Tom Varner | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Tom Varner 

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TOM VARNER

You can count on one hand the number of French horn players who have distinguished themselves in jazz, but Tom Varner has more to offer than extra points in a trivia contest. For starters, Varner improvises with enough flexibility, imagination, and timbral variety to make you wonder why more French hornists haven't attempted the leap. More important, both his solos and his clever, satisfying compositions quickly overshadow the freak value of his instrument: after a minute or so, you forget that Varner and his instrument supposedly "belong" in a symphony or chamber orchestra. His compositions have a dark bounce to them, with sharply angled melodies and hard, propulsive rhythms. (Some of them sound like they might have been written by Thelonious Monk--on crank.) Varner's music belongs to the Lower Manhattan school that includes the drummer/composer Bobby Previte, the Jazz Passengers, the various groups led by keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and John Zorn; but the twisty lyricism of his writing and his horn's slightly surprising voice give Varner's work a distinct personality of its own. He'll bring a number of his compositions for quintet to Chicago, but not the quintet itself; instead, he'll rely on four especially compatible local players, in effect creating a "Quintet Midwest" to perform these pieces, which stretch over the last dozen years. Ryan Shultz assembled the band, and his bass trumpet--replacing the tenor sax these pieces have employed on disc--should provide a subtle frontline partner for Varner; both their instruments traverse the general range of the trombone while maintaining separate identities. The band includes the rhythmically intrepid alto saxist Rudy Mahanthappa, bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Eric Montzka. (Damon Short will play drums for the last night of the engagement, and I imagine his inspired blend of New Orleans and Chicago freebop will add another flavor to the proceedings.) Tuesday through next Friday, October 4, 9:30 PM, the Bulls, 1916 N. Lincoln Park West; 337-3000.

NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Rahov Segev.

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