Barrett Deems Big Band | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Barrett Deems Big Band

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Without sacrificing quality, you could put together a pretty good band of jazz octogenarians; saxist Benny Carter, violinist Stephane Grappelli, trumpeter Doc Cheatham, and bassist Milt Hinton come immediately to mind. But even in this company drummer Barrett Deems--old as dirt (and just as gritty)--would stand out. No instrument places a greater physical demand on its practitioners, yet the irrepressible Deems has lost only a few beats from his glory years, spent anchoring the all-star combos of Louis Armstrong. (When Edward R. Murrow prepared his 1956 TV documentary on Armstrong, the network felt America wasn't ready for an integrated band on its home screens, but Armstrong refused to switch drummers; as a result Deems became perhaps the last American musician to perform in blackface.) At the time, Deems was in his 40s; Armstrong, a generation older, referred to him as "the Kid," but that probably had as much to do with Deems's focused hyperkinesis both on and off the bandstand. Today that energy still reveals itself in his sturdy articulation at fast tempos and his unrelenting drive. Indeed, not many of Deems's contemporaries could easily keep up with him: that helps explain the youthful bent of this 17-piece orchestra, which reflects the leader in its powerful roar and arresting virtuosity. With a debut album on Delmark due in November and a repertoire of both classic and modern arrangements, the band features standout trumpeters Mike McLaughlin and Brad Goode, the hearty trombone solos of Audrey Morrison, and reedmen Richie Corpolongo and Barry Winograd (who leads his own quite solid big band and thus brings a special empathy to his performer's role). Tuesdays, 9 PM, Elbo Room, 2871 N. Lincoln; 549-7700.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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