Modern music seems to encourage unconventional combinations of instruments, but the lineup of Baritone Nation--four baritone saxists, one percussionist, and nothing else--will still probably catch a few people by surprise. A basic 17-piece jazz orchestra never uses more than one bari; to see four lined up in a row you'd usually have to go to an instrument repair shop. The Nation's founder, Bluiett (formerly Hamiet Bluiett, he now goes by a single name, like certain pop stars and pro wrestlers), has plenty of experience working without a standard rhythm section: he cofounded and continues to play in the World Saxophone Quartet, the most famous of the all-sax bands. But the WSQ employs a wide range of saxes, from the squeaky sopranino down to Bluiett's booting bari; in Baritone Nation, the often blustery and frequently cumbersome baritone provides the only tonal color, and though the instrument has a flexible voice, four of any type of horn playing together can easily create an impenetrable mess. Bluiett and company keep their ensemble from collapsing under its own weight by making frequent use of the instrument's throaty falsetto--even whales can sing, after all--and by listening intently to make sure they don't step all over each other in the middle and bottom registers. Bluiett doesn't always display the attention to proportion that he has in the WSQ, but in Baritone Nation he manages the action like a great center: even in the midst of a roisterous slam dunk, he knows exactly where his teammates are. He shares the front line with popular multireedist James Carter, an extroverted soloist and leader in his own right; the other two big horns, Patience Higgins and Alex Harding, have earned reputations as ace ensemble players--in groups ranging from Muhal Richard Abrams's big band to the acid-jazz-soul outfit Defunkt--and provide a steady counterbalance to Carter and Bluiett's tightrope heroics. Ronnie Burrage drums on the group's only album, a live recording from 1997 on the Justin Time label; for these concerts Kahil El'Zabar will add his groove-based, Afrocentric percussion. Friday and Saturday, November 24 and 25, 9 PM, HotHouse, 31 E. Balbo; 312-362-9707.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.