Art Beat: Fantastic musicians deserve larger turnouts

Art Beat: Fantastic musicians deserve larger turnouts

On Aug. 29, the opening night of the Chicago Jazz Festival, bassist Larry Gray performed as part of a supergroup of Chicago players headed by legendary drummer Jack DeJohnette.

I wasn't there, but I would guess many of the 11,000 seats at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park were full for DeJohnette's Special Legends Chicago Edition band.

On Wednesday evening, Gray performed in a supertrio with pianist Chip Stephens and drummer Joel Spencer at The Iron Post in Urbana.

I counted six people in the audience, not including the bartenders. By the end of the two-hour gig, there were 10.

"This is a world-class group that should not be playing for just six people," said Bob Selby, a jazz fan who was there.

Amen, brother. Amen.

The SSG Trio, as the stellar players call themselves, started performing this past summer at the Post early every other Wednesday evening.

A couple of weeks ago, a good number of people showed up, but most of the times I've been there, it's a paltry turnout, far disproportionate to the talent and stature of the three players.

Maybe it's a lack of marketing, as Gray suggested. Or maybe people just don't know about the talent among the UI jazz faculty including Gray, Stephens and Spencer.

"What's impressive to me is these guys have played together enough that it's become intuitive," said Selby, a UI architecture professor emeritus. "We could be at the Village Vanguard in New York City and we wouldn't be hearing anything better than this."

This past Wednesday, the trio aced a number of beautiful arrangements by Stephens of great tunes, among them "Little Niles," by Randy Weston; "Ornithologically Speaking," Stephens' sort of "contrafacts" take on Charlie Parker's "Ornithology"; and "Django," by John Lewis, founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

A lot of people say, "I don't understand jazz." With apologies to Louis Armstrong, who said, "Man, if you have to ask what jazz is, you'll never know," I'll give it a stab:

Just listen. Don't try to figure it out. Besides the music theory involved, jazz is about being in the moment with the players as they improvise, listen and respond to each other.

As for theory, Stephens sometimes offers up a little bit of it during his performances at the Post. I once enjoyed his riff on John Coltrane's famous "Giant Steps," a tenor-sax improvisation Coltrane recorded in 1959 that set the gold standard for aspiring saxophonists.

I often call the people who regularly show up to hear SSG, Donnie Heitler and other great jazz players here the "usual suspects."

Among the small yet appreciative fan group is Robbi Muir, an underwriter for State Farm who lives in Bloomington. She used to go to Chicago to hear live jazz.

"Once I discovered (the C-U jazz scene), I no longer had to go to Chicago," she told me Wednesday after the SSG show.

Fortunately, Gray doesn't mind playing for just a few people here. He said he just likes playing — and with Stephens and Spencer.

But he did call his gig with DeJohnette's group at the Chicago Jazz Festival incredible and a beautiful experience, mainly because of the other musicians on stage with him.

Besides DeJohnette, they were Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill on saxophones. All heavy cats.

Gray had played twice before with DeJohnette, whose name is synonymous with modern jazz drumming. DeJohnette first became known in the '60s as he played with Charles Lloyd and Miles Davis; he also spent years in the Keith Jarrett Trio.

If a small intimate bar like the Post is not your thing, Gray will perform on double-bass at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

The concert's billed as "Larry Gray Presents: Chicago Connection with Ed Wilkerson and Avreeayl Ra!" It will feature new works Gray composed for the occasion, as well as compositions by Wilkerson and Ra.

Wilkerson, who plays saxophone and clarinet, is a master composer and improviser. Among many projects, he leads the acclaimed 8 Bold Souls and Shadow Vignettes.

He is a lifelong member and former president of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which was founded by Abrams.

Master drummer-percussionist Ra, also a longtime member of the association, has performed and recorded with many major jazz artists, among them Sun Ra, Joseph Jarman, Lester Bowie and Pharoah Sanders.

Gray, who now lives in Urbana, has a 30-year history as a musician in Chicago, where he was house bassist at the Jazz Showcase and remains the first-call bassist.

Like most of the jazz faculty, Gray has performed and/ or recorded with many jazz greats. In his case, they include Clark Terry, Benny Golson, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, Joe Williams and the Larry Coryell Trio.

Tickets for the Krannert concert are $10 for adults, $7 for senior citizens and $4 for students. Usually, the cover for the SSG Trio at the Post is $5; they play 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. every other Wednesday there.


Always a draw, jazz pianist Laurence Hobgood will perform two sets this evening at The Iron Post, 120 S. Race St., U, likely 7 to 8:30 and 9 to 10:30 p.m. An alumnus of Urbana High School, Hobgood studied at the UI and is music director for Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Kurt Elling.

Hobgood's rounded up an all-star cast for the gigs tonight; among the players is veteran saxman Ernie Watts, who has toured with the likes of the Rolling Stones.

A beautiful show

I had held high expectations for New Orleans bassist James Singleton and cellist Helen Gillet's performance on Monday evening at Buvons in Urbana.

The duo exceeded my expectations. After sort of a rough start on the first tune, the two hit it, turning in impressive sets of eclectic, contemporary jazz that was quite listenable, even beautiful at times.

Gillet, 34, also performed solo, playing her cello, doing masterful looping and singing songs in French that she learned during her childhood in Belgium. She's a major talent.

In July, Downbeat magazine did a profile of the classically trained jazz cellist (she plays other instruments as well) for its "Players" section.

In the article, Singleton, a mainstay on the New Orleans music scene, called Gillet "an embodiment of the new spirit of New Orleans" and one of the best musicians in that town.

Play's the thing

— Joe Curnutte, a 2000 alumnus of Mahomet-Seymour High School, is portraying Dr. Seward in the Actors Theatre of Louisville production of "Dracula" through Oct. 31.

— Champaign Central High School alumnus J. Tyler Whitmer will be in the ensemble of "Miss Saigon" on Oct. 30-Nov. 24 at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

Whitmer, 29, is in the "9 to 5" ensemble through Oct. 13 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. He will return there to appear as the tumbling Cat in "Cats" on March 26-May 25. An alumnus of Butler University in Indianapolis, Whitmer lives in Chicago.

News-Gazette staff writer Melissa Merli can be reached at 351-5367 or Her blog is at

Topics (2):Music, Theater

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