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2019 Chicago Jazz Festival Preview: Sharel Cassity

By Hrayr Attarian

Not all the best concerts at the 2019 Chicago Jazz Festival are in the evenings at Pritzker Pavilion. There are several superb musicians who will perform at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Harris Theater Rooftop Terrace, and the Von Freeman and the Jazz and Heritage Pavilions.

One such brilliant artist is saxophonist and composer Sharel Cassity, who moved to Chicago from New York City two years ago—a welcome “reverse” migration. Cassity is an energetic and elegant improviser who, in addition to her main instrument the alto saxophone, plays soprano, tenor, and bari saxes, clarinets, and flute. Since moving to Chicago, Cassity has been playing all around town with her trio and her quartet that recently has included drummer Charles Heath and pianist (and husband) Richard Johnson.

Those who have heard Cassity or seen her live know that she possesses a dynamic presence and a unique sound. She introduces delightfully unexpected and clever, spontaneous phrases in her solos. Her tone is warm and soulful, her command of the various woodwinds supreme. She extemporizes with agility and sophistication and writes vibrant pieces that—although solidly jazz based—are infused with other genres and are acutely relevant.

Cassity is also an exceptionally adept bandleader who has fronted combos ranging from trios to the large fusion orchestra, Elektra. As a leader, she allows members of her groups ample opportunity to showcase their individuality and their talent. This is meaningful as she surrounds herself with exceptionally skilled musicians.

Despite the brevity of the allotted time slot, Cassity and her ensemble are guaranteed to thrill and delight. They will make up for the short duration of the concert with their engaging, diverse music, filled with excitement and presented with virtuosity and passion. This 55-minute performance is guaranteed to be one of the festival’s highlights.

Sharel Cassity performs Sunday, September 1, from 12:40 p.m. to 1:35 p.m. at the Von Freeman Pavilion.

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