In the category of “Objects in mirror are closer than they appear,” let me pull your coat to a couple of jazz-adjacent shows taking place Friday night.
Up north, the local “world jazz fusion” band called Magic Carpet returns to the scene of their new recording, the Ethiopian restaurant Ras Dashen (5846 N. Broadway) for a CD-release celebration of the album, titled (not so cryptically) Live At Ras Dashen.
Magic Carpet bears no resemblance to the early-70s, cult-item British band of the same name – except for the fact that in both cases, the name signifies an infusion of eastern influences. Forty years ago, that meant primarily sounds and scales from India. Today’s Magic Carpet steers more to middle eastern and north African influences, but also boasts an easy familiarity with reggae – and a healthy dose of funk where called for.
The main improvising in Magic Carpet falls to Fred Jackson on alto and soprano, and I have no complaint about that. Jackson toils in fields just outside jazz but deserves to be heard a lot more often by the cognoscenti. He shines throughout the new disc – just as he did on the acclaimed debut album by Glawdys N’Dee, the Guadeloupean vocalist living in Chicago – and for much the same reason.
While the band concentrates on exotic beats and fairly deep grooves, Jackson’s solos slyly reveal his solid jazz background. Shaped in large part by studies with Alvin Batiste – the iconoclastic New Orleans clarinetist whose music flew far afield of the trad-jazz strictures usually imposed on New Orleans clarinetists – Jackson’s lines show considerably more craft than the music requires. (That’s not to demean the arena in which Magic Carpet operates, but rather to point out that cerebral jazz solos are not this music’s main focus.)
By remaining true to the sinewy rhythms and limited chord structures of the material, his solos simultaneously serve the band’s larger purpose, too. This means that while you’re dancing your ass off, your ears can also get a workout they deserve. It’s a tricky balancing act that provides something for everyone; on each track of Live At Ras Dashen, Jackson makes it look easy.
On a completely different front, the extraordinary blueswoman named Carolyn Wonderland makes a welcome Chicago return Friday night when she books into FitzGerald’s (6615 W. Roosevelt in Berwyn), opening the show for fellow Texan and rock guitar hero Monte Montgomery.
That isn’t her birth name, but she couldn’t have picked a better moniker. Like Alice on the other side of the looking-glass, a listener hearing Wonderland for the first time could well imagine he’s landed in some sort of alternate universe. It’s a place where a startlingly adept guitarist leads a stripped-down blues trio with jazz precision; then sings in a style that channels the power of Janis Joplin, with nuances Billie Holiday might have used; and then turns out to have written the best songs in her set.
For proof of her guitar virtuosity, dig just a layer or two beneath the powerful melody hooks and sparkling fretwork; Wonderland handles such devices with plenty of pizzazz, but so do a couple hundred other blues and blues-rock guitarists. More telling is the fact that she provides the primary impetus, rhythmically as well as melodically, within her drums-&-keyboard trio. Rather than fitting her solos into the framework established by her sidemen, Wonderland seems to be pulling them along with her.
That’s a testament to the white-hot force of her musical persona rather than any knock on her superb trio. In fact, the band she brings to town deserves its own kudos. Like Buddy Holly’s Crickets, The Police, and a smaller-than-you’d-think number of other blues units, Wonderland’s trio has a jazz sensibility underneath the actual material. It gives them a limber clarity more in keeping with a classic piano trio, even as the music wails off in another direction entirely.
I saw Wonderland a few years ago in her adopted hometown of Austin, performing a set I won’t soon forget. I may be primarily a jazz guy, but Wonderland brings to mind the often misquoted Duke Ellington dictum about there being only two kinds of music: “Good music, and the other kind.” And when the music’s this good, the other labels just disappear.