CJO digs in for hot run at Andy's

Chicago Jazz Orchestra

John Sims (left), of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra playing at Andy's Jazz Club. (Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune / June 16, 2014)

The Chicago Jazz Orchestra has played many long runs at Andy's Jazz Club, but the engagement that launched this month will break records: Jeff Lindberg's plush ensemble will be in residence every Monday night through December.

Never has the CJO held Andy's stage for this long, and not since the 1980s — when the band played weekly at FitzGerald's, in Berwyn — has the ensemble enjoyed such an extended spotlight.

That means the CJO, already a leading exponent of mainstream jazz repertory, will be able to hone its repertory and technique to a high sheen. Considering how strong the band sounded on Monday evening, it should be explosive well before the run has ended. For even if Monday evening's first set showed a few minor flaws, the muscularity, stylistic finesse and propulsive rhythmic drive of this organization — as well as the work of many of its soloists — reaffirmed the CJO's stature as a band with power to burn.

Playing before a nearly packed house from the outset, the CJO announced its virtues early on. En masse, the band sounded mighty but not harsh, its fullness and depth of tone worth savoring. One might make the case that this much sonic heft is almost too much for a room the size of Andy's, but the key word here is "almost." There's something thrilling about encountering sounds that very nearly overwhelm the ear — but not quite.

Moreover, you don't just hear this music, you feel it in your bones, from the pulsing swing backbeats of George Fludas' drums to the percussive attacks of so much brass hitting an offbeat at precisely the same instant. This is the kind of music-making for which the term "visceral" was invented.

The band took flight early on, in Gerry Mulligan's "Apple Core." As tenor saxophonist Scott Burns delivered his characteristically lean, modern, utterly unsentimental solos — very much in the Mulligan manner — the band churned rhythms relentlessly behind him. All the while, CJO artistic director Lindberg presided over carefully scaled but unstoppable crescendos, the orchestral textures thickening inexorably over time.

A great deal of the spirit of Count Basie courses through this band, and you could hear that clearly in trombonist Tom Garling's arrangement of Ahmad Jamal's "Ahmad's Blues." Dan Trudell's coy and atmospheric pianism set the mood, the band then reveling in a blues-swing esthetic that Basie practically copyrighted. The screaming brass climax practically shook the room, but the soft-and-sassy passagework that followed reminded listeners that the CJO commands many modes of expression. Trudell's understated closing statements couldn't have been more slyly delivered.

Trombonist Garling emerged as one of the stars of the night, but not just because of his brawny solos and evocative arrangements. As composer, Garling has a gift for crafting instantly attractive motifs, nowhere more than in his "And Another Thing." Balancing catchy phrase-making with intricate orchestral writing, this beautifully constructed piece proved as accessible as it was sophisticated.

The CJO has had mixed success with vocalists, and Monday evening's appearance by guest Greta Pope continued this pattern. Pope offered idiomatic phrasing and a breezy sense of swing in "I'm Beginning to See the Light," which was a pleasure to behold. But elsewhere the wobble of her voice proved a distraction, and in some passages Lindberg and the CJO blasted so loudly as to render Pope inaudible. Finally, Pope's melodramatic account of "La Vie en Rose" — complete with warbling, wordless passages — had no place on a jazz program.

The band soon redeemed itself, with two standards from the Basie book: "Li'l Darlin'," with Lindberg striking a serene tempo that nevertheless kept the music moving forward; and "Jumping at the Woodside," a swing-era tour de force that inspired ferocious solos from tenor saxophonist Eric Schneider, who knows this idiom better than most.

Now that's how to spend a Monday night.

The Chicago Jazz Orchestra, led by Jeff Lindberg, plays sets from 5 to 6:30 p.m. and 7 to 8:30 p.m. Mondays at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15 at 312-642-6805 and andysjazzclub.com.

Farewell Jimmy Scott

The death on Thursday of singer Jimmy Scott, at age 88 in his Las Vegas home, left a void that no one will fill, because no one sounded quite like him. Certainly no male.

As a child, Scott was diagnosed with Kallmann syndrome, which prevented him from going through certain aspects of puberty and left his voice sounding high-pitched and somewhat ethereal. But even if Scott had been a bass-baritone, he would have stood out for the idiosyncrasies of his art. The man stretched phrases with impunity, interrupted lines to startling effect and otherwise subverted conventions of the jazz singer's art.

Having enjoyed early success in the late 1940s and '50s, he eventually got tangled in unfortunate record deals and slipped into obscurity by the 1970s. After years of doing odd jobs, Scott returned to music in the mid-1980s and found himself rediscovered in the 1990s, when America itself was rejuvenating its relationship to jazz.

Scott proved that the new attention showered on him was richly deserved when he played the old Metropole room in the Fairmont Hotel in 1994. His imploring, languorous reworking of "All of Me" turned an overly familiar tune into a kind of pop aria. Return performances at the Old Town School of Folk Music in 2001 and for a Billie Holiday tribute in Orchestra Hall in 2002 only deepened one's admiration for the fierce individuality of Scott's concept.

How did he come up with these interpretations?

"There's times, in certain songs, that I might be in my own world, and who cares about who's out there, you know?" he said in an interview with the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007. That year the agency awarded him the nation's highest jazz honor, the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship.

"You have a job to do, so you do that job of singing that song or telling that story because that's what you're doing," added Scott. "If you're singing, you're telling a story."

Few told it as well as Scott.

To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.

hreich@tribune.com Twitter @howardreich

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