Willie Oickens Quintet | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Willie Oickens Quintet 

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During the last four decades the Chicago jazz mainstream has flowed from two chief stylistic tributaries, each of which distinguishes the local landscape from that found in other burgs. In the 50s pianists Ramsey Lewis and Ahmad Jamal, bassists Wilbur Ware and Victor Sproles, and the multiinstrumentalist Ira Sullivan helped forge a style that made judicious use of space and a relatively economical use of notes, creating (in retrospect) a sort of aural correlative to the prairie. On the other hand, a school of almost profligate improvising developed, with ideas blurted and burned or plowed aside by the onrush of new phrases and ever more notes--a style bearing the tremendous don't-look-back energy of the city itself. The tenor men Von Freeman and Johnny Griffin exemplify this style, and so does pianist Willie Pickens, who moved here from his native Wisconsin in the 60s. Pickens began to prune his style a few years ago, but it remains busy and colorful, punctuated by the note clusters that grow out of his dense chords. And thanks to his percussive attack--which occasionally moves into the rapid-fire piston action associated with McCoy Tyner--Pickens's most exuberant solos all but take flight from the keyboard's runway. Certainly these were among the qualities that caught drumming legend Elvin Jones's ear and convinced him to hire Pickens into his regular band five years ago. This has meant a chance to hear Pickens on a steady spate of international recordings, but it has also resulted in a lower profile on the Chicago club scene. In other words, grab him while you can. You can expect plenty of powerhouse punch throughout the night, given the lineup that Pickens will run through the Mill. The front line features trumpeter Kenny Anderson (of the blistering tone and high-octane technique) and veteran saxist Jimmy Ellis (no stranger to musical extroversion). The rhythm section includes the fitfully explosive drummer Robert Shy, who when on his game can respond instantly to any nuance the soloist plays. The band will depend on the very nearly perfect Larry Gray--with his sure but flexible command of the beat--to hold it all together from behind his bass. Friday, 9 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 878-5552.


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

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