Willie Pickens Trio with Randy Brecker & Joanie Pallatto | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Willie Pickens Trio with Randy Brecker & Joanie Pallatto 

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Christmas never comes too early for Chicago pianist Willie Pickens: for five years running he's produced a yuletide concert, and in 1998 he issued A Jazz Christmas (Southport), one of the least sentimental and most engaging holiday jazz albums ever. If you think of Christmastime tunes as either lacy raptures or happy-go-lucky toboggan rides, listen to what Pickens does to the likes of "Caroling, Caroling" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen": his monolithic chords and trampolining right-hand lines exploit the songs' modal possibilities with force and urgency as well as glee. In person Pickens has his so-so nights, when his playing is merely solid, but he also has spectacular ones: belying his gracious, even meek demeanor, he bursts free of his self-imposed rhythmic constraints in a shower of sparks. (At this show, I expect the sparks.) On the album the fiery trumpet of Nicholas Payton plays the role of heraldic angel; at this concert, Randy Brecker's horn will take that part. Brecker has an encyclopedic grasp of his instrument's history and range, and his resume is just as broad: in the late 60s and early 70s he played with both Horace Silver and the proto-fusion group Dreams; in the 90s he's been a member of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band; and on a slew of albums under his own name he's consistently proved himself one of the top horn men of his generation. This year's event--a benefit for Partners in Community Development--will also star singer Joanie Pallatto. The trio will be his regular group, with bassist Larry Gray and drummer Robert Shy. Friday, 8 PM, Hyde Park Union Church, 5600 S. Woodlawn; 773-363-6063. NEIL TESSER


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