The master has returned.
When Joey DeFrancesco seats himself at the organ, listeners hear a rarefied level of musical and technical authority. Fast-moving notes fly by in a whir. Chordal swells suggest the work of two musicians, not one. Musical climaxes build with inexorable force, but also with care and control.
So it was Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where DeFrancesco gave a Thanksgiving night audience a great deal to be thankful for. The performance held particular interest because DeFrancesco wasn't appearing with his standing band. Instead, he shared the stage with Chicago musicians of considerable prowess who might alter the way a virtuoso instrumentalist delivers his thoughts. Or not.
As it turned out, DeFrancesco played with all the fire and soul one expected, but his work was undergirded by a distinctly visceral brand of Chicago swing. Drummer George Fludas has powered bands large and small with a razor-sharp technique and relentless rhythmic drive. Guitarist Jeff Parker, who recently moved to California but remains a presence in Chicago clubs and concert halls, brings palpable tonal weight and muscularity to every phrase he plays.
Pair the work of musicians steeped in the fundamentals of Chicago jazz with DeFrancesco's all-over-the-keyboards bravura, and you're hearing an already formidable organist in an especially attractive setting.
DeFrancesco and friends hit hard from the outset, digging into off-beats and playing up syncopations in Thelonious Monk's "Hackensack." The ideas DeFrancesco produced so copiously with his right hand, punctuating them via bursts of dissonance, would have been more than enough to keep listeners engaged. But drummer Fludas' acute attacks and guitarist Parker's off-kilter chords added significantly to the effect.
Songs in three-quarter time pose specific challenges to jazz musicians, who can't rely on swing backbeats to propel the music forward. That didn't stop DeFrancesco's trio from giving ample rhythmic lift to Freddie Hubbard's waltz "Up Jumped Spring." How did they do it?
For starters, DeFrancesco crafted melody lines that seemed to sway from one downbeat to the next, giving the music a heady rhythmic whirl. The toughness of drummer Fludas' sound stripped the performance of sentimentality, while Parker's sinewy guitar lines and astringent harmonies gave the music focus and edge.
The intensity level rose in "Eighty One," which brought out the funk potential of this band. No one got up and danced – the Showcase just isn't that kind of place – but you had to move in your seat at least a little to derive maximum pleasure from this music.
Not content to rule just one musical empire, DeFrancesco toward the end of the set stepped away from the organ, picked up a trumpet and called to the stage the admired Chicago bassist Dennis Carroll (briefly transforming a trio into a quartet). In turning to another instrument, DeFrancesco set a rather high bar for himself, in that he would be compared not only to leading jazz trumpeters but also to his own exalted standard of organ playing.
It was a daring thing to do, even if trumpet kings such as Wynton Marsalis and Jon Faddis have nothing to fear from DeFrancesco's solos. But it quickly became apparent that DeFrancesco wasn't trying to establish his eminence on another instrument. To the contrary, this was simply about making music, and DeFrancesco's thoroughly credible trumpet playing conveyed tonal beauty, melodic nuance and complexity of thought.
DeFrancesco finished the set back at his primary instrument, bringing a big-and-bluesy attitude to Cole Porter's "At Long Last Love" and poignant understatement – plus a touch of Count Basie – to "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
It was a sweet preamble to the holiday yet to come, and a touching closer by a singular jazz musician.
Joey DeFrancesco Trio
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com