When jazz listeners around the world think of Chicago, chances are they imagine the sound of a big, beefy tenor saxophone in the hands of Gene Ammons or Johnny Griffin or Von Freeman. Or perhaps they think of a piano, exuberantly swung by Earl "Fatha" Hines or Nat "King" Cole or Oscar Peterson. Or maybe they even recall some of the city's volcanic drummers, from Gene Krupa and Louie Bellson to Barrett Deems and Paul Wertico.
But certainly the last instrument that most folks associate with Chicago jazz is the guitar. That may be changing, for Chicago in recent years has been turning out some of the most adventurous guitarists in jazz. From the scorching intensity of John Moulder to the avant-garde musings of Jeff Parker to the exotic, world-music experiments of Fareed Haque, Chicago has become a focal point for new ideas in guitar-based improvisation.
Going on record
As if to underscore the point, two of the city's best guitarists -- Bobby Broom and John McLean -- have released unusually strong recordings, each CD attesting to the unusual, idiosyncratic voices that Chicago appears to be nurturing in jazz guitar. That each artist has waited years to make such a statement points to the seriousness and intellectual depth of the projects.
If the international listening public knows Broom at all, it's as a longtime sideman for New Orleans piano player-bandleader Dr. John, with whom Broom toured the world through much of the 1990s. And for listeners with an even longer memory, Broom was the precocious kid playing with tenor saxophone giant Sonny Rollins in the 1980s.
But with the exception of a 1980 CD titled "Clean Sweep" (GRP) and a couple of indie releases in the mid-1990s, Broom has toiled a sideman most of his career, never really getting the attention and recognition that his fleet technique, nimble musical intellect and propulsive sense of swing deserve. He stands to change all that, however, with a smart new recording called "Stand!" (on Chicago-based Premonition Records). Named for the Sly and The Family Stone tune that opens the recording, "Stand!" features Broom's ingenious reworkings of tunes from the 1960s and '70s, such as "House of the Rising Sun," "I Can See Clearly Now" and "Monday, Monday."
Though considered hackneyed in some circles, these vintage hits are practically autobiographical to Broom, since he -- and millions of other listeners -- grew up listening to them. So even if jazz cognoscenti may look askance at such repertoire, to Broom these tunes represented an ideal way to build his first recording under his own name in years.
"What I've learned in playing live with my trio is that these [old] tunes really worked for the audience," explains Broom, who plays Tuesday nights at Peter Miller's Steakhouse in Evanston and Sunday nights at Martyr's on North Lincoln Avenue.
"I started noticing that people in their 20s would come to my shows and say, `That was "The Letter," wasn't it?' Or, `That was "The Long and Winding Road," right?'
"So this music was a way to make jazz more accessible to people. Because most people don't really know about jazz. So at some point I came to the conclusion that I've got enough favorite songs that have enough substance to them for me to improvise on and express myself."
Indeed, it's what Broom does with these tunes that makes "Stand!" noteworthy. The way he strips the cliches from "House of the Rising Sun," radically reworks "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" and finds new poetry in "El Condor Pasa (If I Could)" attests to the man's melodic creativity. If his ability to spin endless riffs on familiar tune suggests that he learned a great deal from his years with Rollins, his knack for inventing long, glorious strands of melody attests to an admiration of Wes Montgomery and George Benson, both longtime heroes of Broom's.
With bassist Dennis Carroll providing sumptuous support and the extraordinary Chicago drummer Dana Hall restlessly commenting on the proceedings, "Stand!" emerges as one of the finest guitar trio recordings to come along in years (he also just has released a disc with organist Lonnie Smith, "Modern Man," on Delmark).
But why has it taken a guitarist of Broom's stature so long to get back into the recording studio?
"I just spent so much time as sideman I didn't get enough time to do my own music," says Broom. "So I finally realized it's my duty to myself to record what I wanted to play. I'm thoroughly pleased with the result, and that hasn't always been the case with my recording career. There have been records I don't think I sound too good on, but not this one."
Unlike the long-itinerant Broom, McLean stands as the prototypical working Chicago musician, appearing prolifically in local clubs as bandleader and sideman while turning in impressive work backing recordings of Chicago singer-instrumentalists Patricia Barber and Terry Callier, among others. Typically, McLean says a great deal with a few, well-chosen notes, taking pains to shape every pitch and sculpt every line.
Emphasis on ensembles
But whether McLean is playing the role of sideman or headliner, he seems less interested in bravura solos than in creating an enthralling ensemble sound.
And that's precisely what makes his debut CD as leader, "Easy Go" (Premonition Records), a jubilant affair. For this isn't so much a guitar record as it is a Chicago jazz-band album, with guitar obbligato. To hear Karl Montzka unleashing fat chords on Hammond B-3 organ, Jim Gailloretto blasting away on saxophones and bassist Larry Kohut and drummer Adam Nussbaum keeping the rhythms churning is to understand McLean's musical values. The man clearly wants to be surrounded by great gales of sound.
"In my opinion, all the guys in this band really have a thing of their own happening, they play great -- there's just a natural hookup with these guys," says McLean.
"I think if I have something legitimate to offer, it has much more to do with the tunes and the arrangements and the way we play than it does with the guitar. In fact, I was just doing an interview with a guy from a guitar magazine, and when he started asking me all these guitar questions, I had to think real hard to come up with some answers. I just don't think guitar, I think band."
Thus, on "Easy Go," the swirl of the ensemble sound usually is in the foreground, with succinct, carefully chosen solos from McLean. Ultimately, "Easy Go" celebrates the sonic possibilities of a great Chicago band, one that happens to be led by a veteran guitarist who was in no rush to make his debut recording.
"Making a recording just never was a top priority of mine," says McLean, who counts Wes Montgomery and Charlie Christian among his primary influences. "I love to write [music], and I love the physical act of playing with other people. I like doing it live and for real."
Precisely that spirit pervades "Easy Go."
In a way, Broom and McLean have taken different approaches, Broom building exquisitely detailed solos while McLean expresses his concepts through the larger vehicle of a band.
Both, however, attest to the range of ideas that now drive guitar jazz in Chicago.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun