Chicago has a remarkable knack for producing young jazz artists with unusual voices, and one of them made a strong showing over the weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club.
Pianist Rob Clearfield has turned in consistently interesting and significant work in bands led by other musicians, most notably bassist Matt Ulery, singer Grazyna Auguscik and saxophonist Greg Ward. But Clearfield has stepped fully into the spotlight with his debut recording as bandleader, "The Long and Short of It," and he celebrated its release leading his quintet before a large audience on Saturday night.
Clearfield's music does not fall into any easy category or genre. Freewheeling jazz improvisation dovetails with pop-tinged melody-making, complex chord structures alternate with straightforward harmonies, acoustic instrumentation rubs up against its electronic counterpart.
What binds all of these seemingly far-flung methods is Clearfield's distinctive musical sensibility, which makes urgent lyricism its highest priority. Moreover, a trance-like quality underlies much of his music, which often unfolds via hypnotically repeated rhythms and long, soaring melody lines. Though some of this work can become a bit grandiose, as it occasionally did on Saturday evening, for the most part Clearfield's scores command attention through the sheer beauty of his themes and his unexpected ways of developing them.
Clearfield's quintet opened the evening with "Maybe Next Time," from the new album, the bandleader demure at the piano while guitarist John Kregor and tenor saxophonist Scott Burns played with escalating intensity. As the emotional temperature of the music rose, drummer Eric Montzka and bassist Patrick Mulcahy helped push the band from one crescendo to the next, the music fervent without being self-dramatizing.
The Clearfield band fully established its voice in the next tune, the title track of "The Long and Short of It," Clearfield's main theme an unforgettable riff that formed the spine of the performance but lent itself to considerable thematic transformation. Clearfield played electronic keyboard here, choosing to support the band rather than dominate it. It's clearly the ensemble sound that means most to him, and in this piece, and others, these players functioned as a single organism.
If "Victoria Park," also from "The Long and Short of It," pushed toward a fortissimo that leaned dangerously close to bombast, its earlier passages showed austerely beautiful ensemble textures. And Clearfield's keyboard solo conveyed a heady, dream-like quality built on meandering lines and gently rolling rhythms.
Above all, Clearfield announced himself as a composer-instrumentalist unafraid of whole notes stretched across many beats. His unhurried tempos and deliberate right-hand lines stood in sharp contrast to the work of many other under-30 jazz musicians who confuse speed with excitement and noise with drama. Clearfield, on the other hand, allows his music to speak straightforwardly and in its own time.
This was especially the case in "Life Imitates Life," from the new album, its dramatic main theme and fade-to-silence conclusion difficult to resist. Ditto "Temptation," a new piece that opened with a Clearfield piano solo steeped in unusual chord progressions. Guitarist Kregor and bassist Mulcahey picked up on the serene beauty of Clearfield's pianism, offering exquisitely honed phrases of their own.
It all spoke well for Clearfield's first major outing as bandleader, and for the music that lies ahead.