IN PERFORMANCE

Jazz fiddler Zach Brock plays it smart and subtle

If there were ever any doubt that violinist Zach Brock stands poised for a major career, it was obliterated Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

Not that Brock's performance was particularly dramatic or flamboyant. Quite the contrary, the understatement of his work, as well its maturity and technical elan, reaffirmed his trajectory as a potentially important figure on an instrument often poorly treated in jazz.

The music world surely does not lack for jazz fiddlers who mistake schmaltz for expression, melodic ornamentation for real improvisation and ostentatious display for commanding technique. But Brock, a former Chicagoan who lives New York, represents the polar opposite of all this, and always has. His ballads are too introspective, his uptempo work too polished, his compositions too well-structured for him to get anywhere near the clichés of jazz violin playing.

So when he opened his first set at the Green Mill, he stated the central theme of "Monk's Dream" straightforwardly, before shrewdly transforming it with inventive lines and adroitly bent pitches. There wasn't an ounce of bravura display in this version of Thelonious Monk's tune – just a rigorous engagement with its melodic and harmonic material.

Lest anyone have thought that Brock was going to stay low-key throughout the performance, however, he spun soaring lyric lines, and much more, in "Summer Dance," from his album "The Magic Number." Here was a violinist pushing outside conventional song forms, the narrative of the piece puckishly interrupted by dance-rhythm interludes and extended statements from members of Brock's quartet.

Brock's solos, however, remained at the core of this performance, the copiousness of his ideas matched by the unpredictability of their progress. You never knew which rhythmic turns Brock was going to take, for he avoided any hint of patterns or repetition. Yet for all the spontaneity of this music, Brock gave it a lucid structure, in effect guiding listeners from one section to the next, and to many abrupt changes of direction, as well.

The music of Polish violinist Zbigniew Siefert, who died tragically young of cancer at age 32, in 1979, captured Brock's attention years ago and remains something of a fixation. For good reason, judging by Brock's reading of Siefert's "Turbulent Plover," from Brock's "Almost Never Was" album of last year.

As strong as Brock sounded on the recording, this performance of "Turbulent Plover" showed a heightened degree of intensity, Brock unleashing a torrent of ideas. His high-register sighs, unstoppable rhythmic drive and thorough reworking of Siefert's original suggested that Brock's involvement with this work continues to deepen. It will be fascinating to hear where this journey takes him.

Brock originally had been scheduled to perform this engagement with pianist Phil Markowitz, who canceled due to back problems. Instead, Chicago pianist Rob Clearfield offered his own brand of keyboard poetry, while bassist Evan Gregor provided sonorous low notes and drummer Jon Deitemyer offered sleek brushwork and crisply articulated backbeats. These musicians spoke Brock's language.

Still, one wondered what Brock might have sounded like on a better, more richly resonant fiddle. If his career goes where one expects it will, he'll surely be trading up into one.

The Zach Brock Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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