“One of the preeminent performers in Chicago jazz, saxophonist Shawn Maxwell–”
I could almost stop you right there. Start talking about jazz and Chicago and saxophones, and I’m going to imagine a particularly energetic sound. We’re talking about big horn sections, acting as a singular force, and more than the usual helping of blues and rock and roll drive. To tell you the truth, I heard a lot of that on the surface of Maxwell’s new CD, Music in My Mind, blaring horns leading the way, lots of ooomph, the antithesis of introspection. During subsequent listening sessions I heard something else emerge, a more modern approach that employs different levels of dynamics simultaneously. If this is Chicago jazz, there’s something new in the wind off Lake Michigan.
There’s a busyness to the sound that comes from meticulous composing and strong pushes of sheer originality. Maxwell and his usual quartet New Tomorrow (keyboardist Matt Nelson, drummer Phil Beale and rotating bassists Patrick Mulcahy, Junius Paul and Tim Seisser) are joined by three well-known Chicago horn players (Victor Garcia, Chad McCullough and Corey Wilkes). Guest appearances include vocalist Dee Alexander, who has an unusually sweet and velvety approach to improvisation. There’s a lot of talent here, patiently taking turns to shine, and that’s where it sounds so different than the traditional Great Lakes vision of precision and teamwork. It’s a swirling, detailed delivery that constantly circles around in your mind.
These ten original compositions from Maxwell are given flight by his versatile sax–his shifting of gears is fluid and he has a lot of emotions at his fingertips. He can blast when he needs to, or lurk in the background like a low voltage charge, ready to spur on his cohorts when inspiration is warranted. There’s a consistent vibe here of support, of each of these musicians encouraging the others who share the stage. Maybe it’s love–it certainly feels like it.
As I listen to this album, I keep making an unlikely connection to Sufjan Steven’s epic Illinois, which certain shares those geographic cues. The reasons are surprisingly subtle, however. Maxwell and Stevens both like a lot of musicians on the stage at the same time, and there are intersections with some of the instrumentation–especially with the vibraphone and some of the percussion. It’s fleeting, but it’s enough. That doesn’t mean you should get one if you like the other, because this is a very specific and personal observation. But it all goes back to that feeling of love–not in a schmaltzy way, but in a shared joy of playing music that is obvious to the listener. Shawn Maxwell and his crew loved making this recording, and it shows.