For more than two decades, Chicago guitarist Fareed Haque has intrigued audiences with the eclectic sweep of his work. Aspects of jazz, fusion, rock, world music and what-not have coursed through his art, all of it undergirded by the technical fluidity and free-ranging imagination of his playing.
But on Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club in Uptown, Haque took a decidedly different tack, zeroing in on jazz idioms – minus the stylistic add-ons. Though there was nothing traditional or nostalgic about this music-making, it showed Haque dealing head-on with contemporary jazz languages and inevitably raised the question of how persuasive he would be without his usual forays into exotic musical realms.
The answer was quickly evident, for Haque and his hard-driving quartet produced sonically formidable, rhythmically vigorous, technically commanding music from the outset and rarely let the intensity level down. Yet even within more strictly defined stylistic parameters, there was no mistaking the creativity of Haque's improvisations or the ferocity of his expression. For jazz listeners, that made this performance some of the most rewarding work of Haque's career, the music radical if only by contrast to everything else he has done on recordings and in performance.
"We're doing standards tonight – sort of," said Haque to a full house, aptly summing up his inside-out approach to well-known jazz compositions. For even though Haque and friends were playing standards and originals influenced by them, this was no mere traversal of familiar fare.
Consider what Haque – a music professor at Northern Illinois University who constantly tours the globe – did with the sole ballad of the first set, "Tenderly." You could detect shards of the famous tune emerging here and there, but Haque's transformation of this music was complete. The long, sinuous, single-note lines he invented ventured far from the original contours of the melody, his murmuring phrases soon blooming into full-throated, aria-like lines.
In John Coltrane's "Naima," Haque's quartet underscored its muscular side, the guitarist's high-velocity improvisations driven hard by drummer Greg Fundis' eruptions, bassist Alex Austin's relentless pulse and pianist Willerm Delisfort's propulsive accompaniment. Add to that an alternative, pressing theme that Haque and colleagues wove into the fabric of the tune, and listeners had a great to deal of sound and substance to absorb.
The highlight of the set unfolded in his "Poonjob in the Punjab," from Haque's forthcoming album "Trance Hypothesis," the tune an idiosyncratic response to Herbie Hancock's "Maiden Voyage." Here Haque's quartet summoned enormous waves of energy and sound without tipping into bombast. The improvisational onrush of Haque's playing, with one idea tumbling into the next, generated considerable excitement, as did an extended, free-flying duet between Haque and drummer Fundis, the two practically airborne by the end of it.
Though one might have thought the set would have ended at this high point, Haque offered one more excursion: "Flood in Franklin Park," from his recently released album of mostly standards, "Out of Nowhere." The blues-tinged piece rode an easy, medium tempo without sacrificing the heat that Haque's quartet had generated through the course of the set. This work, as well as "Waiting for Red," pointed to a guitarist-composer-bandleader rejuvenating his art by returning to its source: jazz.
If this experiment proves as rewarding to Haque as it is was to at least one listener, it could open up a path to important music yet to come.
The Fareed Haque Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.