Chicago trumpeter Pharez Whitted owns a richly deserved reputation as a powerhouse soloist with decibels to burn.
But for his late set Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where he's leading his sextet through Sunday, Whitted turned down the dial, producing some of the most elegant, understated playing many listeners have heard from him. Just the right tone, considering the hour – near midnight – and the small but raptly attentive late-night crowd he was playing to.
Some of the evening's music derived from Whitted's finely honed new album, "For the People" (Origin Records), an all-star affair featuring musicians who have become integral to the trumpeter's work. Most were on stage at the Showcase, making a compelling case for Whitted's original compositions.
The title track of the album unfolded as the most beautiful ballad of the set, Whitted using Harmon mute to produce exquisitely fragile tones. If anyone doubted that Whitted could say more with less, that he knows how to punctuate a thought with silence and subtly bend a note for expressive purposes, this performance settled the question once and for all. The simple poetry of this playing, as well as Whitted's unexpected melodic choices, established a high point for this evening.
The strength of this band rests in its ability to reflect Whitted's aesthetic and build upon it. So though most of these players can unleash considerable energy, power and virtuosity, they instead subtly underscored Whitted's extraordinarily delicate work in "For the People" (and elsewhere in the set).
Ron Perrillo ranks as one of the most leonine pianists to have developed in this city during the past couple of decades, but here he played with remarkable reserve. His chords may have been complex and intelligently voiced, but they also gave Whitted precisely the softly cushioned backdrop he required. Similarly, Bobby Broom's lithe lines on guitar represented linear phrase-making of the most economical kind.
Notwithstanding the tenderness of this piece and others, Whitted brought some rhythmic swagger to the occasion in his "Watusi Boogaloo," the opening cut of both the album and this set. Here Whitted's sleek phrases and pinpoint tone found effective counterbalance in Eddie Bayard's sometimes raspy timbre and gutsy expressions. Drummer Greg Artry kept the music swaying from one offbeat to the next, his rhythmic gestures intricate but conveying unmistakable pulse.
Bassist Mike Harmon had the unenviable task of sitting in for Dennis Carroll, but Harmon held his own in demanding scores that everyone else in the band already knew.
No Whitted set would be complete without at least a few fireworks, and he provided them in his "Another Kinda Blues." Like "Watusi Boogaloo," this one strutted around downbeats, all but urging listeners to dance (and if the crowd had been bigger, surely someone would have). In certain passages, Whitted took to the stratospheric range of his instrument, throwing off the fast-flying figurations that long ago became a signature.
Tenor saxophonist Bayard followed Whitted's lead and ramped up the energy in an otherwise reflective set, which made the contrast all the more striking.