You can count on one hand the number of bassoon players to make a name in jazz, and no wonder. Not only does the bassoon, like the oboe, require a fragile, balky double reed, but it was designed by a masochist who assigned no fewer than 14 keys to the thumbs--which on any other woodwind mostly just hold the damn thing up. But Michael Rabinowitz merits a place in jazz history for more than membership in this tiny club: he has managed to craft a viable, idiosyncratic style that incorporates his instrument's strengths while mitigating its weaknesses. Rabinowitz first showed up on a 1981 Ira Sullivan album, where his playing contributed a tentative novelty; in the ensuing years he's evolved into an astonishingly forceful presence. On the symphonic stage the bassoon is best known as the stern, aloof voice of the grandfather in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, but in Rabinowitz's hands it sounds like it could eat gramps alive. He has learned to swing hard and sail above a rhythm section, even though the bassoon sounds as if it were born to burrow; and he takes advantage of the instrument's malleable timbre to reach the time-honored jazz goals of expressivity and individuality. On two recent albums, Bassoon on Fire (Cat's Paw) and Gabrielle's Balloon (Jazz Focus), the instrument holds its own against two of its more popular cousins. His recording of John Coltrane's "Central Park West" manipulates the upper register to sound exactly like a flute--which makes his plunge into the throaty low register all the more delicious. And when he sticks to the middle register, with the piano doubling the melody, he approaches the vaunted power of the tenor sax. But Rabinowitz is most impressive when he finds his own hip applications for his uncool instrument: staccato slap-tonguing to create a hip-hop rhythm, or wildly bending notes to get a banshee moan that most soprano saxists can only dream about. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.