The wind’s already blowing, and as of today, the snow is snowing – but there’s a wealth of holiday jazz to keep you warm. What with a slew of new Christmas jazz releases, and a heavy schedule of seasonal performances by Chicago musicians, you have only yourself to blame for an unsyncopated holiday season.
I’ll work my way through various holiday releases over the next few weeks, but we’ll start with an album that has no Christmas tunes at all. Nonetheless, it’s all about Christmas – in the sense that Christmas celebrates, for all intents and purposes, the birth of Christianity. And Christianity lies at the core of the Chicago group Come Sunday, both in terms of concept and material.
This septet – four voices with guitar-led rhythm section – has just released their first disc, Crosscurrents, which they’ll unveil during a CD-release party Sunday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music (4544 N. Lincoln). Taking their name and cue from the famous jazz hymn composed by Duke Ellington, Come Sunday brings a jazz sensibility to classic spirituals like “My Rock,” “Wade In The Water,” and “Down By The Riverside,” as sung by a well-tuned quartet of pretty diverse singers.
Lindsay Weinberg is better known as the lead vocalist for Chicago swing band Baba Manouche; she’s joined by Sue Demel, whose work with the Chicago folk trio Sons Of The Never Wrong, as both singer and songwriter, has made her an indie favorite. The big-shout voice of Bill Brickey, also a lyricist and guitarist, reveals his extensive experience as a soul and r-&-b singer; the choir rounds out with classically trained Alton Smith.
Like the branches of a nicely aged Christmas fir, Come Sunday’s vocalists stretch out in several directions. But in this case, those branches extend from a jazz base – and a jazz bass, for that matter, as wielded by the solidly soulful Al Ehrich (a fine improviser who deserves more recognition than he currently gets). Drummer Lenny Marsh supplies a tasteful sizzle and fills out the arrangements with plenty of color.
The rhythm section is led by guitarist Mike Allemana, who wrote the lovely, catchy, often transcendent arrangements: they smartly balance gospel sentiment and the jazz impulse to refresh (and sometimes entirely remake) these familiar spirituals. You don’t need to love folk music or gospel to appreciate what Allemana has done here, transforming songs from those sources into swinging and memorable renditions; more often than not, they recall the “soul jazz” of the early 60s, crossed with the cool, rich harmonies of contemporaneous groups like the Swingle Singers and the Double Six of Paris.
Allemana, widely respected for his work with tenor legend Von Freeman and in his own pure-jazz combos, is also a forceful and versatile improviser, and throughout Crosscurrents, his solos make no compromises. Some musicians hold a little back when dealing with spiritual material, but as Allemana burns through these solos, his guitar becomes the fiery sword of the archangel Uriel.
Come Sunday performs at OTS from 7 to 9 on Sunday night – giving you just enough time to head over to The Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont) for something completely different at 10.
From its name alone, you can tell that the quartet Endangered Blood takes its cue from other sources. Saxists Chris Speed and Oscar Noriega front this relatively new band, a no-frills, no-chords quartet that can jump into polyphonic overdrive in less time than it take a Boxster to hit 60.
Speed and Noriega bring a wonderfully mixed bag of experience to the band, from the former’s interest in Balkan and Middle Eastern musics (exemplified by his band Pachora) to the latter’s earliest roots playing Mexican ranchero music in his native Arizona. But the influences are subtle. Noriega and especially Speed have each used their eclectic experience to mold a strong but malleable style, and it takes the music in a lot of directions.
The real wild cards reside in the rhythm section. Bassist Trevor Dunn comes from the rock world, with a particular talent for hard rock and metal, and made his way toward jazz with his own astringent trios and as a member of Masada (John Zorn’s “bar mitzvah band”). And any band with Jim Black on drums has the capacity to jump the rails at any time (in a good way).
Few drummers in any idiom can hold a band together while delivering as much sheer (and exhilarating) rhythmic danger. Black’s intensity and focus allow him to take all sorts of chances: flailing with a rock drummer’s single-minded power, he can turn on a dime to juggle skittering polyrhythms, or gently stoke a trance-inducing tone poem. It makes him as excitingly mercurial as he is versatile and a focal point of any band he plays in, with leaders ranging from saxists Tim Berne and Ellery Eskelin to composer and electronic poet Laurie Anderson.
And finally, for those who actually rest on Sunday – or who have enough energy left over after hitting the shows described above – I heartily recommend a rare appearance by the little big band Marco Polo, Monday night at the Skylark (2149 S. Halsted) as part of the Ratchet Series.
In the kids’ game of the same name, players try to locate each other purely by sound. Audiences have had to find this sprightly jazz orchestra using much the same method, since it’s among the most elusive bands in town, performing only occasionally, and usually without much publicity. Led by saxophonist Cameron Pfiffner, the ten-piece outfit played for its largest crowd (by far) this past summer at the Chicago Jazz Festival; until then, most Chicago jazz fans had never heard the band, and only a few more had even heard of it.
But Pfiffner’s inventive arrangements – full of jazz flavors and spiced with world-music accents, spider-silk reed writing and sultry blasts from the brass, and performed with skill and spunk – scored a solid hit. If you missed them this summer, you can correct that oversight Monday, as Marco Polo’s explorations continue toward the new year.