The question was: Which Corey Wilkes would take the stage of the Jazz Showcase on Thursday night?
The experimenter? The melodist? The funk artist? The bebopper?
There was a bit of each in the Chicago trumpeter's first set, but surely the language of bebop influenced everything, which was appropriate, considering the setting. The Jazz Showcase has been a temple of bebop for more than 60 years (at various locations), a larger-than-life photo of the idiom's greatest icon – Charlie Parker – serving as stage backdrop and gazing warmly upon everyone who comes to play.
Wilkes and his quintet opened in strong form, wending their way through a pairing of Miles Davis' "Nardis" and "So What." The trumpeter whimsically called the mini-medley "a derangement," but, in truth, it neatly juxtaposed two melodically striking compositions. Not surprising, considering that the arrangement was conceived by the band's pianist, Chicagoan Robert Irving III, who worked for years as Davis' music director.
Wilkes never tried to mimic Davis' manner, playing sleek but steely lines that were practically the antithesis of Davis' whispering introspections. Here was Davis' repertoire recast in the bold, red-blooded character of Chicago jazz, Wilkes' wide-open phrases enriched by pianist Irving's distinctive harmonic sense. The man builds chords like no one else, spacing notes across the keyboard to produce colors, overtones and voicings that invariably provoke interest.
Wilkes, once a very young lion of Chicago jazz who has gone on to tour the world in uncounted ensembles, now finds himself bringing other, emerging musicians into the fold. Vibraphonist Justin Thomas has been appearing with increasing frequency in various Chicago settings, most notably in drummer Dana Hall's Black Fire, which plays the somewhat elusive music of Andrew Hill and his contemporaries Tuesday nights at Andy's Jazz Club.
In Wilkes' band, which on this night dealt with more familiar fare, Thomas apparently felt comfortable enough to stretch out, producing some of most florid playing I've yet heard from him. Even so, there was no doubt about the substance of his solos, as in the standard "Delilah." Here Thomas crafted intricate phrases, yet he delivered each passing note with conviction. Add to this Junius Paul's deeply, darkly resonant bass lines and Christian Euman's soulful, less-is-more statements on drums, and you had a band that preferred substance to ostentation, clarity to noise.
The high point of the set arrived in John Coltrane's "Resolution," from "A Love Supreme." It takes a brave soul – or several – to take on such a universally revered composition, particularly with this slightly off-kilter instrumentation (a quintet with vibist but no saxophonist). And no one was going to confuse the ferocity of the original with the looser, rougher, less titanic account of these musicians.
Still, there was much to appreciate in this "Resolution," Wilkes' clarion horn calls ably reflecting the questing spirit of the piece. Pianist Irving turned in some of his most compelling work here, playing remarkably detailed figurations on extreme ends of the keyboard one moment, whirring themes in the center the next.
Drummer Euman faced the biggest challenge here, for he was performing with this ensemble for the first time, Wilkes told the audience. But Euman held his own, bringing a warm sound and a surging rhythmic feel to "Resolution" and other pieces.
As drummer Euman gets more comfortable in the band and better acquainted with its methods, the ensemble stands to cohere all the more during the course of this engagement. But these musicians already are off to a rousing start.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com