There are few certainties in life or in jazz, but one of them played out Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
For as always, the club's final engagement of the year featured the esteemed trumpeter Roy Hargrove leading his quintet. And as always, the place was packed to overflowing, a long line of customers queuing up early for the second set.
Why does Hargrove – who's in demand around the world – always choose to close his year at the Showcase? And why do Chicagoans flock to this engagement in greater numbers than to any other run?
The answers to both questions are interrelated, for Hargrove through the years clearly has forged a deep connection to Chicago jazz listeners. There's something about the urgency and directness of Hargrove's work – which is lyrical to the core – that plays well here; and there's something about the energy of the Chicago audience that keeps Hargrove coming back for more.
You could tell as much even in one of the lighter moments of Hargrove's set, when he engaged in a kind of call-and-response duet with the crowd. No matter how complex a phrase Hargrove sang into the microphone, the audience-turned-chorus hummed it back to him note for note, and with plenty of panache, the trumpeter smiling in obvious admiration of what he was hearing. The musical affinity that Hargrove and his followers have for one another could not be missed during these passages.
In an ingeniously structured set, Hargrove led his quintet in stylistically wide-ranging music that played to his strengths. Though the trumpeter had struggled last year, leaning heavily on alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, this time Hargrove sounded stronger, more in control and deeply involved in the music-making. He may not have shown quite the tonal brilliance or fast-flying virtuosity of his earlier years, but he turned in consistently substantive solos, played unison lines deftly with Robinson and gave his other colleagues enough room to make weighty solo statements of their own.
Hargrove always has been a poet on flugelhorn, and he proved it again in the standard "Never Let Me Go," a staple of his repertory. Those soft tones and extraordinarily graceful phrasings are more difficult to achieve than one might think, and Hargrove produced all the tenderness and craft one might hope to hear in first-rate jazz balladry.
He sang, too, and though no one is going to confuse his voice with Johnny Hartman's, Hargrove's vocals have improved over the years. You could tell from the control of his vibrato, the subtle shadings of his tone and the casualness of a delivery that used to sound a bit self-conscious.
Though Hargrove didn't push into fortissimo territory very often or reach for high-speed virtuosity, he showed fervent blues-gospel spirit in "Bring It On Home to Me." Here were the clarion, long-held notes that long have been part of Hargrove's musical signature, dispatched with conviction.
Still, a great deal of heavy lifting came from alto saxophonist Robinson, who sounded more compelling than ever on this occasion. Pushing against mainstream conventions, Robinson brightened his solos with startling honks, rumbles and roars. In a retooling of Duke Pearson's "Is That So?" Robinson played with such force, velocity and heat that he justly drew one of the biggest ovations of the evening.
In tandem, Hargrove and Robinson formed an effective front line, the heft of Robinson's sound counterbalanced by the brightness of Hargrove's. The trumpeter hardly could have had a more supportive partner.
And the rest of the band stepped forward, as well. Pianist Sullivan Fortner turned in several formidable solos, his bebop-influenced playing especially impressive, thanks to the fluidity of his right-hand lines and the sophistication of his harmonic palette. Ameen Saleem's outsized sound on bass and Quincy Phillips' inventive work on drums intensified the music-making.
In the end, these players functioned as a single organism, some playing solos a bit more vigorously and extensively than Hargrove, but none more gently.
Roy Hargrove Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. through Saturday and on Monday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; 8 and 11 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $30-$50 through Monday; $75-$90 on Tuesday (New Year's Eve); 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com