1:26 PM EDT, September 13, 2013
For the past several years, Chicago trumpeter Orbert Davis has lavished most of his attention on an institution unique in America: the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic.
As artistic director of the CJP, Davis has fronted performances of symphonic dimension and has ventured into public schools to teach students how jazz and classical music interrelate.
All of which has meant that opportunities to hear Davis in a club setting have been far less frequent than they used to be, which made his opening Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase a significant and much-anticipated event.
To hear Davis at close range and with only four other musicians on the bandstand – as opposed to the 60-plus players of the CJP – reminded at least one listener of how much technical acuity, tonal variety and creative imagination he commands. Though the late-night music-making was loose and free-wheeling, the underlying rigor of the work of Davis' quintet was unmistakable.
In sets that spanned bebop, blues and standards, Davis applied fresh thoughts to well-worn repertoire. Consider his take on Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me," a tune redolent of a much earlier era in jazz history. Davis used Harmon mute here, producing a silvery sound well-suited to his coy phrasings and delicate opening. In his extended solo, accompanied only by Stewart Miller's walking bass lines, Davis teased listeners by hovering around a pitch before finally zeroing in on it, adding to the playful quality of the performance. When Davis upped the intensity level by pushing into higher volume and faster, more brilliant lines, he surely caught many in the audience by surprise.
You don't often hear jazz trumpeters nowadays taking on George Gershwin's Preludes for Piano, but these works – like many other Gershwin compositions – elegantly express Davis' love for music with both jazz and classical aspirations. Davis offered a languorous approach to the blues-inspired Prelude No. 2, lingering behind pianist Jeremy Kahn's accompaniment and indulging in a slow and expressive vibrato. Over time, Davis wholly transformed the main theme and added a few motifs of his own, before recapping with an extraordinarily fragile tone. In a way, this was a soft-spoken tour de force of the improviser's art.
There were fireworks, too, especially in Charlie Parker's "Au Privave," taken at a whirlwind and showing the combination of velocity and accuracy that Davis can achieve when so inclined. Tenor saxophonist Ari Brown deepened this performance with a big and brawny solo of his own, his sound as deep and dark as you could imagine, his phrases imploring and urgent. Speed isn't everything, Brown seemed to be saying, and his work served as a fitting counterpart to Davis'.
Throughout, pianist Kahn and drummer Mikel Avery gave the horns plenty of space without letting up on rhythmic drive. Kahn produced a few handsomely voiced solos and Avery delighted in stopping time, then restarting it during his solos.
But Davis remained the focal point here, the man sounding as if he had a great deal to say on his horn, after having spent so much time trying to build and shape a jazz orchestra.
What a pleasure to hear that trumpet again at full cry.
Jazz note: Pianist Ryan Cohan celebrates the release of his album "The River" at 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; visit hydeparkjazzsociety.com.
Orbert Davis 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-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
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