Chicago is a big city with a deep musical tradition, one that attracts plenty of fresh talent looking for bigger stages, bigger audiences, and bigger sounds. Like any big city, it’s crowded and noisy, and not always easy to find those brighter corners in which it’s possible to really stand out and make a name for oneself. The local jazz community, only a silver of the city’s vast artistic and musical reservoir, is also crowded and noisy. There are plenty of bold, established players with enough reputation to dominate the scene, yet the spirit of collaboration and interconnectedness within Chicago jazz makes it possible for young upstarts to learn from the best and find their way into the public eye.
Keefe Jackson’s emergence as a strong and capable bandleader is a shining example of that potential for upward motion. A little over a year ago, he made his debut as a composer and leader with Ready Everyday, directing the path for the Fast Citizens, a sextet which includes the esteemed cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and the physical, propulsive drumming of Frank Rosaly. It was a very appealing record, thanks to the eminently creative players involved and Jackson’s compositional style, which blended tightly wound melodic heads with sections of free interplay that allowed his crew to butt heads and develop ideas on the spot.
Now Jackson is back, this time with the redundantly named Keefe Jackson’s Project Project, a 12-man ensemble which incorporates several Fast Citizens: Rosaly, bassist Anton Hatwich, and cornet player Josh Berman. In general, the style and approach of their first release as a group, Just Like This, echoes much of Ready Everyday albeit on a much grander scale. The sound is embellished with the addition of Marc Unternahrer’s robust tuba, Jeb Bishop and Nick Broste’s trombones, and the dueling saxophones of alto Guillermo Gregorio and Jackson himself, who players tenor. Like a lot of jazz releases coming out of Chicago, this record can be used as something of a hub. Perusing the discographies of each musician will lead to a seemingly endless repertoire ready to be explored and consumed.
Listeners will be dazzled by the horns and woodwinds on Just Like This, but special attention should be paid to Frank Rosaly’s percussion. During live performances, Rosaly is intensely animated, so much so that it seems initially distracting. He hovers over the drums in constant motion, his shoulders rolling and arms twitching in anticipation of his next strike. He puts his whole body into the drumming, and once he really kicks the songs into high gear, his curious postures no longer seem unusual but rather essential. Whether he’s pounding away intensely or simply laying out a delicate hi-hat pattern, his motions seem to translate the sounds into body language, and watching him feel the music in that way really conveys the physicality of what the band is doing. He gets a nice showcase on the album a roaring drum solo at the tail end of “Titled”, tumbling over the toms with great alacrity. Throughout the album though, especially on fiery tracks like “Which Well”, his playing is epic and astonishing as he both supports and fights the onslaught of horns.
Jackson’s compositions are taut and well-founded. His melodic ideas are clipped and stabbing though never abrupt. The vocabulary he uses is quick, to the point and brisk, like the aggressive, unrelenting cadence of an old gangster film or screwball comedy. “The Grass is Greener” runs off of a very pointed opening theme from Berman’s cornet and Jaimie Branch’s trumpet which loops and digs its heels in as the saxophones chase after it and the trombones try to beat it into submission. What emerges is a soft, muffled solo section that slowly builds into defiant squawking and resolves with the clattering reprise of that provocative initial theme.
Keefe Jackson’s Project Project is all about new sounds and ideas yet retains somewhat of a classic big band feel, and the tight, busy compositions give the music kind of an industrial swing. The title track especially utilizes phrasing that’s crystal clear and hyper-precise, the blinking, fluttering notes quickly driving themselves into memory and serving as a fertile launching pad for the musician’s solos. Just Like This is a pleasure to listen to, loaded with moments of surprise and excitement. The album is another example of Keefe Jackson’s leadership abilities and serves as an excellent introduction to a number of his talented, accomplished collaborators.