www.tidewaterreview.com/entertainment/movies/chi-willie-pickens-jazz-chicagoan-of-the-year-2013-20131225,0,1796221.column

tidewaterreview.com

Willie Pickens: The lion in winter

Howard Reich

December 25, 2013

Advertisement

Anyone who was there will never forget the moment: Willie Pickens, alone on stage at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, making the piano roar in a solo version of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." Pickens' energy, virtuosity and musicality drew cheers from thousands and gave the 35th annual Chicago Jazz Festival one of its greatest highlights.

Yet this performance was but one of several treasured moments that Pickens offered Chicagoans in venues large and small this year. Whether he was breathing fire alongside visiting alto saxophonist Bobby Watson or duetting ingeniously with vibist Stu Katz at the Jazz Showcase or leading his own, brawny quintet at the Green Mill, Pickens proved that youthful passion is not confined to the young.

At 82, he's playing with all the vigor of earlier years, but also with a mastery born of decades of toil. In essence, he's at a kind of creative peak right now.

"I feel sometimes that you grow in spurts," says Pickens. "Sometimes you kind of level off, and you feel you're not moving anywhere. Other times, you're kind of growing by leaps and bounds, and maybe this is one of those times."

No maybe about it, the inventiveness of Pickens' playing matched by its musical depth, harmonic complexity and improvisational freedom.

But there's something more happening here, as well. For in many ways, Pickens has segued into a role once filled by Chicago jazz giants such as saxophonists Von Freeman and Fred Anderson, emerging as a revered mentor to younger players and a symbol of the music itself. Or perhaps it's more accurate to say that younger generations — in Chicago and beyond — have come to look at him that way, even if Pickens has not sought that status.

When he played at the Chicago Jazz Festival, after all, it was at the invitation of one of New Orleans' most admired saxophonist-bandleaders, Donald Harrison, who simply turned over the stage to an elder he holds in high esteem.

"I've been fortunate that a lot of great, great musicians have taken me under their wing … and they teach me: Art Blakey, Miles Davis and a lot of great people," Harrison told me earlier this year. "And Willie is one of those people. So if I have a chance to listen to them and play with them and even present them, it's always a great honor for me."

Why does Pickens command that kind of respect? Many reasons, including the high artistic level he has sustained for decades, the restlessly questing nature of his work, the generosity of his spirit on and off the stage and, of course, the technical prowess of his playing. All of these qualities applied to Freeman and Anderson, as well, and these virtues came into sharper view than ever via Pickens' contributions in 2013.

Says his wife, Irma Pickens, when asked about the intensity of her husband's schedule and work this year: "It's amazing to me. I've been with him on the journey for 54 years. I'm so grateful he still can play."

That's putting it mildly.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich