The Chicago saxophonist Jim Gailloreto manages to keep himself pretty busy.
His innovative Jazz String Quintet has issued two exquisite albums that have redrawn the parameters for fusing jazz improvisation and classical-music. Working off well-deserved composer’s grants, he has turned out a steady stream of unique works for that band, which have swelled the tiny existing repertoire for such projects.
Gailloreto’s mastery of multiple instruments – particularly soprano and tenor saxes, clarinet and bass clarinet – have placed him high on the list of pit-orchestra contractors: it’s a rare season that goes by without him playing the score for at least one touring Broadway musical. The fact that he plays these instruments “legit” – with classically honed technique and timbre, to go with his jazz smarts – has also garnered him guest spots with the Chicago Symphony, as well as the avant-garde orchestra Fulcrum Point.
There’s the occasional special project, such as last weekend, when Gailloreto joined the ensemble playing pianist Fred Hersch’s “Leaves Of Grass” (based on Walt Whitman’s groundbreaking collection of poetry) – presented by the Chicago Humanites Festival – as well as solo spots on albums by a host of vocalists, including Grazyna Auguscik, Kurt Elling, Solitaire Miles, and Alison Ruble.
And just for kicks, Gailloreto spent a couple years of Monday nights at Smoke Daddy (the barbecue joint in Wicker Park), honing an edgy and excellent quartet he calls Jazzformation. The Smoke Daddy gig ended some time ago, but Gailloreto reunites the band tomorrow (Tuesday) at the Jazz Showcase to celebrate the release of their eponymous album (for which I wrote the liner notes).
Jazzformation comprises guitarist John Kregor, whose sharply angled lyricism has most recently been showcase with vocalist-pianist Patricia Barber in her weekly showcase at the Green Mill; bassist Kurt Schweitz, whose handsome tone anchors a billowing technique; and drummer Andre Beasley, who has an effortless command of odd tempos – which proves essential to the success of Jazzformation (the band) as well as “Jazzformation” (the album).
The music’s edge comes partly from the fresh sensibilities of Gailloreto’s collaborators – each a generation younger than he is – and partly from Gailloreto’s own restless insistence on adapting and reshaping way the classic jazz tunes that make up this band’s repertoire.
A favorite tactic involves changing the meter on these tunes, sometimes compressing the melody, sometimes expanding it. Wayne Shorter’s “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” provides an example of the former: originally written to a muscular four-four beat, it turns almost whimsical when Jazzformation shoehorns it into waltz rhythm (three beats to the measure instead of four).
Going the opposite direction, they expand the Benny Golson anthem “Stablemates” from four-four to seven beats per measure – which unexpectedly kicks the melody by adding accents where none previously existed.
Even when they don’t touch the actual meter, as on the juggernaut Sonny Rollins line “Airegin,” the band elasticizes the melody so that it falls someplace other than you anticipate (though still within the measure). The effect is disorienting, but not the least unpleasant – a slight funhouse-mirror distortion of the truth, off-kilter but fully recognizable.
Plenty of modern bands have similarly fooled around with tempo (as well as harmonic structure), in an attempt to remake familiar standards for a contemporary, post-fusion audience. When these changes are made for the sake of change alone, they fail miserably. In the case of Jazzformation, however, these alterations reflect a deep knowledge of the original compositions – and a firm sense of how and why these changes can refract the original without diminishing it.
Some long-established soloists might have some problems with all this; against such backdrops, I’ve heard improvisations that climb and clamber with grit and effort, as if straining to get a foothold on the rocky terrain. But Gailloreto’s solos bounce and soar, treating this somewhat alien landscape like terra firma.
Jazzformation plays two sets, at 8 and 10, Tuesday night (October 30) at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth. And their knack for disguising the familiar makes them a neat pick for Halloween week.
For the “holiday” itself, though, consider the real thing: pianist Tommy Muellner’s “Dracula Quartet,” performing Wednesday at Katerina’s (1920 W. Irving Park) from 9 on – following a 7:30 screening of the 1939 horror gem, “Son Of Frankenstein,” starring Karloff and Lugosi (and perhaps scariest of all, Basil Rathbone).
Once a year, Muellner transforms himself into “Transylvania Tommy” – hey, I’m just the messenger here – to stake his claim on Halloween. The quartet features a sanguine lineup of longtime Muellner associates: Bill Overton on saxophone, Larry Kohut on bass, Rusty Jones on drums, and Arlene Bardelle on vocals.
And, as you’ll see tomorrow – when I post my annual Halloween Jazz Playlist – the jazz community has managed to unearth plenty of tunes that cry out for inclusion on a Halloween gig; from Muellner and company, expect “Witchcraft,” “Ghost Of A Chance,” “Haunted Heart,” etc. And of course, Muellner’s own resurrection of drummer Philly Joe Jones’s drop-dead imitation of Bela Lugosi reciting the hilarious intro to Jones’s “Blues For Dracula.”
By the way, Katerina’s has a fine and inexpensive menu, which makes the place a perfect setting for this band. After all, if you’re listening to the “Dracula Quartet,” you’re of course going to want a bite.