Catching a Show at the Showcase

By Mark A. Moore, Senior Executive, Smooth Jazz Entertainment LLC.

After a busy Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to venture anywhere for the evening. As I was perusing my emails, I got a message from the Jazz Showcase. The Wallace Roney Sextet was in town. At this point, I had never heard of him, but his musical pedigree was uniquely compelling. Early in his career, Mr. Roney was considered to be a protégé of the late great Miles Davis. Of course, Miles Davis is arguably one of the most influential trumpeters ever to play. Wallace Roney has never professed to be Milesesque, but it was intriguing to imagine what someone who worked closely with him would sound like. What would be his influences? How original would his sound be?

I arrived at the Jazz Showcase just in time to sit in on the final set of the night. I managed to find a quiet corner in the room, ordered a gin and tonic and patiently waited for the beginning of the set. After 64 years, the “showcase” as it’s so affectionately called, is one of Chicago’s most storied and treasured jazz locales. It is a veritable time capsule of Chicago jazz history. The side walls are covered with photos of some the great players that have graced their stage over the years. Posters with the likes of Sarah Vaughn remind us of jazz from an earlier time. The back walls are adorned with the old front signage from the club’s original location on Division and Clark. Though faded and rusted, they symbolize the strength and continuity of its ongoing tradition. Wooden chairs surround tables decorated with circular candles, which are designed for drinks and finger foods as opposed to full scale meals. It is a rather dark and austere environment, but the service is good. The stage itself is small but well lit. The performers have enough room to play, but at times they must dance around each other while playing. The sound system provides an accurate reflection of the artists playing, while producing a broad and illuminating sound. Anyone who is part of the jazz community knows this is one of the premiere places to experience jazz of all shapes and sizes. But I have to admit, it wasn’t as well attended as I expected it to be. Then again, perhaps I have greater but unrealistic expectations. I think every jazz club should be packed-especially on a Saturday night!

The final set began with a brief introduction of the group. It was a surprisingly young set of musicians on stage. Aside from his brother Antoine Roney, the other group members were at least 10 years younger than Mr. Roney. (He referred to them as the “future” of jazz) Mr. Roney has a unique stance while playing. He prefers to hold his horn downward into the microphone as opposed to up and out. He stood slightly hunched while blowing, but still managed to produce a clean sound with a slight vibrato. The first piece began with a melodic solo opening, with the trumpet setting the mood of the room. It had a driving beat accented by the piano. Their polished style rounded out the rhythms effortlessly. This group was grooving; being careful not to push too hard. They focused more on the softer subtleties of each piece. They managed to communicate fluidly without competing with each other. These were somewhat lengthy pieces with solos featuring the tenor sax, soprano sax, alto sax, bass, drums and piano.

As for the Miles comparison; clearly this group wasn’t afraid to play along slightly different musical lines. This was irreverent music. They played with a controlled intensity that was driving but not overpowering. This is a versatile group who plays within their set limits. They are more interested in managing their arrangements, rather than blowing the listener away. Mr. Roney plays under complete control, allowing his notes to flow seamlessly through each bar. His almost workmanlike approach leaves audiences to absorb his sounds and to ponder his melodies. But I guess that’s where the comparison ends. The crowd was appreciative but somewhat reserved. They appreciated the artistry they were witnessing.

This was a good Saturday night, especially since I managed to catch a cab quickly on S. Plymouth! Besides, it wasn’t too cold either. Thursday, October 27th is the big day. The Chris Green Quartet at Mayne Stage should be a memorable performance.