Even as the east coast is drying out, Chicago starts bracing for our own hurricane – the musical storm known as the Chicago Jazz Festival, the 33rd edition of which kicks off Thursday afternoon at the Cultural Center. (More to come on that later in the week.) And the bracing begins tonight at the Jazz Showcase, where one celebration ends even as another begins.
The celebration on the wane is Charlie Parker Month, Showcase proprietor Joe Segal’s 55th tribute to the co-inventor of bebop, which officially ends tonight. It usually ends the last Sunday in August, but this year, Segal has extended the event to this evening – August 29, Parker’s actual birthdate (in 1920) – by holding over the band that settled in last weekend.
The celebration on the upswing might be called “Ira Sullivan Week,” in recognition of the extraordinary Chicago-bred multi-instrumentalist who’s been leading his quartet at the Showcase these last few days. Sullivan plays not only tonight but also tomorrow at the Showcase, where he’ll unveil a new CD, A Family Affair (Origin Records), recorded at the club almost exactly a year ago. And Sullivan concludes the week Sunday night in Grant Park at the Chicago Jazz Festival, in recognition of his own 80th birthday (which he celebrated at the Showcase earlier this year).
There have been other multi-instrumentalists in jazz, as I detailed last year in this space. But no one has created so many individualized personae for so many different instruments as Sullivan. His trumpet stings with a bright fire, while his tenor has a bluff, burred bravado; on soprano, he indulges a dark tone and evokes the freestyle, open-ended jams that took flight in the post-Coltrane 60s.
On flute, Sullivan he displays a rich tone and in-depth lines that belie the derogatory put-down “flute jazz..” His flugelhorn has a rich buttery sound tone that he burnishes into glowing solos. Perhaps best of all, for this occasion he brought an instrument he rarely travels with anymore, his alto sax. (It is Charlie Parker Month, and that was Parker’s axe.) Hearing Sullivan masterfully manipulate that horn’s attack and inflection after too many years, I remembered why it may be my favorite of all his instruments.
Tonight features Sullivan backed by his usual Chicago trio, led by pianist Ron Perrillo, and if you missed them over the weekend, now’s the time to catch the band – the same group that will appear at the Festival – in intimate surroundings. Tomorrow, the lineup turns around to feature Dan Trudell on piano and fellow pianist Stu Katz, playing vibes, thus re-creating the band that appears on A Family Affair. (The band also stars Dennis Carroll on bass and George Fludas on drums; Showcase sets start at 8 and 10 each evening.)
The title of that disc refers to the three unrelated brothers-in-arms – Sullivan, Katz, and Segal – whose decades-long relationship outweighs blood or DNA.
Sullivan first met and performed with Stu Katz in the mid-50s, maintaining a musical and personal friendship long after Sullivan had moved to Florida a decade later. And Joe Segal first hired Sullivan for gigs in the late 40s, when the fledgling entrepreneur was organizing his first jazz concerts, and the young hornman was starting to make waves with his expertise on all the saxophones, a couple of flutes, and trumpet and flugelhorn.
“Joe and Stu, they really are like my family,” Sullivan told me Saturday, his gruff and still energetic voice rising above the post-gig babble to sum up the experiences of three-quarters of a lifetime. “And the trio, they’ve been like my musical family here in Chicago for the last 20 years.” (Perrillo actually first worked with Sullivan in Florida and moved here at Sullivan’s suggestion in 1990.)
A scrupulous old-schooler, Sullivan has kept the new disc under wraps until Tuesday night, allowing only a couple of tracks to be played during a Monday interview on WDCB; the album actually drops September 20, and as far as Sullivan is concerned, reviewers won’t see one till then.
But the disc will indeed be on sale Tuesday night. “Oh, I have them; they’ll be here Tuesday,” he told me, “but not till then!” So no, I haven’t heard the album. But having attended a couple of the performances that contributed to the CD, I can suggest that it will prove worth the wait.
Whether you consider the next two nights an early jump on the Jazz Festival or a late grasp at Charlie Parker Month will depend on your point of view. It’s more or less analogous to whether you see these first few days of the festival week, prior to the imminent musical deluge, as half empty or half full.
Of course, for Ira Sullivan, the whole week is brimming over the top.