How fitting that "August is Charlie Parker Month" festivities at the Jazz Showcase would culminate with a two-week stint by one of the greatest bebop players in the world, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan.
Many top-flight artists cycle through the Showcase each year to pay homage to Bird, but Sullivan's opener on Thursday night attained a degree of heat not often encountered in this music anymore. By now, of course, no one could match the shock that early bebop must have dealt its listeners in the 1940s, when it was a heady, new and revolutionary sound.
But Sullivan, leading a sterling Chicago rhythm section, surely came close to capturing the energy and technical daring that marked the dawning of the age of Parker, nowhere more than in Bird's "Ornithology." Taking a recklessly fast tempo that would have frightened many a pro, Sullivan – playing alto saxophone – flew through its chord changes at roughly the speed of sound. His running figurations proved so fleet that you just barely detected the articulation of individual notes.
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Yet there was more than just velocity at work here. The way Sullivan scaled his crescendos, the explosiveness of some of his solos and the gathering momentum of one chorus tumbling into the next and the next stood as a model of high-powered bebop virtuosity. Even Sullivan, who can play just about anything that has a mouthpiece, seemed to be straining to keep up with himself, as if swept up by the ever-quickening pace of the performance.
Not everything in this set, however, was about exclamatory statements. In Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows," Sullivan took his sweet time, stretching phrases like taffy over a flexible accompaniment from the rest of the band. Legrand's ineffably expressive tune inspired copious melodic ideas from Sullivan, who turned to Harmon-muted trumpet to capture the underlying melancholy of the piece.
As a tribute to the late Von Freeman, Sullivan picked up his soprano saxophone to address one of Freeman's favorite songs, "Nature Boy." Sullivan's softly glowing tone and incantatory phrases said a great deal about how he felt about the musician everyone called Vonski.
Sullivan hasn't lived in Chicago for decades, but his early career here, as well as his regular pilgrimages from Florida, have given Chicagoans reason to consider him one of their own. Certainly he maintains a profound connection with the Chicago musicians who perform with him, his younger colleagues sweating to keep up with their octogenarian leader.
Pianist Ron Perrillo, one of the most accomplished pianists in the city, very nearly matched Sullivan's intensity – you could hear it in the tonal brilliance of his right-hand lines and in the harmonic sophistication of everything he played. Bassist Dennis Carroll duetted elegantly with Sullivan, especially in their poetic, two-line counterpoint in "The Summer Knows." Throughout, drummer George Fludas produced some of the most robust solos Chicago has heard from him.
If the next two weeks build on Thursday night's opening, there will be dynamic listening ahead.
Earlier on Thursday evening, Chicago drummer Frank Rosaly led a large ensemble in the premiere of his "Todos de Pie!" ("Everybody Stand Up") at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The portion I heard offered a tantalizing mixture of classic Puerto Rican folkloric music with brashly contemporary techniques. Lyrical horn lines and thrashing guitar riffs converged one moment, traditional Puerto Rican scoring gave voice to clusters of dissonance and free-flying solos the next. If Rosaly releases a recording of this music, as he plans, it could shed welcome light on two musical idioms rarely addressed in the same context.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; also Wednesday through Sept. 2 with Stu Katz.
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20 except Wednesday, when prices vary; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.