For anyone who values early period jazz played at an inspired technical and artistic level, Thursday night was a significant occasion in Chicago.
The Fat Babies, an increasingly admired septet specializing in music of the pre-bebop 1920s and '30s, was playing for the first time at Katerina's (on West Irving Park Road), a less raucous setting than the band's weekly sessions at the Green Mill Jazz Club and the Honky Tonk BBQ. Furthermore, the group was celebrating the release of "18th and Racine" (Delmark Records), the much-anticipated follow-up to its stellar recording of last year, "Chicago Hot."
With each passing season, this organization sounds more cohesive and more compelling in its command of repertoire infrequently revisited these days. To hear these musicians close up at Katerina's, an intimate room with a warmly embracing sound, was to realize how much they bring to music of Jelly Roll Morton, Eddie Condon, Hoagy Carmichael and other visionaries of a distant jazz past. Though there's no denying the energy that couples dancing at the Green Mill add to the Fat Babies' sets there, this time one could savor the details of voicing, color and phrase that distinguish this band from lesser counterparts.
Red McKenzie and Eddie Condon's "Liza" can be considered a classic of an early era in jazz history, and the Fat Babies dispatched it with an understated authority of a sort one rarely encounters in this repertoire. The unanimity of phrase and time that these players shared served this music well, as did the radiant front-line sound blend of trombonist Dave Bock, cornetist Andy Schumm and reedist John Otto. Here was "Liza" – which appears on the new album – delivered without ostentation or nostalgia but, instead, with an emphasis on depth and beauty of ensemble sound.
Morton's "Georgia Swing" can be turned into something of a caricature by those who know only the most obvious mannerisms of the period. The Fat Babies did not succumb to that temptation, instead achieving a buoyant tempo without haste, thanks partly to drummer Alex Hall's sleek, taut work with brushes.
And Joe Robichaux's "King Kong Stomp," which closed the evening's first set, showed what the Fat Babies can do when turning up the dial. The band hit hard from the outset, yet it produced a plush ensemble sound, notwithstanding its aggressive tempo, surging rhythms and bravura passagework.
There were some surprises, as well. Schumm's arrangement of Carmichael's "Star Dust" cast the piece in a dance-band context, stripping away some of the sentimentality that has gathered around the tune. Pianist Paul Asaro's ingenious arrangement of Morton's "Freakish" made the most of the work's tricky syncopation and sly chromaticism.
If Asaro's solo piano account of James P. Johnson's "Carolina Shout" didn't attempt to emphasize the keyboard wizardry of the piece, which challenges anyone who attempts to play it, this certainly was a musical, engaging reading.
In the end, we're fortunate that these musicians – led by bassist Beau Sample and also featuring guitarist-banjoist Jake Sanders – lavish such care and respect on historic repertory, even as they tweak tradition with idiosyncratic arrangements.
Long may they play.
The Fat Babies appears at 8 p.m. Sundays at the Honky Tonk BBQ, 1800 S. Racine Ave.; 312-226-7427 or honkytonkbbqchicago.com; and 9 p.m. Tuesdays at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $6; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.