9:07 AM CDT, May 18, 2013
Four years ago, Chicago drummer Dana Hall made a stunning recording debut as bandleader, earning wide critical acclaim for his album "Into the Light" (Origin Records). Though jazz listeners already knew that Hall was a powerhouse drummer with intellect to match, "Into the Light" surprised even Hall's admirers with the ingenuity of his compositions and the taut sonic focus of his quintet.
So perhaps it was just a matter of time before Hall would reconvene that hard-driving ensemble for a weekend of performances at the Green Mill Jazz Club, to be followed by two marathon days of recording sessions. On Friday night, Hall and his band offered listeners a first hearing of the new music he has composed for the follow-up recording, and the compositions proved fascinating to hear and surely challenging to play.
There was no question that Hall and friends were at the start of the process of understanding these scores and determining exactly what to do with them. Even in this first performance, however, these musicians showed the depth and potential of Hall's compositions, as well as the work ahead in preparing to record them.
The most intriguing piece of the first set, Hall's "Cetshwayo," came at the finale and – like all the compositions Hall has penned for this project – reflected his engagement with the music, culture and history of Africa. Inspired by the story of the Zulu king for which it's named, the composition is built on a theme of considerable complexity and daring. It changes direction, tone and meter in abrupt ways, the tune itself a multi-part structure that starts, stops, rushes ahead, slows back down.
Even during this first public performance of "Cetshwayo," Hall and the quintet took it quite a distance, the musicians developing particular segments of the tune, sometimes burrowing in on a two-note motif, other times focusing on the theme's more ornate, complex phrases. Reedist Tim Warfield Jr. turned to soprano saxophone here, producing a brilliant solo fueled by running lines and quickly gathering rhythmic momentum, with Hall's dynamic rhythms constantly rumbling underneath. Trumpeter Terell Stafford brought a blues undercurrent to an expressive solo, the performance enhanced by Bruce Barth's streaked-with-dissonance chords and Rodney Whitaker's rolling, relentless bass lines.
Hall offered much more than mere volume and force during his grand solo in "Cetshwayo," the drummer building layers of ideas on the two-note theme. In effect, Hall, who teaches at DePaul University, reminded listeners that there's more to his virtuosity than just power: alacrity and control are integral to his playing, as well.
Each of the other Hall originals the quintet explored during this set ventured into intriguingly different musical directions, and each will benefit from further performance and study. For the most part, these first readings relied heavily on extended solos, and with soloists of this caliber, there was no dramatic slack. But these compositions were so rich in content that at least one listener yearned to hear the ensemble as a whole develop these works.
Hall's "Umoya," which opened the evening, translates from an African language as "Air" or "Life Force," and its surging, onward-to-victory passages set the heroic tone for much of the music yet to come. The incantatory quality of Hall's "Cush" gave this set a kind of spiritual center, as well as profound two-horn passages from Stafford and Warfield that merit more time and space. And the melodic beauty of Hall's "Imani," which translates from Swahili as "Faith," conveyed a subtle melancholy unlike anything else in this set.
If Hall and colleagues can create cohesive ensemble treatments of these compositions, this quintet's second recording could be a worthy sequel to "Into the Light," a formidable task well within these musicians' reach.
The Dana Hall Quintet plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.
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