Though saxophonist Jeff Chan has been increasingly visible since moving here from San Francisco three years ago, the band he unveiled over the weekend at HotHouse represented a breakthrough for him and his followers. As Saturday night became Sunday morning, a sizable crowd listened raptly to the convergence of Chan's lustrous tenor saxophone, his serenely inspired scores and the radiant ensemble that played them.
Yet everything about Chan's new unit, which headlined the second weekend of the Asian American Jazz Festival, defied expectations, starting with its name. Whimsically titled "Jeff Chan's big fUn philharmonic: Chicago-style," the title--and its jocular approach to capitalization--suggested that listeners were in for a lighthearted romp. That the band was staffed by innovators from both the Asian-American jazz community and Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians foreshadowed high-decibel bursts of sound and energy.
Both presumptions proved utterly, gloriously incorrect, for Chan went in different directions, unfurling a music of uncommon majesty, spirituality and emotional depth. Listening to this remarkable set, at least one listener couldn't help thinking--constantly--about John Coltrane's "A Love Supreme" and Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts, landmarks that clearly have inspired Chan.
Not that he specifically quoted from these milestones or tried to compose extended suites on a comparable scale. But the message of devotion and transcendence in virtually every piece that Chan and the band played made this evening something greater than just another jazz set.
From the opening work, Chan's "Processional," the band reveled in incantatory repetition of phrases, slowly meditative tempos and sustained periods of harmonic tension. By the time the "Processional" reached its climax, with cries from all the horns, there was no question that Chan's big fUn philharmonic was taking on serious issues.
The discourse deepened in Chan's "Up Above," the rhythm section churning behind Chan's free-ranging solo--which opened the piece like a sermon--before the entire ensemble joined in buoyant, gospel-tinged rhythms. Though the testifying of Ed Wilkerson Jr. on tenor saxophone and the soaring lyricism of Jason Kao Hwang never veered into hysterics, the urgency and adventurousness of their work were unmistakable.
If Chan can build on this evening, which marked the debut of a band loosely based on an earlier version he headed in San Francisco, he could be embarking upon the most significant phase of an already promising career.
Earlier in the evening, another, more celebrated jazz visionary--trumpeter-bandleader Dave Douglas--offered a sometimes luminous, sometimes quizzical set at the Old Town School of Folk Music.
Enamored of the silent films of Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Douglas has composed scores to accompany such Arbuckle shorts as "Fatty & Mabel Adrift" and "Fatty's Plucky Pup." This merger of acoustic and electronic instrumentation, documented on Douglas' gorgeous "Keystone" CD (Greenleaf Music), proved even more melodically inspired and poetically voiced in concert than on the recording. Douglas' trumpet solos, meanwhile, were very nearly peerless.
Yet his plush, contemporary score--complete with DJ and turntables--often clashed with Arbuckle's ancient films, rather than illuminating them.
Even so, the sheer daring of this flawed venture reaffirmed Douglas' stature as an original thinker blessed with a seemingly bottomless well of intriguing ideas.
- Chicago Tribune, Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune, October 11, 2005