Each January, the Jazz Showcase turns its spotlight toward Chicago artists, enabling the club to bypass costlier touring attractions at a time of year when audiences typically are small.
That's a boon not only to the city's musicians but to listeners, as well, never more than this week, with veteran Chicago trumpeter Bobby Lewis opening a four-night engagement with a thoroughly disarming set on Thursday evening.
Though Lewis famously worked with Peggy Lee and has flourished in uncounted ensembles, he's at his most alluring leading his own band, as he demonstrated with his quintet. The sometimes pensive, sometimes buoyant, always lyrical quality of his work set the tone for this group, which amplified his gently stated thoughts without overwhelming them.
One of the most subtle players on an instrument that by its nature calls attention to itself, Lewis deals in sleek lines, elegant phrases and precisely articulated motifs. He'll always use fewer notes where others might bray excessively; he consistently gives listeners credit for getting the idea without repetition.
Lewis established the tenor of the evening from his first, silken sounds on Gerry Mulligan's "Line for Lyons." Musicality trumped glib virtuosity from start to finish, Lewis spinning long, silvery phrases that tumbled one into the next and the next.
Because saxophonist Pat Mallinger long has shared the front line with Lewis, he knows how to turn up the heat without scorching the bandleader. So Mallinger's robust, ripe sound on alto and profusion of notes and ideas bolstered Lewis' work and deepened the sound of the band.
No sooner had Mallinger finished his solo than Lewis upped his intensity level, as if in response. The two men, in other words, brought out the best in each other.
They turned in their most deeply affecting work in Mallinger's "Butternut Street," a gorgeous, somewhat melancholy tune that inspired exquisite flights of melody from Lewis on flugelhorn. The two musicians blended tones with such grace and ease that, at times, the music seemed to issue from a single horn. With the rhythm section playing something close to a slow march rhythm in the background, the minor-key phrases of Mallinger's ballad carried tremendous expressive power.
But there was exuberant, uptempo music-making here, as well, particularly in Clare Fischer's "Morning." Here pianist Jim Ryan, drummer Jeff Stitely and bassist Stewart Miller reveled in Afro-Cuban rhythm, particularly during extended passages in which Lewis and Mallinger stepped aside. The trio of rhythm players exulted in the swaying dance pulse of this music. When Lewis and Mallinger rejoined the fray, they produced a free-wheeling, risk-everything, two-voice counterpoint that gave the piece a fitting grand finale.
Perhaps because the Jazz Showcase remains a temple of bebop, Lewis and friends closed the set with "Billie's Bounce," a Charlie Parker anthem. But Lewis' approach was different than convention: unhurried, light, transparent. Though Stitely provided the requisite fire and fury on drums, Lewis found his own way, punctuating solos with carefully placed pauses and moments of reflection.
A lovely way to start the year.
Jazz note: Jazz Showcase founder Joe Segal will launch a monthly "Reminiscing in Tempo" series of film showings at the club at 8 p.m. Monday; admission is $5.
Bobby Lewis Quintet
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com