Roy Hargrove, one of the great trumpeters of the under-50 generation, has made a tradition of closing each year with a residency at the Jazz Showcase.
That an artist of his stature – who is in constant demand in concert halls and festivals around the world – would choose to spend six nights at a small club says a great deal about how he feels about the Showcase and the city in which it has been based since 1947.
Not surprisingly, Chicagoans packed the room to overflowing on Wednesday evening for the launch of Hargrove's engagement, which runs through New Year's Eve. The connection between Hargrove and his listeners was as intense as it was apparent, a boisterous, holiday-week crowd quickly piping down once the music got underway.
That said, however, it must be noted that Hargrove during his first set played at about a quarter of the force and fervor that have made him an imposing presence on stage and in the recording studio. All the elegance of phrase and stylishness of delivery that one associates with Hargrove's work during the past couple of decades were in place, but with less sound, softer attacks, shorter solos and fewer of them.
In essence, Hargrove was relying on his top-notch quintet, and especially alto saxophonist Justin Robinson, to do the heavy lifting. During ensemble passages, Hargrove consistently played just under Robinson, supporting the altoist rather than matching him note for note, decibel for decibel.
Robinson rose to the occasion, as he always does, producing precisely the vivid tone and technical virtuosity one expected of the bandleader. In "The Song Was," Robinson let loose with a stunning, extended solo of high-velocity playing in which one barely could hear individual pitches being articulated. This tour de force cried out for a response from Hargrove, which was not forthcoming.
Few soloists play a ballad more tenderly than Hargrove, and here the musician was back in his element. Playing flugelhorn, Hargrove drew a deeply burnished sound on "Never Let Me Go," spinning sinuous, silken lines of real complexity and depth.
No one is going to call Hargrove a great vocalist, but his singing clearly is improving, and there was something disarming about seeing him stepping up to the microphone to unspool the lyrics to "Never Let Me Go" and "September in the Rain." An already attentive audience seemed to hold its collective breath, the better to hear Hargrove's demure tenor half-whispering the words.
But not once in this set did Hargrove offer the fiery solos and aggressive stance on which much of his reputation rests. The energy came from elsewhere on the bandstand: Sullivan Fortner's granite chords on piano, Ameen Saleem's majestic bass lines, Quincy Phillips' hard-driving drum work and, of course, Robinson's exclamations on alto.
The quintet ended the set with the aptly named "Soulful," the musicians exiting the stage parade style, one by one, amid much applause and rubber-necking.
Like most of this evening, Hargrove closed with a great deal of showmanship – but not as much show.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; 8 and 11 p.m. Monday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Tickts: $30-$80; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com