Technical skill and spontaneity are essential in a strong jazz soloist, but the ability to listen and process information on the fly is just as crucial. Amsterdam's aptly named ALL EARS embodies this talent: led by pianist Michiel Braam and tenor saxophonist Frans Vermeerssen, the sextet plays from a repertoire of pithy, carefully arranged themes that reference nearly every era of jazz history. The rhythm section (bassist Wilbert de Joode and drummer Michael Vatcher) and the rest of the front line (reedist Frank Gratkowski and trumpeter Herb Robertson) deliver tart counterpoint with precision and snap, sometimes hurtling forward like a hypercharged big band and sometimes swinging with the soulful grace of a tight hard-bop outfit. All Ears is also a killer free-jazz group; for example, Vermeerssen's "18 Rabbit," from Foamy Wife Hum / Line (BBB, 2003), expresses movement with pops, snorts, and whinnies, sketching out the melodic progression in dotted lines. Each musician controls a certain number of pieces from the group's songbook and can call on one at any time, even disrupting a tune in progress with a new composition; hearing the sextet adapt without getting tangled up is half the pleasure. They're not as deliberately self-sabotaging as Amsterdam's great ICP Orchestra, but they're a similarly complete jazz group; they play with time like the bellows of an accordion and change the tone of the music as easily as if they were shuffling through a stack of Pantone color samples. --Peter Margasak
Whether he's playing jazz with Fred Anderson, free improv with Michael Zerang, or country-rock with Janet Bean, piano and ARP synthesizer player JIM BAKER is always a responsive accompanist. But at a rare solo gig at 6Odum last November he seemed genuinely stumped; he pondered his keyboards for long stretches of time, as if engaged in a staring match. Those uncomfortable silences eventually led to some splendid music, though, and his fine solo debut, More Questions Than Answers (Delmark), is similarly appealing. Baker's piano pieces are discursive but build from strong melodic kernels, and the synth tracks knowingly explore an old-school electronic sound world in a way that reminds me of Sun Ra's Minimoog excursions. He'll perform solo for this opening set. Baker also plays two shows at 3030, 3030 W. Cortland. On Thursday 3/24 at 9:30 PM he plays with a trio including percussionist Jerome Bryerton and reedist Paul Hartsaw; on Thursday 3/31 at 9 PM he performs with Tony Buck (see today's Treatment item). Call 773-862-3616. --Bill Meyer
Wed 3/30, 8:30 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo, 312-362-9707, $15, $10 students and seniors.