Inspiring music-making isn't necessarily loud, aggressive, self-aggrandizing or heavily promoted.
Consider what happens early every Wednesday night at Andy's Jazz Club, where the superb but serenely understated Chicago guitarist Andy Brown leads a quartet. Like him, his band mates speak softly but poetically. Though bigger stars draw larger crowds to more glittering stages across the city, few match the casual elegance of Brown's quartet.
Last Wednesday, when Brown and friends began to play, it was a good bet that the wait staff outnumbered the audience. A sea of empty tables indicated that the downtown office crowd hadn't yet gotten out of work.
But as the music developed, the room filled – especially when busloads of high school students from Texas streamed inside to sample bona fide Chicago jazz. They chose their venue well.
Brown opened the evening gently, with the standard "How About You," yet there was much more at work here than just a routine traversal of an age-old tune. From the outset, Brown and pianist Jeremy Kahn offered passages of intricate counterpoint, two seasoned jazz musicians challenging each other to keep up. Drummer Phil Gratteau and bassist Stewart Miller, each a veteran of uncounted Chicago jazz bands, accompanied them sleekly.
Everyone took a breath when guitarist Brown offered an extensive, introspective solo opening on John Lewis' classic "Django," a tribute to gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt. Brown's pastel tones, softly stated melody lines and delicately rolled chords conveyed remarkable intimacy in a room that can get rowdy (and soon would). Before long, pianist Kahn was transforming the tune with a blues-based solo, the musicians eventually taking "Django" quite far from its origins.
Yes, it's true, tunes such as Neal Hefti's "Li'l Darlin'" and Lerner and Loewe's "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" (from "My Fair Lady") tumbled into the realm of cliche long ago. That doesn't mean, however, that formidable jazz musicians can't still make something of them. In "Li'l Darlin'," a staple of the Count Basie repertory, Brown surely disarmed even jaded listeners with long, silken lines while bending pitches in cheeky ways. And the guitarist's solo on "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" made a strong, soulful case for melodic simplicity.
Amid all this hyper-sensitive playing, it must be noted that the Brown quartet's version of Johnny Hodges' "The Jeep is Jumpin'" needed a little more jump. The musicians made up for it later, generating some heat in Joe Pass' "Catch Me" and showing grit in Blue Mitchell's "Fungii Mama."
Perhaps they were inspired by the arrival of those Texas students, who instantly ramped up the energy level in the room.
Even so, the easygoing nature of this ongoing engagement became clearer than ever during Brown's second set. Between songs, he leaned into the microphone, offered a little stage patter, addressed the students and then caught the eye of one of the waitresses.
"Hey Barbara," Brown said, for all to hear. "Could you put in a chicken sandwich for me? I've got another gig after this."
Not something you'd hear in most jazz venues in Chicago, but surely that's part of the charm of the engagement and the setting – four musicians performing as nonchalantly as if they were in their own living room, but with exacting musical standards. The tunes may be quite familiar, yet the performances prove that the jazz mainstream runs quite deep here.
Later this year, Brown will be releasing his much-anticipated recording with the eminent guitarist Howard Alden, a hero and colleague of his. That album could do much to raise Brown's profile, though from the general nature of his work, you get the impression that notoriety doesn't mean a great deal to him.
To Brown, It's the music that counts.
The Andy Brown Quartet plays sets at 5, 6 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays; $5 before 7:30 p.m. and $10 after; 312-642-6805 or andysjazzclub.com.
By a wonderful fluke of programming, two of the greatest jazz trumpeters in the world – both New Orleanians – will converge on Chicago in the next two days.
Nicholas Payton, 39, was a Crescent City phenomenon when he was still a teenager, thereafter duetting brilliantly with a nonagenarian trumpet master on the great album "Doc Cheatham and Nicholas Payton" and serving for years as musical director for the volcanic drummer Elvin Jones. More recently, Payton has emerged as a searing commentator on jazz – or, as he calls it, Black American Music – and shattered multiple stylistic boundaries last year leading his Television Studio Orchestra at Symphony Center. He'll perform with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Lenny White Thursday through Sunday at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $30-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.
Wynton Marsalis, 51, was an early champion of Payton's, telling anyone who would listen about the younger trumpeter's virtuosity and emotional ferocity. Both Marsalis and Payton, of course, represent the evolution of trumpet traditions going back more than a century in New Orleans, though each has pursued distinct musical directions. Marsalis' appearances here with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra long ago became a tradition at Symphony Center, the JALC band consistently reasserting itself as the most accomplished large ensemble in jazz. They'll play at 8 p.m. Friday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $60-$85; 312-294-3000 or cso.org.
Gospel Fest opener
Last year, the Chicago Gospel Music Festival made news in more ways than one. It opened with a bit of a thud, featuring JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park. The pop/R&B outfit looked as if it had wandered into the wrong festival, though the evening was partly redeemed when other artists performed excerpts from the Goodman Theatre's production of Regina Taylor's "Crowns."
This time, the 28th annual Chicago Gospel Music Festival will open Thursday in what looks to be a more genre-appropriate way: an evening of gospel choral music featuring the Salem Baptist Church of Chicago's Fellowship Choir at 6:30 p.m.; Rev. Dan Willis & the All Nations Choir, 7:10 p.m.; Apostolic Faith Church Creative Arts, 7:50 p.m.; and GMAC Mass Choir, 8:30 p.m.; at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park, near Randolph Drive and Michigan Avenue.
The festivities will continue with indoor performances starting noon Friday in the Chicago Cultural Center. Most notable: a screening of the documentary film "The Sweet Sisters of Zion: Delois Barrett Campbell and the Barrett Sisters," 5:30 p.m. in the Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theatre. The surviving Barrett sisters and producer-director Regina Rene Davis will be on hand for a post-film discussion. The Cultural Center is at 78 E. Washington St.
Finally – just as it did last year, for the first time – the festival will shift to Ellis Park on the South Side, with performances starting at noon Saturday and Sunday. Vickie Winans will host a program featuring John P. Kee and New Life, Lecrae, Tamela Mann and Smokie Norful at 5 p.m. Saturday. And the Brat Pack – with Bishop Hezekiah Walker, Ricky Dillard and Donald Lawrence, plus Dexter Walker & Zion Movement – will appear at 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Ellis Park is at 37th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.
All events are free; for details, visit chicagogospelmusicfestival.us or phone 312-744-3316.
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