the rhythms, but expanded the concept of how the audience saw the drums. His free style added textures and flourishes that almost seemed to be playing notes of the melody instead of just the rhythm. Which meant that Nash’s playing wasn’t in the background, it was the focus of the set. Watching him play the drums was mesmerizing.
After that was another genre-expanding set by Nicholas Payton and his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape. Payton, 43 years old, grew up with New Orleans jazz in his blood, but was also influenced by many other forms of music.
With the Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, you hear elements of jazz, be-bop, swing, soul, funk and hip-hop. The project explores how Africans were brought to this part of the world and how the music they brought with them blended into the culture and connected with all people.
The first thing the audience noticed on Friday night was the instruments of the band. Like a typical jazz show, you had drums, bass, piano, trumpet and congas. But unlike most jazz shows, there were also turntables with a DJ (DJ Lady Fingaz) more reminiscent of a hip-hop show. DJ Lady Fingaz was there to add record scratches, extra beats and recorded words; all of which blended into the music seamlessly and added a unique atmosphere to the night.
Nicholas Payton, played both the trumpet and the piano/organ. Impressively, he sometimes played both instruments at the same time, as though he had more than two hands. Given that the project was called a “Mixtape” it makes sense that the music they played ranged from jazz ballads, to Caribbean swing, to Stevie Wonder-esque funk.
On the Caribbean influenced song, “El Guajiro”, the band really went full throttle. At times, each player seemed to be playing distinct songs, but all in unison. Which is the very definition of Jazz. On the funky “Junie’s Boogie” you could really feel all the band members having a blast by getting down. Throughout the entire set there was a contemporary, loungy, cool-vibe happening. This felt like the future of jazz, but still rooted in the deep history of the genre.
Jazz music has been always changing, never settled for conventions, with the goal of breaking through musical barriers. Friday night was a great showcase of this. Whether it be the innovative style of drumming by Lewis Nash, or the mixing of genres and inclusion of more contemporary instruments by Nicholas Payton, there was an air of experimentation and adventure to the performances. The night at the Chicago Symphony Center pushed Jazz forward.
Photos provided by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra