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Who to See at the Chicago Jazz Festival

Here’s a pocket guide to three acts to catch at the Labor Day weekend event. Bonus: Five minutes with Willie Pickens, the piano legend who will close the fest.

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Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, and Nick Mazzarella

Photography: (Porter) Vincent Soyez; (Glasper) Mike Schreiber; (Mazzarella) Kate joyce
 

Clockwise from left: Gregory Porter, Robert Glasper, and Nick Mazzarella

Last year, the festival seemed doomed. Budget cuts made it feel emaciated; the Grant Park Petrillo Music Shell had lost its luster. Then, in January, Michelle Boone, the city’s cultural commissioner, announced that rather than being a swan song, this year’s fest would move to Millennium Park and span four days.

“It reinforces Chicago’s important history in fostering music,” says Boone of the 35-year-old tradition.

The Labor Day weekend event is also an homage to young jazz innovators like these three, who may help the fest hit its highest note yet.

 

If You Like: Soul-inspired crooner Nat King Cole

Lend an Ear to: Gregory Porter, 41
The burly New York singer has a soulful, honey-soaked baritone that belies his linebacker build (he played the position at San Diego State) and a fervent stage presence that will knock you to the ground. “There are elements of Ella and Sinatra and Nat Cole in his music, but it is thoroughly modern,” says Frank Alkyer, the publisher of DownBeat. He adds that the singer is “poised to do something big”—indeed, Porter releases his Blue Note debut in September.

See him: August 31 at 6 p.m.

 

If You Like: Legendary pianist Herbie Hancock

Lend an Ear to: Robert Glasper, 35
Determined to take jazz to new places, the personable, Texas-bred pianist recently joined the Roots’ drummer Questlove at South Loop club the Shrine for an hour-long improvised jazz-meets-R&B set. With nearly 45,000 Twitter followers, and ongoing projects with Lupe Fiasco and Mos Def, Glasper is one of the few crossover artists successfully bridging the gap between older jazz heads and the younger hip-hop generation.

See him: September 1 at 7:25 p.m.

 

If You Like: Forward-thinking trumpeter Miles Davis

Lend an Ear to: Nick Mazzarella, 29
A leader of Chicago’s jazz avant- garde, the alto saxophonist says he has “always gravitated toward musicians who had a strong grip on tradition but pushed the envelope.” A regular at the Hungry Brain’s Sunday night experimental music series, Mazzarella incarnates the performers he touts. Don’t be fooled by his mild manner: His music is fast-paced, ferocious, and unforgiving.

See him: August 31 at 12:30 p.m.

NEXT: Five Minutes with Willie Pickens »

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