by Howard Reich
More than a decade ago, a teenage Chicago saxophonist startled audiences with the rough-hewn brilliance and energy of his playing. The question was whether he would build on the promise of his debut or simply fade away, as most prodigies do, whether he could find a way of turning the youthful ardor of his playing into something deeper and more distinctive.
Frank Catalano answered the question definitively over the weekend at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where he celebrated the release of a new recording and launched a lengthy run of Chicago appearances. Though he hasn’t lost any of the fervency of his earliest performances, he now conveys an unmistakable intellectual heft and authority. More important, he sounds as if he’s on the verge of forging a self-styled, autobiographical musical language.
For starters, it’s essential to note the man’s mastery of his instrument and its history. While some listeners might find Catalano’s playing a tad overbearing or even histrionic, there’s something to be said for a player who seeks to thunder — and knows how to do so.
Catalano’s gales of sound, in other words, are not mere bombast, for he packs ample melodic information, rhythmic complexity and musical development into his solos. Ultimately, it’s the substance of what he plays that captures attention more than the heroic scale of his statements. That the 28-year-old musician can perform classic bebop, honking R&B, tender 1930s balladry and harmonically adventurous modernism with equal aplomb deepens the appeal of his work.
In a way, Catalano — who will be playing late-night sets at the Mill for the next two months — is following in the tradition of the great tenorist Ed Petersen, who played the club regularly until he moved to New Orleans in 1994. Petersen’s galvanic solos attracted some of the most adventurous musicians in the city to his sessions and acquired near-legendary status.
Like Petersen, Catalano marries a Herculean sound to a mercurial technique. And though Catalano hasn’t yet matched Petersen’s level of artistic daring and harmonic invention (few players do), the younger musician clearly is headed in that direction.
During Catalano’s Friday night set, he played so fast, so hard and with such heady abandon in “Mighty Burner” — the title track of his new CD — as to suggest he was about to careen into a musical syntax of his own making. The high-register squeals and barreling low notes he unleashed in “Burner’s Blues” and the Ben Webster-inspired romanticism he evoked in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” attested to the breadth of his expression.
Backed by the mighty Willie Pickens on piano, Matt Thompson on bass and Rick Vitek on drums, Catalano asserted himself as one of the more formidable tenor players in a city crowded with them.
He’s ready for prime time.
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