Friday, September 12, 2014
SONES DE MEXICO AT GRANT PARK
Sones de Mexico specializes in folk music from various regions of Mexico. The group has a core of about eight musicians. In concert there is always something to admire. Their problem has been that sometimes they bite off more than they can chew although this was certainly not the case with their 20th anniversary concert at the Pritzker Pavilion in Grant Park last Wednesday night.
With a cast of 70 ranging from guest musicians to folkloric dancers I was surprised at how smoothly the event went. There were Irish musicians, blues harmonica, jazz combo, classical brass quintet, former members of the ensemble and dancers changing costumes for almost every tune. But it fit together - which was fortunate because they attracted a crowd of 10,000 and at that level of exposure you need to put on a good show.
There was one standout performance. It was a duel between two of the trumpeters, one classical the other jazz. They traded solos but one started off stage. The off stage trumpeter gradually made his way to the stage where the duet continued. It was charming. Some of the acts were better than others but none were cringe-inducing. This variety show format seems to be a good choice for the group at least this time around. Even when performing as a small group Sones de Mexico has a lot of variety with many of the members playing multiple instruments and singing. The problem is that in the smaller core group it is hard to keep up the energy in what are demanding nonstop sets not to mention having to fight bad acoustics and sound systems when they are doing concerts in less than state-of-the art houses. None of this was an issue at the Pritzker Pavilion performance.
The group has announced plans to start a school of Mexican folk music. They have always had an educational outreach component. The tricky part is how to balance performance with education. So far they have used outside musicians to freshen their folk traditions but what will happen to Sones de Mexico as a performing group? I have watched them expand their scope in their concert performances. If their direction is now education will they be able to evolve and innovate musically or will they fall into a loop of greatest hits for fund raisers? I was under the impression they had a relationship with the Old Town School of Music. Will they become dueling institutions chasing shrinking funding?
For now I'll just celebrate their success.
Sunday, September 07, 2014
The Chicago Jazz Festival ended Sunday night with a performance by the Sun Ra Arkestra celebrating his 100th birthday. It was led by the sax player Marshall Allen who has kept the band alive since the demise of Mr. Ra in 1993. Mr. Allen is now 90 but as they say, projects the energy of a man much younger. The band has a lot of older musicians who absolutely breath style. They don't play. They make music. This is not a tidy band suitable for a PBS special hosted by Winton Marsalis. It is not always the cleanest playing but it is exciting. The band can switch from space music free jazz to swing with ease. Most of the older band members are dressed in sequined outfits like you used to see in science fiction movies from the 50's; if the queen of outer space made dashikis. It is visually amusing and I guess helps market the band but doesn't add anything to the music. As with sex, the custom leather cat suit is all very well and good but if you are not in the groove you are not in the groove.
I remember Sun Ra when he played in Chicago in the 70's. It was always a good show. Slightly mad, with dancers. I particularly remember Sun Ra doing a straight ahead solo piano version of Over the Rainbow. As he got to the end little twitters started coming from the band. Soon it became a glowing mass of sound. A wonderful effect. No matter what the music always came first. It still does.
They haven't played here since 1996. Mr. Allen is 90. Do the math.