Ira Sullivan | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Ira Sullivan 

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IRA SULLIVAN

Most music teachers will tell you that it's impossible for one player to master both woodwinds and brass, but Ira Sullivan, like swing-era genius Benny Carter, has spent his career taking exception to that rule. In the 1970s, more than a decade after leaving Chicago for southern Florida, Sullivan started gigging here again, bringing almost all of the many instruments he can play: alto, tenor, and sometimes soprano saxophones, usually a flute, and always a trumpet. (He did leave a few behind: I've never seen him onstage with his peck horn, for instance.) These days he tends to travel relatively light, focusing on tenor and trumpet, but his performances are no less impressive: audiences can pay more attention to his strategies when they're not so distracted by his arsenal. On trumpet he can dazzle, using a well-lit tone and phrases translated from his first language, hard bop, into an idiom that neatly expresses the last 50 years of mainstream jazz; on tenor he plays with a barrel-chested, slightly muffled sound and the juggernaut intensity of great Chicago tenor men like Von Freeman, Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, and the long-lost Nicky Hill, all of whom he matched up with on the rambunctious local scene in the 50s. And no matter what his instrument, Sullivan remains open to the instantaneous swerves, twists, and U-turns that are the constant promise of improvisation: his solos slide into unexpected shadings, sometimes leading the band into another tune entirely, and while he never sounds out of control, his playing still suggests that even he doesn't know where he's headed next. This adventurousness has long appealed to younger jazzers, and on his last few visits to town Sullivan has become a sort of Pied Piper to a coterie of local players who recognize how much he has to teach them. This time around he'll hook up with a trio led by the excellent but often overlooked pianist Ron Perillo, who makes his mark with a light, steely touch and a host of distinctive chord voicings. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Klewitz.

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