By Howard Reich
Was it jazz? Classical? Pop? Funk?
Ultimately, no single term encapsulates the music that Chicagoan Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance played Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, which was just part of its allure. Better still, Maxwell presided over an ensemble of unconventional instrumentation, to put it mildly.
When was the last time you heard a front line featuring two saxophones and wordless vocals plus two French horns, two stand-up basses, guitar, drums and percussion?
Maxwell’s scores proved as unusual as his taste for instrumental color, the pieces shifting from jazz-swing rhythm one moment to classical downbeats the next, from bebop phraseology to long and incantatory phrases to perky, funk-tinged melody making. Not every Maxwell composition proved thoroughly effective, but the sheer stylistic breadth of this music – sometimes within a single work – made this a most unusual evening at the Showcase. And a welcome one.
Maxwell and friends started out light and bright with “Fun Five Funk,” which opens his newly released recording of this music, “Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance” (on the Chicago Sessions label). Even in this quirky little tune, however, Maxwell showed his predilection for exquisitely odd musical juxtapositions. As he set off a characteristically intense solo on alto saxophone, his composed passages for French horn and voice in unison brought an ethereal undercurrent to the proceedings.
Few in the audience likely would go home humming the long, winding, snaky theme of Maxwell’s “Iynes Crayons,” but there was no resisting its melodic pull – particularly as dispatched by Chris Greene’s soprano saxophone, Maxwell’s flute and Keri Johnsrud’s serene, wordless vocals. Maxwell’s sharp-edged, somewhat rough-hewn flute solo was not the most sensuous sound ever to issue from the instrument, but the sheer unpredictability of the ensemble writing kept at least one listener intrigued. Passages driven by Paul Townsend’s relentless backbeats were abruptly interrupted by quasi-classical sections for two exquisitely blended French horns. Nobody writes like this.
Maxwell showed his strengths in balladry with his “Ava,” which isn’t on the new album but was worth savoring. Greene’s soprano saxophone, Maxwell’s alto and Johnsrud’s subtle vocal lines captured the flow of this music, with Stephen Lynerd’s vibraphone adding to the mystique of it all.
The highlight of the set arrived with “From Parts Unknown,” an immensely attractive piece that showed Maxwell’s writing at its most clever. In effect, several melody lines cascaded atop one another, with ingeniously syncopated effects from Greene’s soprano saxophone, Maxwell’s alto, Mitch Corso’s guitar and Johnsrud’s vocals.
With all this sonic activity underway, musicians and technicians struggled a bit to find the right voicing and acoustical balance in each composition, since no two were quite alike. Overall, listeners need to hear Johnsrud’s vocals more prominently, for she sometimes was overwhelmed by all that sound.
Still, one had to admire the unusual nature of this enterprise and Maxwell’s boldness in pursuing it. He hears music differently than most and isn’t afraid to celebrate that fact on a grand scale.
Shawn Maxwell’s Alliance
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com