Two leonine saxophonists of very different sorts made major statements over the weekend, each reaffirming his stature as soloist and bandleader.
Though Branford Marsalis and Ken Vandermark occupy distinct locales on the jazz spectrum, listeners with varying tastes easily could admire the work of both men. For Marsalis and Vandermark proved that clarity of vision and ferocity of expression make a deep impact on an audience, regardless of the musical style or idiom at play.
The mighty saxophonist told the audience in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center on Friday evening that this was just the second time his quartet had convened since October, the first having been the night before. Moreover, the band had arrived in Chicago at 4 p.m. on Friday, waited for luggage until 5 and inched along the expressway until 6 before taking the stage at 8.
Once Marsalis and his colleagues began to play, however, none of that mattered. For the Marsalis Quartet hit hard from the outset and generally raised the intensity level with each piece, regardless of tempo. If anyone wondered why Marsalis ranks among the most commanding reedists in jazz, this assertive and muscular performance shed light on the subject.
Marsalis was all over his soprano saxophone for the opening work, pianist Joey Calderazzo's "The Mighty Sword," one idea rushing headlong the into the next and the one after that. Calderazzo, an imposing and technically adept instrumentalist, provided a storm of sound, yet with all the digital brilliance and textural clarity that long have been his hallmarks. Add to this bassist Eric Revis' immense tone and drummer Justin Faulkner's taut-and-concise approach to rhythm, and you had a quartet that did not appear to be having much trouble getting back into the swing of things.
But this set wasn't just about sturm und drang. In Revis' "Maestra," which like "The Mighty Sword" appears on the quartet's "Four MFs Playin' Tunes" album, the ensemble produced a hushed tone and magical, storytelling aura. Marsalis brought a yearning, questing tone on soprano saxophone to carefully sculpted lines, while Calderazzo's profusion of ideas and gentle keyboard touch enriched the music-making. Here were four musicians creating an intricately detailed fabric of sound with delicacy, grace and control.
Their work became progressively more tightly woven as the performance progressed, the band emphasizing puckish off-beats in Thelonious Monk's "Teo," ample creative imagination in a clever and puckish reworking of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and a penchant for remote harmonic excursions in "As Summer Into Autumn Slips," also from "Four MFs Playin' Tunes."
If this is what these musicians sound like when they're just getting reacquainted, they should be unstoppable as the season unfolds. A tip of the hat goes to 22-year-old drummer Faulkner, who has taken over Jeff "Tain" Watts chair in the band and convincingly held his own among his elders.
Former Chicagoan Ray Anderson and his Pocket Brass Band opened the evening playing music from his "Sweet Chicago Suite," an evocation of his coming-of-age on the city's South Side. The score burst forth with the enthusiasm one associates with Anderson's trombone playing, and though the music leaned toward the light and accessible, there was no missing its buoyant rhythms and blues-tinged character. Some over-amplified passages, however, slightly diminished the effect of this performance.
Anyone even distantly acquainted with Chicago reedist-bandleader Vandermark, who won a MacArthur Fellowship in 1999 and has made good on its promise several times over, knows he flourishes best when working in a variety of bands.
He unveiled a new one at the Green Mill Jazz Club, in Uptown, where Vandermark's Audio One played works of considerable artistic ambition and musical variety as Friday night slipped into Saturday morning. Inspired by the Midwest School band Vandermark successfully led last year, Audio One featured most of the same personnel but expanded to 10 musicians.
Considering that the front line was staffed by trombonist Jeb Bishop, cornetist Josh Berman and reedists Dave Rempis, Nick Mazzarella, Mars Williams and Vandermark, this ensemble not surprisingly sounded big, brassy and brawny. Add to the mix the distinctive tintinnabulation of Jason Adasiewicz's vibraphone, profound utterances from Jen Paulson's viola and the driving rhythmic force of Tim Daisy's drums and Nick Macri's bass, and you had a band that sometimes sounded nearly twice its size.
But there was texture, nuance, clarity of voicing and constant changing of instrumental combinations throughout this music, as well. Whether leading the ensemble in his own works or those by others, Vandermark sounded as if he had discovered a majestic new sonic machine and was just beginning to learn how to experiment with it.
The intriguing main theme of Vandermark's "The Floor" brought forth tempestuous solos from alto saxophonist Mazzarella and a vast range from color from the entire ensemble. Anthony Braxton's "6 C" showed the band finessing skittering lines and rhythmic eruptions that set the stage for Vandermark's gutsy solos on baritone saxophone. Most impressive, though, was Vandermark's translucent scoring for "Return to Alphaville," inspired by Jean-Luc Godard's film "Alphaville," with a poetic solo from cornetist Berman and dark-hued lyricsm from violist Paulson.
This band could be a major new outlet for Vandermark, who's writing and arranging deftly for it.