Shawn Maxwell: J Town Suite
Shawn Maxwell

Saxophonist Shawn Maxwell is hardly the only composer to have drawn inspiration from his hometown, Springsteen the perhaps quintessential example; he’s probably the first, however, to have built an entire album around Joliet. Located southwest of Chicago, Illinois’ third largest city is where Maxwell was born, where he went to high school, took his first music lessons, and attended Joliet Junior College, and where his countless experiences proved invaluable as imaginative fodder for the making of his twelfth album.

J Town Suite is no one-dimensional idyllic vision, however: like David Lynch’s Lumberton, Joliet has a dark underside, as evidenced by the presence of a now-closed penitentiary and the gang fights that Maxwell sometimes witnessed. As gritty as it is, Joliet is, for him, still home, and like the unwavering love a parent has for a trouble-making child, the affection Maxwell has for the rough and in places downtrodden locale is strong. After all, without it, he wouldn’t be who he is now. While the album wasn’t recorded at Joliet, it was laid down nearby at Electrical Audio in Chicago.

Each of the nine tracks has a fascinating backstory that’s fleshed out in Neil Tesser’s helpful liner notes. But the recording hold ups perfectly well as a pure musical statement stripped of supplemental content, especially when the material is stylistically varied and the writing packed with oblique melodies, minor-key modes, and skewed rhythms. The foundation’s jazz, yes, but hints of funk and rock surface too. Still, no matter how different one composition is from another, the set’s held together by the Joliet concept.

That Maxwell’s honed his writing over many albums is shown by the confidence of the writing. It helps too that he’s ably supported by keyboardist Collin Clauson, electric bassist Michael Barton, and drummer Greg Essig on the date. Maxwell himself is a versatile player as comfortable wielding alto and soprano saxophones as flute. The performances bear the leader’s signature in the compositions and the quartet’s in its performances. Much of this tight band’s identity stems from the coupling of Clauson’s Fender Rhodes, Barton’s throb, and Essig’s expert stickwork with the leader’s woodwinds.

To start, Maxwell takes us to Joliet Central High with the oft-funky “Steelmen March,” Steelman the name of its sports mascot and “March of the Steel Men” its pep song. Consistent with that, the piece is animated by an enticingly slinky march groove and a pied piper-ish alto sax figure you might find yourself humming long after the tune’s over. Don’t be surprised either if its freewheeling Fender Rhodes-and-drums episode conjures the image of Chick Corea and Tony Williams laying it down on In a Silent Way (not the only time that happens on the release, by the way).

Next stop is the family-owned Joe’s Hot Dogs for “Fries or Rings in the Back,” the query barked by a staff member to new customers joining the growing late-night queue. With Maxwell serving up serpentine soprano lines alongside a brooding backdrop, the lugubrious setting turns out to be considerably more exotic than such background info might suggest. Referencing the city’s newspaper (and Maxwell’s stint as a paper delivery boy), the frenetic “Herald’s News” counters the haunted quality of “Fries or Rings in the Back” with a spirited if brief romp. The maximum-security penitentiary in nearby Crest Hill is the subject of “In the Shadow of Statesville,” with Maxwell’s flute lending the ponderous meditation a deeply reflective tone.

Titled after a local trumpet player who was instrumental in getting Maxwell started on saxophone and familiar with the Chicago-area jazz station WDCB, “Jerry” works its fluid way through buoyant jazz, funk-rock, and downtempo episodes. The album’s funkiest tune is undoubtedly “Hickory Street,” named for where his family lived until he entered fourth grade and sporting an instantly appealing groove and sunny soprano melody. Like many a Rust Belt city, Joliet’s seen its share of collapse, with “Bridge Closed” alluding to a general state of demise and “Ghost Mall on Jefferson” likewise referencing the downturn many an American city’s encountered. In the former, Maxwell’s soprano sax lunges acrobatically across Rhodes-sprinkled terrain; the latter, while slower by comparison, is enlivened by spirited alto declamations.

In fashioning a recording so eclectic and rich in mood, Maxwell’s created an album that accentuates the multi-faceted character of his hometown. As a result, he’s produced a set that makes Joliet, despite the myriad challenges it’s faced, economic and otherwise, seem like not the worst place in the world to be. Think of it as an affectionate yet still honest portrait, as well as one with lots musically to offer.
April 2024

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