Here at the end of the wettest spring Chicago has seen in years, we may need to rewrite the old saw about April showers. Whatever the impact on May flowers, the rains have already brought a bumper crop of jazz piano to the city on this final April weekend.
Chronologically, the last shall be first: Craig Taborn plays the new club Constellation (3111 N. Western) on Sunday night. Taborn would lead the pack simply by virtue of exclusivity: he almost never plays Chicago – despite having cut his teeth and forged his career not far up the road (in Detroit) – and the rarity of his local gigs gives this booking an extra burnish.
That aside, the 43-year-old Taborn would earn the headline on merit alone. A spiky individualist, he first appeared on disc in bands led by multi-reedist James Carter and then saxophone avatar Roscoe Mitchell – two of the most demanding contexts I can imagine for a young improviser (though for radically different reasons: the music on Mitchell’s "Nine To Get Ready" offers relatively little traditional structure, while Carter’s unchecked technique can suck the air out of a studio).
After moving to New York from his native Minneapolis, Taborn’s reputation quickly grew through his work with such diverse top experimenters as saxist Tim Berne, violinist Matt Maneri, and bassist William Parker. His music grew just as quickly; when you look back on the last 15 years or so, his stylistic maturation resembles one of those time-lapse nature videos in which an entire season’s plant cycle occurs in seconds.
His brand-new "Chants" (ECM), released this week, weaves the various fibers of Taborn’s art into a fabulous landscape that references 19th-century classical music, 21st-century post-freedom jazz, and much of what lies between. He is rapidly becoming a portmanteau pianist for his time: a musician whose playing contains hallmarks of every style that has led up to it, but constricted by none of them.
For example, the album opener “Saints” has a clockwork intensity first heard in Keith Jarrett’s recordings, but soon spins off into more open-ended passages that rely on the timbral impact of scalar runs as much as the notes themselves. “Hot Blood” steams along on drummer Gerald Cleaver’s off-kilter accents, not all that far removed from Duke Ellington's "Money Jungle" – a marvel of barely resolved tension that proves unexpectedly satisfying. Opposite that, the spare and haunted “Silver Ghosts” hangs in the air with a delicate balance that recalls Paul Bley or Chick Corea’s more mysterious forays, with Cleaver and bassist Thomas Morgan supplying the motive force.
But guided by an aesthetic intelligence that avoids direct comparisons with individual players, Taborn sounds like no one else in particular – even as his music evinces lessons learned from many of his immediate predecessors. That makes "Chants" an especially fulfilling auditory experience.
Taborn brings his trio (Morgan and Cleaver) to Constellation on Sunday night for an 8:30 show.
On the subject of individualists, Bill Carrothers plays this weekend (Friday and Saturday) at the Green Mill as the featured member of the quartet led by Chicago saxist Pat Mallinger. I’ve stated before that I consider Carrothers one of the dozen or so artists who I dare not miss when they come to town. I’m not talking about musicians I simply enjoy hearing, or artists whose long careers encourage you to pay homage; I mean players that you dare not miss, because of the overwhelming odds that you will hear something you have never heard before.
Carrothers’ vision is unique, in the original sense of that overused adjective. His solos veer off into directions that you just don’t see coming – but with a logic and finesse that makes you wonder why you didn’t; and because of that, his solo flights surprise, educate, and also delight. Meanwhile, his commanding technique fleshes out his most audacious mashups; I’ve rarely heard conception and execution so exquisitely matched.
(Like Taborn, Carrothers is a northern midwesterner – he makes his home in the sparsely populated rural expanse of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula – which might well lead one to ask they’re putting in the water north of the Illinois border.)
The pianist’s bounty of excellent recordings brims with solo and trio dates but rarely features a context featuring a horn player with whom to share his solo space. That makes the 2011 recording "Home on Richmond," led by Mallinger, a lovely outlier. The setting encourages Carrothers to compress his solos into the performance confines of a quartet and allows other virtues to bubble to the surface: sumptuously shaded comp work and solos that paradoxically blend band-buddy looseness with pressurized intensity.
The Pat Mallinger Quartet starring Carrothers – as well as what is arguably the city’s best rhythm section in bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer George Fludas – performs three sets each night, starting at 9 Friday and at 8 Saturday, at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway.
While he brings up the rear in this weekend’s Keyboard Kavalcade – and although most people regard him as a singer first, who happens to play piano – Freddy Cole’s own instrumental work needn’t take a back seat. Cole achieved notice in the shadow of his wildly famous brother Nat, who left their Chicago home in the mid-30s for eventual fame and for fortune in Los Angeles The fact that Freddy’s voice sounds so very much like that of Nat "King" Cole– the result of genetics, more than any attempt at slavish imitation – has served to push his pianism even further into the background.
That’s a shame, because Freddy plays with a measure of taste and restraint that effortlessly recall the years when those virtues didn’t leave listeners cold. (The music has always valued meteoric virtuosity, of course; but even Earl “Fatha” Hines, the inventor of that aspect of jazz piano, could and did play with an attention to balance and space.) Still exacting and economical at 81, Freddy Cole’s piano playing could easily lull you into thinking all is right with the world.
Oh yeah – his singing’s pretty good, too.
Freddy Cole leads his quartet (with highly touted young guitarist Randy Napoleon) at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth, through the weekend, with shows at 8 and 10 each night and a 4 PM matinee. The matinee serves as a belated birthday celebration for Showcase proprietor Joe Segal, who turned 87 on Wednesday. There will be cake.