Four on the floor, with power to spare, The Engines live up to their name.
Possibly the finest new-jazz quartet to emerge from Chicago in the last decade, the band is a sleek dynamo of energetic flow as they weave inside and out: free-form solos seamlessly emerge from structured material while, on the other hand, mainstream riffs pop up when you least expect them.
Like most great bands, The Engines – who celebrate the release of a new CD, "Other Violets" (NotTwo), at the Green Mill this weekend – comprises more than the sum of its parts. Yet the parts alone would be worth the accolades.
Dave Rempis has established his bona fides as one of the most important latter-day Chicago saxophonists: in a slew of local bands he emerges as a congenial firebrand, tempering his wildest forays with easy humor and a rather surprising gentility. Resplendent on alto, authoritative on tenor, Rempis swings hard and traverses a huge emotional range, alternating boppish melody lines and multiphonic screeches (often within a single solo).
On trombone, Jeb Bishop – who now stands among the most adept new-music trombonists worldwide – matches Rempis for imagination and versatility; with breathtaking command of tonality and intonation, he unearths deeply embedded ideas and, even more than Rempis, spins them into panoramic aural storms.
Bassist Nate McBride serves as the eye of those storms, evincing a surface calm that anchors the music – even as he drives The Engines with increasingly powerful strokes. McBride has provided a similarly stabilizing force in a dozen or so bands; it almost masks his considerable technique and commandeering power (especially evident in his double-stop passages), which becomes increasingly evident with each performance. And on drums, Tim Daisy does what Tim Daisy does in every band where he appears. A continual marvel, he provides shifts in palette as well as rivers of rhythm, which in The Engines provides an orchestral quality that makes them sound bigger than a quartet.
(On their 11-city tour, which begins at the Mill, the virtuoso veteran Kent Kessler will sub for McBride.)
Their new album, recorded three years ago at the Hungry Brain, teams The Engines with the late Afro-Danish saxophonist and flutist John Tchicai. An early figure in the jazz avant-garde – he performed on John Coltrane’s cataclysmic "Ascension" in 1965 – Tchicai later matured into a mentor for two generations of musicians.
At first blush, you might wonder at this pairing: bringing another voice into a quartet as finely tuned as The Engines hardly guarantees success. But at this performance, Tchicai became, in essence, “the fifth Engine.” His flute work, sweet and searching, opens another dimension on the band’s music. And his own penchant for writing tuneful melodies, shaped by the music of Mingus and Monk, meshes perfectly with that of the group’s other members, so that even his compositions suit the band to a T.
Tchicai died in October, so the CD-release show will have a posthumous quality, but not a melancholic one: the music is way too vibrant for that.
The Engines perform three shows each night, Friday (starting at 9) and Saturday (at 8), at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway.