Nothing inspires students to play better than a major engagement with a celebrated soloist.
The latest proof of that tenet emerged Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where trumpeter Randy Brecker shared a stage with the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, both parties producing ample fireworks.
One has come to expect strong work from most every incarnation of the DePaul band, which by definition constantly changes personnel. But the latest edition proved uncommonly strong, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Brecker.
"Bob always has an outstanding band," Brecker told the large crowd, referring to DePaul professor and ensemble director Bob Lark. "But this band is something else."
That was apparent even before Brecker took the stage, when the DePaul organization took on a Count Basie band classic, "Blues in Hoss' Flat." Right from the outset, the muscularity of the aggregate sound, the blues sensibility of the young musicians' phrasing and the immense dimensions of the fortissimo passages suggested that there was serious listening ahead. Yes, the tempo was a bit faster than what this music requires, but the young musicians could be excused for being a bit wound up.
Brecker and the students launched their collaboration with Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," the trumpeter's sleekly defined lines and easygoing swing rhythm representing about a thoroughly idiomatic approach to a much-beloved jazz standard. The DePaul students were right there with him in tone, style and attitude.
But the real challenges were yet to come, in the form of Brecker originals that tested both soloist and band. Brecker's "You're in My Heart" unfolded as a tour de force of tricky rhythms, sinuous twists and turns of melody and unexpected chord changes. None of this seemed to faze the student musicians, who dispatched the stop-start figures and potentially disruptive pauses with finesse.
The stakes were still higher in Brecker's "Free Fall," a hard-charging composition that featured the trumpeter's screaming high notes soaring above an ensemble going at full tilt. But there was music in the midst of all this near-mayhem, Brecker's solos as substantive as they were virtuosic, the band's corporate sound never shrill or abrasive. Two soloists stood out here: alto saxophonist Brent Griffin confirmed earlier impressions of him as a player with considerable presence, inventiveness and technique; and trumpeter Marques Carroll offered buoyant, authoritative statements.
The other stars of the evening made their points not with their horns but with their pens. Arranger Joe Clark's version of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" steered away from cliche by building to a roaring orchestral climax, inspiring clarion solo work from Brecker. And Clark's hyper-dramatic reinvention of Thelonious Monk's "Well, You Needn't" yielded slashing orchestral chords, plunger-muted wah-wah effects from the trombones and a puckish surprise ending.
Even bandleader Lark got into the compositional mix, his "Cathy's Song" a gorgeous ballad enhanced by arranger Thomas Matta's radiant writing for reeds. The DePaul band showed its subtler side here.
Would these young musicians have played quite as persuasively without Brecker's seemingly nonchalant virtuosity? We'll never know but, then again, we don't need to, for they'll be together through Sunday, with some of the weekend sets to be recorded live.
The sessions could make for quite an album.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: 806 S. Plymouth Court
Tickets: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com