Cameron Pfiffner-led Sextet Adolphe’S Ax Celebrates Sax Inventor at Skylark
Upon entering the Chicago venue Skylark a little after 10 p.m. on May 21, it appeared that Cameron Pfiffner’s all-saxophone sextet Adolphe’S Ax had yet to make it to the performance area at the back of the room, as they were variously strewn among the public. But, no, they were in the middle of a quasi-theatrical tribute to the inventor of the saxophone, Belgian Antoine-Joseph “Adolphe” Sax, who was born almost 200 years ago. The new group—which consists of Pfiffner and Nate LePine on tenors, Caroline Davis and Nick Mazzarella on altos, Anthony Bruno on soprano and Juli Wood on baritone—commenced the set by playing only the mouthpieces of their instruments, then blowing through the tubing without moving keys (thence exploring the overtone series), all while walking between tables of Skylark regulars.
Assembled behind music stands, the group then played two sets of varied music beginning with a surprising selection from Renaissance French composer Claude Gervaise. It was soon obvious that Pfiffner had picked this group of musicians, most of them younger than himself and part of Chicago’s progressive creative music scene, with some care and had written music, in Ellingtonian fashion, with each player’s particular strengths in mind.
“Natrix” showcased impassioned soloing from LePine, who is coming into his own after years of diverse sideman activity. “Brunissimo,” a play on the Italian exaltation “Bravissimo!” and delivered as such by Pfiffner in introduction, was crafted as a feature for Bruno’s soprano.
Mixing with an arrangement of a Gregorian chant “Portum In Ultimo” (which came “direct to you from 12th century Spain,” according to Pfiffner) were a pair lively kwelas from the legacy of South African alto saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, “Nyusamkhaya” and “Mini Mthembo.” The latter two were even more unexpected than the medieval exhumations, since this writer hasn’t heard acknowledgment or performance of Pukwana’s music in the United States since the London-based altoist’s death in 1990. Pfiffner credits his painter pal and jazz aficionado Gary Borremans with turning him on to Pukwana and Chris MacGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath.
Before unshackling the ensemble for a second free improv emphasizing the textural range of Sax’s horns, Pfiffner counted off the exclamatory “East Broadway Rundown” from Sonny Rollins’ abstract Impulse! period, during which scorching blowing from Mazzarella was salient.
Pfiffner delighted in the contributions of his sextet members, keeping his solos to a minimum save on the closing repeat trip to the Townships, where his own joyfully vintage sound was to the fore.
Wood played a pivotal role in pecking out bass lines where necessary so the gamut of saxophonic flavors was levied with contrapuntal ballast and everyone was not blowing a gasket at once, a further tribute to Pfiffner’s nicely balanced arrangements.
Pffifner’s monthlong residency at Skylark, which includes his quartet with guitarist Steve Doyle and tentet Marco Polo, was instigated by drummer Frank Rosaly, who has programmed the venue’s Monday night Ratchett series since 2007 with such co-conspirators as Mazzarella, bassist Anton Hatwich, saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel and trumpeter Jamie Branch.
Artist-in-residence Pfiffner, with a mildly Falstaffian conviviality, dressed in harem pants and sporting his characteristic salt-and-pepper beard, considers himself from an older school of Chicago hornslingers and is best known as the second maxillary canine, alongside saxophonist Pat Mallinger, in the Sabertooth Organ Quartet, the celebrated house band at the Green Mill.
Also a visual artist and former Shakespearian actor, Pfiffner has always been inclusive but is notably rejuvenated by fresh connections at this venue in the ’hood he calls home. He has ambitious plans for the Adolphe’S Ax project in particular and plans to orchestrate an international tour in conjunction with the anniversary of Sax’s birth in 2014.
Originally inspired by the story of Sax’s life as told in a book by Wally Harwood, Pfiffner considers the tale “so compelling and dramatic, and the themes so universal, that it sounded like a tragedy by Euripides.”
The potpourri of music at Skylark is evidently a taster for what Pfiffner ultimately has planned for Adolphe’S Ax. After the rest of the group had split in the early hours, Pfiffner and Borremans further enthused about where the idea is headed. In his appraisals of his cast of saxophonic characters, Pffiner revealed deep interest into their idiosyncrasies:
“Caroline Davis sounds like a combination of Gigi Gyce and Anthony Ortega,” he claimed, referencing two seldom-mentioned alto saxophonists in relation to her playing on “Enticing,” the tune dedicated to her.
He talked of Mazzarella in the part of “Prometheus, the firebrand, the genius who can play anything,” and Bruno as “the fixer who can throw a spanner in the works and make it all happen.”
He has a role for everyone, even a rather lowly one for himself as
“the busker, the old guy who plays under the bridge.”
Association and collaboration with the youngbloods of the Chicago progressive scene has been a shot in the arm for Pfiffner, launching him to new levels of creativity and freedom.
“The residency has gone well so far. Nice houses and warm response,” he said, adding a typically thespian salutation: “All hail the ratcheteens, a powerful force for good in Chicago music!”