If self-quarantining is the new black, a pair of recent releases by venerable Chicago jazz masters can lend your solitude some splashes of color.
Saxophonist Shawn Maxwell returns with a new album, “Millstream,” and a new ensemble (Collin Clauson on keys, Jeremiah Hunt on bass, Phil Beale on drums and Chad McCullough on trumpet). Its first track throws you for a loop, because the effect of “Ravage Effect” is anything but ravaging; ravishing, rather. It’s a smooth unspooling of high-gloss sonics, first spinning out in 6/8 time, then skipping lightly into 4/4 for a dramatic solo by Maxwell that rises to an ecstatic crescendo before spiraling swiftly back down.
Subsequent tracks are more in sync with their names. “Welcome Anxiety” begins with a “Twilight Zone”-sounding intro that intermittently stops to gasp and sputter. You definitely feel the title disorientation, driven on by Beale’s hyperkinetic drums beating the piece black-and-blue. Maxwell has a great solo where he bleats in exclamation and runs around in circles. “Sold Separately,” meanwhile, is a spot-on evocation of consumer angst. Maxwell maintains a brief, questioning riff while Hunt and Clauson (playing a Rhodes) trawls beneath it for a response. This leads to an exceptionally searching solo by Clauson that ends when Maxwell comes in to soar above it with a wave of sheer aural gold.
My favorite track is “Napping in the Sunshine,” which offers an irresistibly lazy groove, with the bass consistently plunking in behind the beat, the sax lazily meandering over it and the Rhodes splashing around some crystalline chords. The overall effect is both bright and dreamy—a perfect chill-inducer to stave off the creep of cabin fever.
Keyboardist Dave Gordon brings back his quintet (Brian Gephart on saxes, Jack Gallagher on trumpet, Brian Sandstrom on bass and Dushun Mosley on drums) for its strongest outing yet, “Infinite Blue.” The first cut, “Split Shift,” features a sax-driven melody that walks us into the album with so much swing it nearly forms a tractor beam, pulling you along whether you want to go or not. The solos ride seamlessly over a steady, in-the-zone bass line and the general ambience is so defiantly cool you could drop it through a time warp into any given decade, past and probably future and it would still resonate.
The mood immediately alters with “Show Me the Way,” where the brass mournfully wades through the cannon fire of Mosley’s drums, making for an appealing dichotomy between languid tone and Catherine wheel percussion. It all resolves, a third of the way into the tune, into another gorgeous horn melody, one that has an almost folk-ballad quality to it, imbued with an air of aching hopefulness.
And the grooves keep shifting. “Dollar One” is resolutely upbeat, with the sax asking a question repeatedly, like a elbow nudging your ribs; so the relief is palpable when the players settle back to provide an answer, in a breezy monologue backed up by Gallagher’s equally loquacious trumpet. Gallagher then takes over, as do the other soloists one by one, like patrons at a bar counter, pontificating. It’s a lovely, friendly tune.
The bar metaphor gets a different expression inBirds “Nest,” with a drunk-at-four-in-the-morning intro—the players mournfully wailing while Mosley rolls along like a trash-can down an endless concrete incline. The piece grows in intensity until it achieves a miraculous, magisterial beauty—then shifts into a slick funky strut with Gephart checking himself out in every store window, and liking what he sees. Gallagher takes over with a bracing swagger—he leaves a back draft so cool it might actually muss your hair. Then Gordon steps in with an exhilarating solo that manages somehow to be both playful and restrained, like a Picasso sketch. When the bravura soaring and swooping concludes, and suddenly lapses back into the tripping-over-shoelaces opening lament, the effect is so genuinely witty that you laugh out loud.
It’s the catharsis you didn’t know you needed… at the moment you’re probably needing it most.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena,” and his literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.