Segal has been saluting Parker's music ever since, and on Thursday night the 60th annual Parker celebration unfolded at Segal's enduring club, the Jazz Showcase. The event long ago morphed into a month's worth of music-making each summer, and this year's marathon opened with a spotlight on two of the city's leading saxophonists, Eric Schneider and Pat Mallinger.
Though both musicians are conversant in various jazz idioms, they also happen to be thoroughly at home in the language of bebop, which Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and others forged more than half a century ago. As always, clubowner Segal launched the festivities by quoting Dexter Gordon in pronouncing bebop "the music of the future," and in a way, that's just about right. For while musical concepts perpetually evolve, surely no jazz language has been more dominant in the 20th century nor more resilient in the 21st than bebop.
Schneider and Mallinger came on strong from the outset, opening with Gillespie's "Groovin' High," which on this occasion could have been titled "Groovin' Hard." There's something about hearing two muscular alto saxophonists in unison that expresses the particular force and fervor of bebop, and that's what Schneider and Mallinger delivered here. This was the classic sound of the music: declamatory in its opening statement and complex and fast-moving in its solos. With Schneider producing a signature sharp-edged tone and Mallinger a somewhat rounder counterpart, the two horns offered a full-throated, anthem-like opener that served as a kind of battle cry for the month's worth of music-making yet to come.
But some of the most striking work came from pianist Stu Katz, who dug deep into the keys for a substantive, searching solo. Sculpting gnarly and jagged lines, Katz brought considerable musical depth, tonal weight and harmonic sophistication to the proceedings. He always has been a fine Chicago pianist, but on this occasion, he made every passing note matter.
Schneider and Mallinger turned in their best playing in "Bags' Groove," a Milt Jackson classic that clarified the contrasts between the two players. Here Mallinger's barreling, big-and-bluesy approach on tenor saxophone met up with the frenzy of fast-moving counterpoint from Schneider's alto. When they joined forces for the recap of the tune, they sounded unstoppable, giving this opening-night set a soaring climax.
One other high point: a round-robin medley of Duke Ellington ballads. Schneider opened on clarinet, crafting exquisite filigree in "I Got It Bad (and That Ain't Good"; Mallinger continued on alto, expressively sliding up to pitches on "In a Sentimental Mood"; Katz provided a crystalline touch on "Prelude to a Kiss"; and bassist Larry Gray produced silken, cello-like phrases with bow on "Sophisticated Lady." All the while, drummer Rusty Jones kept the music moving forward at mostly dreamy tempos.
Granted, there were no Charlie Parker tunes in this set, but his influence remains so pervasive that you could hear it in practically every phrase these musicians played. Which may be the ultimate tribute to the man clubowner Segal still calls "the genius of modern music."
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admisson: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com