In addition to several picks outlined in this space yesterday, two splendid but radically different guitarists appear this weekend in Chicago, and you can’t go wrong with either one.
At Club Blujazz, Chicago guitar mainstay Henry Johnson steers his Organ Express through sets tonight and tomorrow. Chicago is not exactly lacking in organ bands of varying stripes. But for pure straight-ahead cooking and steaming (not to mention working and relaxing), it would be tough to outrun the Organ Express.
Similarly, this city has no dearth of excellent and unique jazz guitarists, from Bobby Broom to John McLean to John Moulder to Jeff Parker – to a half-dozen others who I’ll inadvertently insult by not mentioning them here. Of the bunch, however, Johnson hews closest to the mainstream models that all of them listened to growing up: the effortless rush of Wes Montgomery, the deep soul of Grant Green, and the gritty swing of Kenny Burrell.
In the 90s, those qualities made him a trusted sideman, with such big names as pianist Ramsey Lewis and singer Joe Williams, and they inform Johnson’s Organ Express, which also stars Chris Foreman, lithe and fluent at the Hammond B-3. Foreman too sticks to the classic sound of organ jazz, as passed down by Jimmy Smith through such disciples as Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff (the “Scottish” organists). Foreman’s great strength lies in how he constructs his solos, adding textures and building up the melodies, chorus upon chorus, until he’s turned the organ into a sanctifying gospel choir.
Larry Coryell plays the Showcase through Sunday (photo by Dr. Jazz)
Behind him, drummer Greg Rockingham punches crisp, bluesy beats and polished fills; these also echo an earlier era of unambiguous swing. And saxist Peter Roothaan neatly shoehorns his place into this busy landscape, giving the Organ Express an extra gear. (Having participated in some of Charles Earland’s free-for-all jams in the 70s, Roothaan can easily hold his own.)
Meanwhile, for something completely different, the fusion-spawned guitar legend Larry Coryell holds forth at the Jazz Showcase. Considering his mercurial youth as a rock-and-roller turned jazz guitarist, you can’t help but marvel at Coryell’s measured passage into middle age. His music once depended on Red Bull energy (way before Red Bull) and indulgent musical excess, as well as the undeniable craftsmanship he still displays.
Now, though, he focuses his technique on a repertoire of standards and jazz classics, with a few surprises and his own brightly-lit originals – in other words, the very material threatened with extinction by the fusion era in which Coryell achieved his first prominence. And he never sounds better at it than when he plays with his “Chicago trio”: bassist Larry Gray and drummer Paul Wertico (this weekend at the Jazz Showcase).
Both are longtime veterans of the local scene, in addition to world-traveled stars – Wertico with the Pat Metheny Group for 18 years, and Gray as the anchor of Ramsey Lewis’s current trio. (Friday night, Gray plays at Ravinia, as part of Lewis’s 75th-birthday concert, and will be replaced this night only by Eric Hochberg, a more than worthy sub.)
This “Chicago trio” holds a special place in my heart: I’m the one who suggested that it become a longstanding institution. Jazz Showcase proprietor Joe Segal first suggested this trio configuration to Coryell about 15 years ago. A few years later – on the last night of what had become a more-or-less annual engagement — Coryell and I got together for an early dinner, where I went on about how well the trio had worked out, and strongly suggested that he record the group. “Really?” he said. “You think so? Yeah, maybe I will.”
The results arrived some years later as The Power Trio: Live In Chicago (HighNote) — with Coryell’s kind acknowledgment of my “contribution” in the liner notes — and the band has only improved since then. Although they’ve played together mainly on a “same time next year” basis, these three have developed a spectacular group dynamic, with Gray acting as ballast for the centrifugal forces that Coryell and Wertico occasionally propel. Miss them at your own risk.
Henry Johnson’s Organ Express performs at Club Blujazz (1540 W. North) Friday and Saturday at 8:30 and 9:45.
Larry Coryell’s “Power Trio” performs at the Jazz Showcase (806 S. Plymouth Ct.) Friday through Sunday 8 and 10, with a Sunday matinee at 4 PM.