From trombone to shells, Steve Turre riffs boldly

Steve Turre

Steve Turre performs at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago on Aug. 13, 2009. (Andrew A. Nelles/For The Chicago Tribune / June 7, 2013)

Some musicians put so much life, love and tone into every note that you wonder if they're emotionally spent by the end of a few tunes. They've already packed more musical meaning into a handful of pieces than less fervently committed players manage in an entire evening.

Trombonist Steve Turre – who may be best known from his long-running work in television's "Saturday Night Live" band – always has belonged to this elite category, and he proved the point more emphatically than usual Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase. For even though hockey and basketball championships had reduced the audience to a fraction of its usual size, Turre played as if he were regaling thousands.

True to form, Turre brought so much tonal weight and polish to each passing pitch that he rarely seemed to be playing fast. Even his up-tempo compositions utterly avoided throwaway phrases and empty technical bravura.

Turre established that much from the outset, opening the evening with his "Woody's Delight," a salute to trumpeter Woody Shaw that served as the title track of a Turre album last year. The trombonist's affection for Shaw, an early mentor of his, must have been immense, judging by the trombonist's big, bold and brawny approach.

Even if he had been alone on stage, he would have made visceral contact with his listeners, but Turre was in mostly like-minded company. Pianist Willie Pickens, now as ever a force of nature at the keyboard, gave Turre plenty of firepower via immense, granite chords, while drummer Greg Artry similarly offered a huge sound and intense attacks. If bassist Stewart Miller was a bit less extravagant in sound and manner, well, perhaps someone in the band had to stay close to earth.

Under ordinary circumstances, "Too Late Now," a tune associated with the great vocalist Nancy Wilson, would be considered a tender ballad. But these were not ordinary circumstances. Yes, Turre took a medium-slow tempo and started out with a relatively subdued tone (for him). But before long, the high sheen of his timbre and the arching nature of his phrases cast the piece on a grand scale. Even when Turre put a Harmon mute on the bell of his horn, there was no mistaking the vastness and plushness of his sound.

Unfortunately, at this point at least one string on the Showcase's Steinway went haywire, ruining intonation and disturbing pianist Pickens' work. The errant string had been recently installed, after pianist Chuchito Valdes had busted several last week, and it clearly was slipping out of position as the performance unfolded. Pickens soon figured out which key was causing the problem and thereafter avoided it, testament to a jazz musician's grace under pressure.

No Turre performance is complete without music-making on conch shells, those beachside trinkets that Turre transforms into bona fide musical instruments. In his tune "Brother Bob," Turre drew on a range of shells, each producing different pitches in different ranges. The note selection may have been limited, but Turre coaxed a haunting, plaintive music from these makeshift horns.

He loves the shells, he told the audience, because they're natural, not man-made. "The instrument was alive once," he said. But his buoyant lines and other-worldly tones showed that they still are, at least when Turre brought them to his lips.

It's true that Turre took a breakneck tempo in his own "Blackfoot," toward the end of his first set, but even here, the clarity of his articulation and ripeness of his tone on trombone suggested control rather than speed. Anyone who can sound this coherent at that pace clearly has higher aspirations than mere velocity.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Steve Turre Quartet

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.

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