We tend to think of Victor Goines as a master clarinetist and saxophonist, thanks to his long and ongoing work at the forefront of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.
But the musician put forth another aspect of his art Friday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where he launched a rare, three-night performance residency in Chicago. This time, Goines – who also directs jazz studies at Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music – gave listeners a chance to understand how he handles not only a horn but also a pen.
The revelatory moment arrived when Goines and his quartet played the Chicago premiere of "Her Eyes Smile." A jazz ballad of uncommon melodic allure, the piece serves as the fifth and penultimate movement of Goines' "Crescent City" suite, a musical homage to the place where he was born and raised, New Orleans.
A week earlier, Goines, Branford Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra had played the first performance of "Crescent City" at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Now it was Chicago's turn to get a taste.
No doubt "Her Eyes Smile" takes on a different tonal hue in its full orchestral setting. But the reduction Goines' quartet offered at the Green Mill proved immensely appealing. For "Her Eyes Smile" emerged as the uncommon contemporary jazz ballad to convey a heightened sense of longing without slipping into sentimentality.
In essence, Goines has crafted a theme of as much brevity as beauty, its wide melodic leaps and somewhat angular contours unexpected for a piece that amounts to a love song to New Orleans. After unfurling the yearning motif on soprano saxophone, Goines embellished it with delicate melodic ornaments and re-imagined it with intricately detailed variations. At the same time, he kept the ensemble texture transparent and serene, making "Her Eyes Smile" a mostly solo vehicle that presumably unfolds as a kind of jazz concerto in its fuller orchestral form.
The economy and maturity of this writing suggests that we need to hear "Crescent City" in its entirety, to better understand Goines' continuing evolution as composer-arranger. Surely some large jazz ensemble in Chicago could present the work, perhaps on a double-bill with another epic Goines suite, "Benny Goodman: Then, Now, Forever." He premiered that work with the Chicago Jazz Ensemble in Millennium Park in 2009. Together, the suites would offer Goines' portraits of two cities that are central to his musical life: Chicago and New Orleans.
Goines' profile as writer-arranger came into focus elsewhere in the evening, as well, mostly in his arrangements of music associated with Goodman. That's the leitmotif of his newest album, "Morning Swing" (Rosemary Joseph Records), and he and the quartet dispatched Goodman-era classics with a consistently light touch. The wit and whimsy of Goines' writing was particularly apparent in a medium-swing version of "Stompin' at the Savoy," its extended coda a wry, rhythmically playful realignment of the tune.
Goines began teaching at Northwestern in 2008, and he clearly has become increasingly comfortable with the Chicago musicians who are heard on "Morning Swing" and played the Green Mill engagement. Pianist Jeremy Kahn was a bit reticent at the outset but soon took full command of the keyboard, turning in elegant work – and shades of Erroll Garner – in "There Is No Greater Love." Drummer Greg Artry, an increasingly prominent and valued player in Chicago, brought plenty of rhythmic tension, textural clarity and stylistic authenticity to Goodman-era classics. And bassist Marlene Rosenberg (who's not on the album) showed once again how much drive and forward motion she applies to music-making at all tempos.
As for Goines' playing, he summoned a great deal of New Orleans clarinet history in most of his work, but especially in ballads. And his rambunctious passages on tenor saxophone elsewhere in the set amounted to a tip-of-the-hat to Chicago-style tenordom.
Clearly Goines is a man of several cities. Fortunately, Chicago remains one of them.
The Victor Goines Quartet plays at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $12; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com. Also from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com.