I carry one enduring image of Larry Gray. This image persists beyond any particularly exquisite bass solo, and beyond the laundry list of famous visiting jazzmen lauding his accompaniment work; it even eclipses the multifaceted achievement of his debut CD (Solo + Quartet on Premonition Records, released over the summer). The image finds Gray onstage at the Jazz Showcase, perhaps eight years ago, backing a visiting saxophonist, a tenor legend on the comeback trail; the other sidemen included a well-known drummer and one of the city's best pianists. What struck me was not the fact that Gray displayed a crisper technique than all these better-known jazzmen, each of them twice his age; after all, youthful virtuosity will often seem to outshine its own mentors. But Gray outplayed them in terms of sheer musicality--the shading and expressiveness and subtle communication skills that determine musical maturity. He was, quite simply, the best musician on the stand, a scenario that I have come to expect on a regular basis. In terms of his leonine technical skills and his perfectionism in such matters of tone and phrasing, Gray can stand among the best bassists in jazz. But his ability to lead a group of equally powerful players stems from the unusual focus he brings to the music beyond his own instrument--whether playing in a piano-bass duo or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (which he's done). His quartet concentrates on a determinedly modernistic approach unbeholden to either revivalism or a self-conscious avant-garde; it features Edward Petersen on saxophones, Joel Spencer on drums, and for this engagement the veteran Chicago pianist Willie Pickens (on loan from Elvin Jones's band). Sunday, 7 PM, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt, Berwyn; 708-788-2118.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.