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Chicago saxophonist Pat Mallinger gets ready for his close-up

Howard Reich

4:22 PM CDT, April 25, 2013

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When singer-pianist Diane Schuur headlined at the Jazz Showcase last week, she wasn't the most commanding player on stage.

At leat not whenever Chicago saxophonist Pat Mallinger stepped up to solo. Each time he brought the mouthpiece to his lips, listeners heard what superb jazz musicianship, sleek technique and relentless inventiveness are all about. The standard he set – without once trying to call attention to himself – often made Schuur's work seem overbearing and one-dimensional by comparison.

Not a great development for Schuur, but a welcome one for those lucky enough to have heard Mallinger.

He has been a first-call sideman in Chicago for more than two decades, yet he hasn't drawn a fraction of the attention he deserves.

Fortunately, though, Mallinger will be fronting his own quartet for his all-too-rare annual engagement at the Green Mill this weekend, giving listeners a chance to better understand the depth and breadth of art. And over the summer, he'll lead perhaps his highest profile performance to date, when he'll appear with the Sabertooth Organ Quartet on the "Made in Chicago: World Class Jazz" series Aug. 22 at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park.

Add to this the success of his recording of last year, "Home on Richmond," which drew richly deserved critical accolades and was a brisk seller on retail web sites, and it seems just possible that this self-effacing, virtuosic artist is approaching his moment in the spotlight.

"I've certainly had better sales than I ever thought I would in the year since the recording has been out," says Mallinger, with characteristic understatement.

"The Millennium Park date is exciting for us, because they really want us to re-create the experience that we create at the Green Mill" with Sabertooth, which plays the late-late show starting around midnight on Saturday nights. "So we're going to try to just capture what we've done in the past and look ahead to some newer and fresher ideas, and try to come up with new ways to go around the music."

For those who don't want to wait until summer or who prefer to hear Mallinger leading his own band, this weekend's engagement at the Mill should provide intriguing listening. For Mallinger will be performing with pianist Bill Carrothers, who has been playing this yearly show for more than a decade and who goes back with Mallinger much longer than that.

They've forged a musical rapport that cannot be created in a hurry, and it shows in the "Home on Richmond" album, particularly in its fiery interchanges between the two.

"There's just this long-standing musical understanding we have," says Mallinger. "And the personal relationship, too, since we've done so many things together since high school (in Mallinger's native St. Paul).

"There's also the spontaneity of playing with (Carrothers) that I don't always get with other musicians. As much as I can prepare for a performance of a certain tune, as soon as I count it off with Billy, it could be something completely different than what I'm anticipating."

Or, as Mallinger adds later in an e-mail, "In the end, it almost doesn't matter what (tune) I call, as we could literally play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' and he would make beautiful and brilliant music out of it."

The same applies to Mallinger himself.

He proves the point in a less prominent way each Saturday night at the Mill, with Sabertooth. Why would anyone, let alone a musician of Mallinger's gifts, want to work the midnight-to-5 a.m. slot for so many years?

Why wouldn't you, asks Mallinger.

"It's almost like I'm having more fun now (with Sabertooth) than I ever have," explains the saxophonist, quite a statement considering that in March of 2012 the band marked its 1,000th performance and last November its 20th anniversary at the Mill.

"Which is astonishing. You'd think at the end of the night, at 5, I'd want to get out of there. But I'm having so much fun that I end up hanging after hours.

"I'm on such an elated plane," on those nights, adds Mallinger. "The wee hours of the morning – 3, 3:30 – I think sometimes that's when I play my best, when everybody is there at that point to listen to the music, and the band is feeling together, like a unit, and we've worked out the cobwebs in the first set, or so.

"Sometimes those are my favorite moments."

Pat Mallinger Quartet
When: 9 p.m. Friday; 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway
Tickets: $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com

Also worth hearing

Freddy Cole: The accomplished singer-pianist happens to be a younger brother of the great Nat "King" Cole but stands as a significant artist in his own right. He'll lead a quartet. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $25-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

The Bridge: A collaboration between musicians from Chicago and France will feature alto saxophonists Fred Jackson and Stephane Payen, plus drummers Frank Rosaly and Edward Perraud. 6:30 p.m. reception, 8 p.m. concert Friday in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; $10-$15, concert; $35, concert and reception; acrossthebridges.org

Fareed Haque's Hymn of the Ancients: Guitarist Haque, who elegantly merges jazz techniques with elements of his South Asian heritage, explores classical music of India for this project. 8:30 p.m. Friday at the Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $20-$30; 773-381-4554 or maynestage.com

Chicago Afro-Latin Jazz Ensemble: The dynamic big band digs deep into Afro-Caribbean and related genres, featuring trumpeter Victor Garcia and pianist Darwin Noguera. 8 p.m. Saturday at North Central College's Wentz Concert Hall, 171 E. Chicago Ave., Naperville; $25-$30; 630-637-7469 or northcentralcollege.edu

"A Tribute to Miles Davis": Bass guitarist Frank Russell leads an exploration of "The Electric Years." 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse Ave.; $25; 773-381-4554 or maynestage.com

Bobbi Wilsyn: An uncommonly versatile Chicago vocalist, Wilsyn doesn't perform publicly as often as when she was featured by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which makes this opportunity to hear particularly welcome. She'll be joined by pianist Miguel de la Cerna, saxophonist Jarrard Harris, bassist Marlene Rosenberg and drummer Charles Heath. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com

Craig Taborn: The innovative pianist celebrates the release of "Chants" (ECM Records), leading his trio in Chicago's newest venue for adventurous music. 8:30 p.m. Sunday at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; $15; constellation-chicago.com

hreich@tribune.com | Twitter @howardreich