The jazz spinners
We rate the latest offerings from Chicago's best.
Willie PickensJazzspirit Vols. 1 and 2 (Southport)
It’s hard to believe these are only the third and fourth solo discs from Jazz Showcase house pianist Willie Pickens. Pickens hides his complex harmonic turns behind a gentle touch and this accessibility made a fan of none other than Elvin Jones. Jazzspirit, conceived for the Hyde Park Union Church, will give extra pleasure to those who recognize the church melodies (Anglo, Afro and American are all represented) refracted through Pickens’s bop prism. Saxophonist Ari Brown, bassist Larry Gray and drummer Kobie Watkins give the disc a relaxed voice; it’s not until both CDs are done playing that you realize Pickens almost captures the entire breadth of the Christian experience.
Instant Groove (Southport)
Veteran Chicago horn man Bobby Lewis’s eighth CD for Southport puts together such a voracious assemblage of musicians and styles that the two tracks of tacky synthesized strings can be forgiven. Still, Lewis is no amateur, and he leads a crack Chicago band with unshakable authority. Stylistically, there’s little left to ask for: The grandiose melancholy of Henry Mancini, the frenzied interplay of Jelly Roll Morton and the labyrinthine structures of Wayne Shorter all fall under his sway.
Chicago Underground Duo
In Praise of Shadows (Thrill Jockey)
If one member of a duo lives in Brazil (cornetist Rob Mazurek) and the other in Brooklyn (percussionist Chad Taylor), why exactly are we calling them the Chicago Underground Duo? Because aside from the fact that they’re acolytes of the AACM, it’s here where the Duo first met and here where they still record. In fact, much of the credit for this shimmering thesis on jazz texture should go to engineer John McEntire, who masterfully phases in and out instruments like Taylor’s mbira and Mazurek’s noise box to the point where it’s hard distinguishing these distinct sounds from each other. Never ostentatious, Mazurek and Taylor prove you don’t need to live in our city to make music that evokes it.
Timeless CD/DVD (Delmark)
Timeless is a clear and sweet homage to the earth-toned wallpaper, high-ceiling acoustics, and open-minded booking of the now-defunct Velvet Lounge. Recorded last summer with club owner and saxophonist Fred Anderson’s exceptional trio of drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead, it’s also an excellent introduction to nearly 25 years of the AACM’s great black music. Instead of simply reacting to Anderson’s plummeting explorations, percussionist Drake surrounds Anderson in a vortex of pinging ride cymbals and Afro-Cuban grooves. And at 77, Anderson and his legendary stamina allow his solos to build at a deliciously slow pace. FYI: This and the below Delmark releases are available separately as live concert DVDs and include interviews, too.
Deep Blue Organ Trio
Goin’ to Town CD/DVD (Delmark)
Organ trios tend to operate on cruise control. It’s as if, by virtue of a few howling Jimmy Smith quotations, group chemistry and melodic imagination can be glossed over. And it’s why the Deep Blue Organ Trio’s latest, Goin’ to Town, is so refreshing. Recorded live during its weekly gig at the Green Mill, the trio’s interplay has gotten smarter and more succinct since its debut in ’92; guitarist Bobby Broom, in particular, doesn’t even notice the clichés zooming by as he locks into one ferocious soul-jazz groove after another.
Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble
The Messenger CD/DVD (Delmark)
Few have carried the torch of Art Blakey’s sweaty, blues-drenched hard-bop into the new millennium like saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. Also recorded live at the Velvet Lounge last summer, Dawkins and his New Horizons Ensemble, especially the relentless twentysomething drummer Isaiah Spencer, dive into funk and free-jazz like their lives depend on it. Further taking us back, Dawkins’s mid-song monologues contain brutal insights on race in Chicago.