Every great jazz city has a roster of leonine players who don't necessarily pursue international careers but would be eminently worthy of the attention.
Chicago overflows with such talents, and one of these formidable musicians opened a rare featured engagement Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase.
Anyone who has followed jazz in this city over the past few decades already is well acquainted with the work of saxophonist Ari Brown. But hearing him leading a quintet in a room where listeners pay keen attention reaffirmed the stature of his art and cast a bright light on its appeal.
Though Brown devoted most of his first set to standards, his playing proved so substantive, his tone so distinctive and his phraseology so personal that it wouldn't have mattered what tunes he took on. For if the songs were exceedingly familiar, Brown's transformations of them were wholly his own.
He opened with the ancient "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," but there was nothing soft about it. The sheer heft of Brown's sound on tenor saxophone and the remote harmonic regions he traveled to blew the dust off the piece. Before long, Brown was taking the tune "outside," as jazz musicians like to say, using raspy gestures, scrappy phrases and unexpected bursts of sound to coax the piece into the 21st century (or at least the late 20th).
And the band was right with him, thanks to fluid pianism from Kirk Brown (the saxophonist's brother), fat but buoyant bass lines from Yosef Ben Israel and relentlessly telegraphed rhythms from drummer Ernie Adams and percussionist Dr. Cuz. Everyone pulled in a single direction, with Ari Brown leading the charge.
"Secret Love" also harkens back to an earlier era of songwriting, and it's almost impossible to hear this robust tune without thinking of singer Doris Day's soaring recording. But saxophonist Brown revivified the piece via bebop syntax, new counter themes and a big and burly approach.
Brown launched Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" with an ultra-romantic solo drenched in blues spirit and swathed in dark, gauzy colors. Yet Brown avoided mere sentimentality, building his performance through surging crescendos and a fiercely penetrating sound. At the climax, he played both tenor and soprano saxophones at once, producing bracing dissonances that startled the ear.
As if offering temporary relief from the vintage material, Brown unfurled the lamenting, long-held notes of "Venus," from his Delmark album of the same name, over an Afro-Cuban rhythmic backdrop. Drummer Adams and percussionist Dr. Cuz went full throttle here, piling multiple dance patterns atop one another, while Brown brought gritty blues expression into the equation. Here was Cuban jazz revamped from a distinctly South Side of Chicago perspective.
Through the decades, the Showcase has featured far more prominent names and decidedly more exhibitionistic soloists. But this was something else: unpretentious, muscular, uncompromising music that went deep and stayed there.
Ari Brown 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