Tenor saxophonist Ron Blake has been visiting Chicago's clubs and concert halls for more than two decades, in the early days backing fellow young lions such as trumpeter Roy Hargrove and bassist Christian McBride, as well as jazz eminences such as drummer Roy Haynes and trumpeter Art Farmer.
Before that, Blake was a music student at Northwestern University who deepened his studies off campus by sitting in with Chicago giants: saxophonist Von Freeman, pianist Willie Pickens and many more.
Blake brought all of that experience to bear when he led his own band at the Jazz Showcase for the first time three years ago, and he built significantly upon that breakthrough Thursday night at the same club. More than ever, he produced a sound that was larger than life, his approach at once muscular yet intellectually acute.
Though Blake didn't draw the large crowd his art deserves, surely that owed – at least in part – to the massive audience that flocked to a competing jazz show: Dee Alexander's free performance at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park earlier Thursday evening. But as the weekend unfolds and word-of-mouth begins to spread, Blake may lure listeners who appreciate full-throated jazz improvisation rich in character and expressive variety.
In up-tempo pieces, there was no mistaking the enormous scale of Blake's sound as well as its tonal depth. If bebop pulsed at the heart of Blake's musical language, he altered it significantly with idiosyncratic phrases, unexpected harmonic choices and a knack for interrupting themes with abrupt pauses.
The vigor and athleticism of this playing was invigorating to hear, but that was just the start of the discussion. Listeners may not have been prepared for the tenderness Blake brought to the great ballad of the evening, Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg's "Last Night When We Were Young," which made that performance all the more effective. The dusky quality of Blake's tone here, as well as the generosity of his vibrato and delicacy of his gestures, evoked an earlier era in tenordom, but without descending into nostalgia.
Ron Perrillo, by any measure one of Chicago's leading pianists, added significantly to this rendition, the crystalline beauty of his touch matched by the poetry of his right-hand lines and the complexity of the chords he built.
With each piece that followed, Blake and his Chicago collaborators explored a different world of sound and thought. In Blake's "Song for Maya," a lovely lyric theme became a vehicle for ornate melodic development, with drummer George Fludas and bassist Dennis Carroll hinting at a Latin rhythmic undertow.
And in Blake's "Chasing the Sun," the saxophonist turned up the dial with high-register cries, hard-hitting rhythmic accents and unrelenting syncopation. Here Perrillo provided a galvanic solo driven by explosive lines and massive, two-fisted chord clusters. Drummer Fludas produced a memorable cadenza, sustaining rhythmic tension while driving a crescendo that refused to quit.
Earlier Thursday evening, a sea of humanity packed the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park for the launch of the ninth annual Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series, attesting to the growing audience for this summertime cultural ritual.
"Dee Alexander's Funkin' With Acoustic Soul: Tribute to James Brown and Jimi Hendrix" was the draw, and singer Alexander certainly threw herself into this repertoire. During her Hendrix homage, she howled Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower," snarled Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and preceded "Hey Joe" with a searing, spoken soliloquy against "the violence (that) is running rampant here," adding, "it has got to stop."
She also reveled in the funk flavor of Brown's "Licking Stick" and "Sex Machine," growling and hissing the lyrics, an exceptional quartet of dancers adding visual appeal and her splendid Evolution Arkestra churning behind her..
Ultimately, though, these were lively but straightforward performances that did not provide the kinds of melodic transformations that distinguish Alexander's best jazz work. Clearly the audience loved chanting along with "Make It Funky," and anyone who didn't get up and dance was missing the fun. Opinions may vary on whether Alexander's faux '70s outfits evoked the era or unintentionally lampooned it (I'd lean toward the latter).
On purely musical terms, however, Alexander has been much more effective in other realms.
The concert opened with a moving tribute to Helen Doria, the first executive director of Millennium Park who co-created the Made in Chicago series in 2005 and died last December at age 61. Cultural commissioner Michelle Boone read a proclamation from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and reminded the audience of Doria's vision for Millennium Park: "That it be inclusive."
It always has been, and for that we all owe thanks to Doria.
Trumpeter Victor Garcia's "Crossing Borders" plays at 6:30 p.m. Thursday Aug. 1 at the Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz series at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue; phone 312-744-3316 or visit millenniumpark.org.
Ron Blake Quartet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com