Chicago pianist Willie Pickens lets it all hang out: voluble and mercurial, he can play with the force of two pianists. (Not that he always does: on a forthcoming Concord release, recorded at the Jazz Showcase in December, he plays duets with--and leaves plenty of room for--fellow pianist Marian McPartland.) Though a stalwart on the local scene for four decades, Pickens received little acclaim from outside the city until the late 80s, when he toured internationally as a member of Elvin Jones's Jazz Machine; the legendary drummer put Pickens's powerful postbop approach, influenced by McCoy Tyner as well as the mid-60s Chicago avant-garde, to especially good use. Since settling back in town (and back into his roles as bandleader and prized accompanist) in the mid-90s, Pickens has consistently grown more, well, consistent. His solos once careened through explosive twists and leaps like roller-coasters, but he's since learned to balance thrilling technique with simple, infectious lyricism; now the excitement in his improvisations builds and subsides, instead of appearing out of nowhere. The end result of this maturing process--brawny virtuosity in the service of texture and nuance--comes through most clearly when Pickens plays solo, as he will at two events this weekend. First, on Friday he'll provide the music at a CD-release party, even though it's someone else's CD. Composer and pianist George Flynn, Pickens's labelmate on Southport Records, has released a concert-length solo piano piece, Derus Simples--but because a nightclub would make a bad backdrop for such a demanding modern classical work, punctuated by charged silences, Pickens will play a jazz set instead to celebrate the occasion. He'll likely present some of his own non-jazz compositions as well; Flynn may also perform. Second, on Saturday Pickens will contribute a brief solo set to a free Southport "piano cavalcade," featuring all the pianists who record for the label, including Flynn, Don Bennett, King Fleming, and Marshall Vente. Friday, June 22, 6:30 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. Saturday, June 23, 1 PM, Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1467.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.