Willie Pickens Trio with Nicholas Payton & Kurt Elling | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Willie Pickens Trio with Nicholas Payton & Kurt Elling 

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This year's "Jazz Christmas" concert by Willie Pickens will be the Chicago pianist's fourth, but his new album, A Jazz Christmas (Southport), is his first foray into the minefield of holiday theme recordings. Like the upcoming gig, the record features young trumpet star Nicholas Payton, along with Pickens regulars Larry Gray on bass and Robert Shy on drums, in a rough-and-tumble take on the usual repertoire, from the fast, flamenco-tinged "Little Drummer Boy" to the speeding modernist harmonies Pickens plucks from "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." In fact, Pickens takes most of the album at top tempi; he has his sentimental side, which finds its way into his occasional work with a south-side children's choir, but he leaves it home with the mistletoe for this material. And as he burrows into the eight familiar tunes with his trademark dogged vigor, they gain the slightly unexpected edge that characterizes such previous gems of the genre as Bobby Timmons's out-of-print Holiday Soul, John Coltrane's version of "Greensleeves," and Wynton Marsalis's wonderful Crescent City Christmas Card. You recognize the melodies, but virtually everything else has been transformed, and you wonder why anyone still plays this stuff straight. Pickens's barreling technique works best when he firmly anchors his splintered lines to the beat, but he always musters a lot of force behind his improvisations; in recent years he's managed to swing harder than ever by loosening the viselike grip he once applied to his chords. Payton, still in his mid-20s, has grown into one of the jazz mainstream's brightest hopes: he's full of tradition but anxious and able to put his own stamp on it. Chicago vocalist Kurt Elling will join the quartet onstage for several tunes, warming up for his own nationally broadcast New Year's Eve concert at HotHouse. Friday, 8 PM, Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn; 773-363-6063. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Willie Pickens uncredited photo; Nicholas Payton photo by Barron Claiborne.

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