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CDs galore! Jazz artists celebrate new music in Chicago

Nicole Mitchell leads her new band, Ice Crystal, in a CD-release show Friday.
Nicole Mitchell leads her new band, Ice Crystal, in a CD-release show Friday.
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The conventional wisdom holds that compact discs are quickly becoming a thing of the past, along with the very concept of an album (or any album-length collection of music, in whatever digital form it appears).

And yet no one seems to have impressed this on the folks who play jazz: this week in Chicago features no less than five artists celebrating the release of new albums in club bookings designed for that express purpose – with another five scheduled for the first weeks of June.

First up, tenor saxist Russ Nolan arrives at the Jazz Showcase (806 S. Plymouth) Wednesday night to mark his most recent album, “Tell Me” (on his own Rhinoceruss label). It came out in September 2012, which technically makes Nolan the ringer this week; it’s difficult to justify the description “record release” some eight or nine months after the record’s actual release.

But Nolan grew up in exurban Gurnee, then worked in Chicago after college before moving to New York in 2001. And since he rarely gets to play back in his old stomping grounds, this show (his first in several years) counts as his Chicago CD-release celebration.

“Tell Me” provides a spiffy update on the 45-year-old Nolan’s development, and also conveys his musical travels, in the same way a geographical dialect can be broken down to reveal its various influences. His deep-dish tone and meaty phrasing convey his roots in the Chicago tenor style. His flexible and fluent technique reflects his college years in the famed North Texas State jazz program, Meanwhile, the album’s general spit-and-polish marks his time in New York, where the pace of the city and of the jazz scene have burned away any fat in his style.

The album features a skilled rhythm section of lesser-known players; for good measure, Nolan’s pal Zach Brock (the Northwestern-trained violin maven, whom Nolan met in the 90s, here in Chicago) joins in as a guest on two tracks. In Chicago, he’ll work with a top-drawer trio (led by pianist Jim Trompeter) that will have no trouble re-creating any of the album’s moods.

Another Chicago émigré, the multiple award-winning flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell, returns to her former home town this Friday: among the most Chicago accomplished artists of the last quarter-century, and surely among the most rewarding performers, Mitchell’s relocation to California in 2011 left a deep hole in the city’s artistic landscape. Like Nolan, she also features a guest star on her latest disc, “Aquarius,” (Delmark Records), as well as in the band that makes its debut on that recording.

But in this case, the guest – Jason Adasiewicz, whose myriad collaborations have made him the most talked-about vibraphonist in jazz over the last year and a half – doesn’t drop by for just a couple tunes. Instead, he forms an integral front-line alloy with Mitchell, one in which the flute’s silvery shadow and the vibraphone’s steely chill give the group its name: Ice Crystal.

Separately, these two artists have created much of the most memorable music to come out of Chicago in the last decade, whether under their own names or as key components of bands led by others – a couple of which, under the direction of cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Mike Reed, have showcased them both. (Several writers have compared their combination of flute and vibes to Eric Dolphy’s mid-60s quintet with the young Bobby Hutcherson on vibes. Yet that band made exactly one record, and featured Dolphy’s flute on only one tune – an oddly small basis for comparison.)

For his part, Adasiewicz explores a side of his playing that will surprise many listeners, including his ardent fans. The vibist has taken the new-music scene by storm with his relentlessly percussive attack: in groups like his own Sun Rooms and Rolldown, and in others led by reedists James Falzone and Ken Vandermark, virtually no one plays the instrument harder or with more naked fury than Adasiewicz. But in Ice Crystal, he makes room for a softer approach – with a rounder sound, and a more legato attack – of the sort that more typically has characterized the instrument over the last half-century.

That’s not to say that Adasiewicz skimps on the hard stuff that has gained him such a strong following among musicians as well as listeners: brusque, blunt chords; ferocious explosions up and down the instrument, contrasted with a spare, ringing lyricism. It does say that here, he features something else as well. His playing on “Aquarius” fits snugly with Mitchell’s mature and wondrously varied style, which itself makes use of a fierce, vibrant technique far removed from the stereotypically smooth contours of “flute jazz.”

It’s a winning combination. And the additional support of bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Frank Rosaly – on ten new Mitchell compositions, particularly the iridescent “Today, Today” and an irrepressible tune called “Adaptability” – vaults the album squarely into Top Ten consideration for 20-13.

Nicole Mitchell celebrates the release of “Aquarius” Friday night, with the band heard on in three shows starting at 9 PM, at the Green Mill, Broadway at Lawrence.

COMING THURSDAY: The weekend’s remaining CD-release shows.


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