Guitarist Joel Paterson makes vintage music sound almost new

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It would be easy to dismiss Chicago guitarist-bandleader Joel Paterson as a mere nostalgist.

His work in bands such as the Modern Sounds, Shake 'Em On Down and the Joel Paterson Trio deals mostly in music of the early to mid-20th century, ranging stylistically from jazz and blues to jump, swing, rockabilly and you-name-it.

But there's nothing nostalgic about the way Paterson and colleagues dispatch this repertoire, playing historic songs as if they believed the tunes had been newly penned. You can hear it in the vigor of Paterson's rhythms, the zest of his interpretations and the uninhibited, unpretentious joy of his collaborations.

Paterson, in other words, makes no apologies – musical or otherwise – for plunging wholly into musical idioms consigned to the dust bin by an American popular culture perpetually searching for the next new thing.

"I'm very into, I guess you could say, vintage music, for lack of a better word," says Paterson, who will enjoy one of the more prominent engagements of his career this weekend, when he plays a three-night run at the Green Mill Jazz Club.

"I like all styles from the 1920s to the '60s. I started off playing blues, and to me it's all based on playing blues," adds Paterson, who moved to Chicago from Madison, Wis., in the late 1990s. "The styles change a little here and there. It might be more jazz one night, it might be more country another night, but to me I'm always playing the blues."

And, as we know, there's no expiration date on the blues. What matters most is not the particular idiom at play – whether historic or contemporary – but the level at which a musician performs it.

For Paterson, this will be a signal weekend, because he'll get to stretch beyond the "Soul Jazz Night" shows he performs every Sunday night behind the bar at the Green Mill, alongside Hammond B-3 organ master Chris Foreman and drummer Mike Schlick. This time, Paterson will collaborate with Foreman and drummer Alex Hall for a featured engagement on the Green Mill main stage on Friday and Saturday nights, to be followed by the "Soul Jazz Night" soiree on Sunday.

In both settings, Paterson's sleek, linear guitar lines ride Foreman's fat chordal swells on organ and relentlessly churning backbeats on drums from Hall or Schlick. Yet Paterson says he fully realizes that the shows he plays on Friday and Saturday can't be quite as softly smoldering as the music his trio usually performs behind the bar late Sundays.

Each setting "is such a different vibe," says Paterson. "Sunday is kind of a mellow vibe," while Friday and Saturday "are more of a listening show on stage, especially early on (in the night). We can kind of dig in. … But as the night goes on, it gets more rowdy, and we do more blues and soul stuff, more rocking.

"Behind the bar (on Sundays) is fun because it has all these crazy limitations. We barely fit on the (tiny, impromptu) stage, with the whole drum set and organ and guitar and amp – and no P.A. system!"

The opportunity to hear Paterson in both settings could be illuminating, because each poses particular musical, technical and expressive challenges. Yet core elements stay the same, particularly in the form of Foreman's evocative work on Hammond B-3.

"It's very '60s soul-jazz, very heavy on the Jimmy McGriff, because Chris knows every Jimmy McGriff thing in the world," says Paterson, referring to Foreman's expertise in music of the Philadelphia organ titan. "It's B.B. King meets Jimmy McGriff meets (guitarist) Grant Green.

"It's really fun with Chris. We really dig into that Jimmy McGriff sound, really greasy, soul-jazz stuff.

"I get to be Freddie King and Kenny Burrell," adds Paterson, referring to two guitar heroes of the period, "and he gets to be Jimmy McGriff.

"The central theme? I just try to play good music."

Which Paterson also does in the aforementioned bands, as well as Devil in a Woodpile, the Western Elstons and the Cash Box Kings, each with its own spin on mid-20th century Americana.

For those who think jazz musicians ought to be inventing something new rather than preserving something old, Paterson has offered an elegant response.

"I don't think that's necessarily wrong," Paterson told me a couple of years ago. "I have a lot of friends in the free jazz scene, and I totally understand where they're coming from and respect them.

"I definitely want to make things fresh when we play. We try not to imitate. We improvise a lot. I get my kicks trying to take something old and make it new and not make it tacky.

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