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Men Overboard 

Leon Parker Quartet

Cyrus Chestnut Trio

James Carter Quartet

Orchestra Hall, January 10

By Peter Margasak

When this country's serious music establishment acknowledges jazz, which isn't very often, the recognition is typically bestowed upon undeniable masters who in many cases are well past their prime. Alto saxophonist Benny Carter, for example, who is almost 90, was recently honored at the Kennedy Center, while the scant jazz programming at Chicago's Orchestra Hall tends toward safe, crowd-pleasing veterans like Nancy Wilson and Joe Williams. A large part of the audience for jazz concerts at Orchestra Hall is regular subscribers with a seemingly passing interest in jazz, and these programs are quirky little aberrations on the CSO's regular menu. Booking established jazz acts makes sense in this case; it gives the music some props without ruffling any feathers. So it was mildly exciting to see last Friday's program, which featured three of jazz's most promising young lions leading their own groups. While drummer Leon Parker, pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and reedist James Carter are closely tied to the jazz tradition, all three possess distinctive voices and have grappled with finding new approaches within it.

Billed as "Blues, Roots, Honks & Moans," which certainly reflects the musicians' connection to jazz tradition, the event placed three groups with modest followings and huge reputations on a rather hallowed stage. But when small jazz combos play on Orchestra Hall's large stage they appear as fish in an aquarium, and considering the intimacy required by a small combo and the way an intense crowd can spark musicians on to greater artistic heights, the distance proved unsettling. Chestnut told the audience, "All I want to do is put a smile on your face." His trio was the only group that accomplished that, but did so at the expense of the music. Carter's famous pyrotechnics never truly caught fire, and only Parker managed to be true to his art, with no pandering and no empty flash.

Parker's been getting plenty of attention recently due to the release of his second album, Belief (Columbia), which beautifully mixes hard bop with airy African rhythms. He first earned notices as the drummer in pianist Jacky Terrasson's superb trio, playing a stripped-down kit with spare precision; in his own music joyous polyrhythms proliferate, but always with a function. His quartet on Friday included pianist Bruce Barth, saxophonist Steve Wilson, and bassist Ugonna Okegwo (who worked with Parker in Terrasson's trio), and what the group didn't play was more remarkable than what it did. Economic articulation won out over note-cramming virtuosity. A delicate reading of Duke Ellington's "Caravan" featured only Wilson on soprano sax and Parker playing various shakers and a conga and making wordless vocal sounds. The tune is something of a polyrhythmic masterpiece, and Parker's lean attack actually traced its elaborate rhythmic contours, playing certain patterns while skillfully implying others.

On the group's final tune Parker took his first solo, a lengthy interlude that delightfully explored the possibilities of small percussive gestures. As critic Whitney Balliett suggested in a recent article in the New Yorker, Parker's work recalls that of the idiosyncratic drummer Baby Dodds, who worked with King Oliver and Louis Armstrong. Stylistically they're miles apart, but each favors playful investigations of specific techniques. Parker, whose kit at Orchestra Hall consisted of a snare drum, a tom, a bass drum, and a single cymbal, constructed lovely, engaging solos on a single theme, meting out complex patterns while constantly altering the modulation with a hand on the cymbal.

Parker's group kept the music accessibly simple and clear without watering it down, yet its appeal had nothing to do with familiarity. Most jazz drummers are judged on either their thunderous power or their skill with texture. Parker reveres the role of timekeeper, but the beauty in his playing is his ability to shift and transform those rhythms while keeping them out of the way of the other group members.

Parker's group was followed by Chestnut's trio, which featured bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Alvester Garnett. The prodigiously talented pianist can be almost as subtle as Parker, but all too often during his performance he hammed things up, overshadowing his gorgeous, harmonically complex solos with heavy-handed block chording. As he showed in an alternately pretty and funky solo reading of the spiritual "Jesus Loves Me," Chestnut's music is strongly influenced by blues and gospel. Those rumbling, bass-heavy chords can be effective as bluesy exclamations, but Chestnut overused the device to excite the crowd. Only on a tender original called "My Song in the Night" did Chestnut's remarkable lyricism survive intact.

James Carter is no stranger to grandstanding himself, but a technical problem with his tenor saxophone kept him so distracted throughout most of his set that playing his horns seemed like the last thing on his mind. His quartet--pianist Craig Taborn, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Tani Tabbal--opened with a terrific rendition of "Moten Swing," with Carter on soprano. His nuanced performance here made connections between the music of Kansas City in the 30s, the R & B bar-walking tradition, and Albert Ayler's sanctified screams. Carter can stretch effortlessly and logically from a raucous blues run into unadulterated screeching, but he just doesn't know what to do with his gifts.

Much of Carter's music writhes with a tension created by the juxtaposition of fixed rhythms with melodic lines that constantly toy with explosions into free jazz, but his wizardry has become predictable. On a new tune called "Skull Grabber" he unleashed a furious barrage of notes over a relentless swing rhythm, and while his display was technically dazzling, it wasn't particularly coherent, and he avoided pushing the solo into free territory. His performance style, like Chestnut's, harks back to an era when jazz was popular entertainment, but all too often Carter's hotdogging wasn't even that.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Leon Parker photo by Randy Tunnel.

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