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Ringing out the old year with a weekend of Chicago jazz

By my guess, you’ve already picked out your New Year’s Eve hot spots – or at least made arrangements with your personal valet, Netflix – and won’t need much help on that score from me. But there’s a whole weekend preceding the big countdown, offering, with enough serious music on tap to get yourself primed for late-night champagne and silly hats on Monday.

Ernie Watts will recount the tale of "The Grand Wazoo," Saturday at Park West.

You can get a great start on the New Year by casting your glance back – say, 40 years or so. That’s when Frank Zappa recorded “The Grand Wazoo,” arguably the most jazz-influenced album in a career that technically falls under “rock” on the Music Genome, but regularly eclipsed the parameters of that genre, thanks to Zappa’s penchant for trippy, complex, through-composed pieces. (Trippy? You want trippy? Most people couldn’t believe that the guy who wrote such music – and who looked like Zappa – vigorously opposed the use of drugs in his band.)

In musical outlook, not to mention appearance, you couldn’t open a wider gulf than the one between Zappa and today’s Chicago Jazz Orchestra, renowned for reprising the music of such classic jazz composers as Basie, Ellington, and Oliver Nelson – except for the technical skill required to pull off most of Zappa’s music. But that should be enough for Saturday’s CJO concert, The Grand Wazoo and Other Delights: A Tribute To Frank Zappa, to succeed.

The concert promises a couple pieces from “The Grand Wazoo,” including the title composition, as well as tunes from Zappa classics “Waka/Jawaka” and “King Kong” (the 1970 disc introducing American audiences to the fusion violin marvel Jean-Luc Ponty). The CJO will work from arrangements by Cleveland bassist Dave Morgan, and there’s a double bonus: appearances by guest tenor soloist Ernie Watts, who played on the original recording of “The Grand Wazoo” in 1972, and violinist Mark Wood (formerly of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra), in the role of Ponty.

The Chicago Jazz Orchestra’s Zappa Tribute takes place Saturday, Dec. 29 at Park West, 322 W. Armitage, at 8 PM. Click here for tix.

AT THE GREEN MILL, you can celebrate New Year’s several nights early, since the same band that rings in the New Year will warm up with three sets Friday and Saturday. For at least 15 years, the club has offered a “Battle of the Saxes” for the big night, and that tradition lives on – even if one of the traditional participants does not. The Tenor Tirade always featured Ed Petersen, a Green Mill regular throughout the 90s – who each year treks up from his current home in New Orleans to revisit his old stomping grounds – and Von Freeman, who passed away in August of this year.

Freeman was still with us but, because of failing health, missed the Dec. 31 hoopla last year as well, when Frank Catalano took his place; this year, Eric Schneider steps up to the plate. Playing late at the Mill will pose no challenge for Schneider, who fronts the after-hours jam sessions at the club each Friday night and Saturday morning. And Freeman, for that matter, will still play a role in the proceedings: his life-size cardboard cutout now adorns the Green Mill stage on a full-time basis. (Rounding out the band: the ageless pianist Willie Pickens, bassist Brian Sandstrom, and drummer Robert Shy.)

ANOTHER NEW YEAR’S WARMUP takes place at the Jazz Showcase, where Roy Hargrove opened with his quintet on Wednesday and – in what has become another Chicago New Year’s tradition – plays straight through (and including) New Year’s Day. In the quarter-century since he began making records, Hargrove hasn’t changed his style in any substantive way, which in most cases might count as a drawback. But inasmuch as Hargrove arrived ready for prime time at 18 – playing gorgeous (at times perfect) melodies, which from the start seemed as fully developed as Athena springing forth from the head of Zeus – you can’t reasonably complain about “lack of growth.”

In fact, Hargrove’s solos of 2012 sound a great deal like his first recordings of the mid-80s: lean and lovely, building momentum through the logic of pure melody, and never relying on bells and whistles to replace the lyrical impulse. He has branched into Latin music and even hip-hop (with his group RH Factor); his most recent disc comprised music from Disney films, ranging from 1937’s “Snow White” to “The Lion King” (a nice match for an artist who appears eternally childlike).

But in every case, it’s the milieu that changes, not the trumpet; you could transpose the gist of a Hargrove solo into any of the settings in which he’s worked, and it would still fit, subtly transformed by the ambient colors of the band. This week, that band is his time-tested hard-bop quintet, starring Sullivan Fortner, a rangy presence at the piano, and Justin Robinson, whose alto provides an often feverish foil to Hargrove’s uncluttered elegance. They play Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (as well as New Year’s), with sets at 8 and 10, and a 4 PM matinee Sunday.

THE CHRIS GREENE QUARTET holds forth at Pete Miller’s in Evanston (1557 Sherman Ave.), still riding the crest of "A Group Effort," their live album released in the spring. Schooled in jazz but intent on infusing funk as a structural element of their music, the quartet has achieved a polished interaction, and regularly reaches audiences beyond the usual jazz pale. Even better, they play with hard volume, enabling them to cut through the Pete Miller’s patrons’ chatter as easily as those same patrons slice through their filets mignon. The CGQ plays through Sunday night.

THOSE LOOKING FOR SOMETHING EDGIER will head for The Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont) on Sunday night, for an intriguing double-bill. The night starts (at 10) with Tres Hongos, the spare, unfenced trio comprising drummer Frank Rosaly, pianist Marc Riordan, and Jacob Wick, an ex-Chicago new-music trumpet ace now based in Oakland, CA. In the second set, world-traveled saxist John Dikeman – formerly of Cairo and Budapest, now a resident of Amsterdam – leads an unidentified group called the John Dikeman Chicago Saxophone Group. If you run across a more self-descriptive band name, do let me know.

AND FINALLY, if you haven't OD'd on Christmas yet, vocalist Typhanie Monique sings tunes from her well-received 2009 album "Yuletide Groove," featuring collaborator Neal Alger on guitar, at Andy's. Or, to look at it another way: only 362 days until Christmas.


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