Since 1995 pianist Willie Pickens—a Chicago jazz treasure who’s been knocking ‘em dead since the late 50s—has hosted an annual Christmas concert at the Hyde Park Union Church, where he and his wife Irma have been members since the 70s. Over the years folks like Nicholas Payton, Jon Faddis, and Randy Brecker have sat in with the trio for the concerts, and this year’s installment—tomorrow night, Friday, December 15 at 8 PM—features the fine New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison and local singer Yvonne Gage.
Pickens, who turned 75 in February, actually cut a Christmas album, A Jazz Christmas, for the local Southport label in 1988, but I’ve never heard it. More recently, however, Pickens released an excellent two-volume set called JazzSpirit (also on Southport), which features his jazz adaptations of spirituals, gospel tunes, and even European hymns—which he’s also performed at the church over the last few years during his sacred music series. Pickens brings his typical energy and rhythmic sophistication to the pieces--from "Wade in the Water" to "O My Soul Bless Your Redeemer"--and while he retains their melodic integrity and a certain feel for their tone, there’s no doubt that these are jazz albums. Among his esteemed guests on the albums are saxophonist Ari Brown and trumpeter Tito Carrillo. Obviously, if you’ve got no joy for the season this concert may sound like hell on earth, but even if you don't like holiday tunes, Pickens can certainly transcend any over-familiarity or melodic triteness with his hard-charging improvisations