City Winery dips into jazz -- and more -- with David Grisman Sextet

Jazz listeners have cause to applaud: A potentially valuable new room has made its bow.

Though City Winery Chicago opened last month as an eclectic performance space on West Randolph Street, on Thursday evening the venue presented the first of several attractions likely to appeal to jazz audiences. The show by the David Grisman Sextet, an instrumental ensemble that carries significant jazz influence, suggested that City Winery stands as a promising venue with some room for improvement.

No one would call the Grisman Sextet precisely a jazz band because of the range of musical idioms it celebrates. But because it's an acoustic group that that embraces swing rhythm and requires that every instrument ring out clearly, it represented a strong test case for how jazz can sound at City Winery.

From the start of Grisman's show, there was no question that the music room had a great deal to recommend it acoustically. Each instrumental line in the Grisman band was easy to discern, yet together they formed a cohesive ensemble sound.

Through most of an hour-plus set, Grisman and friends sounded crisp and clear, if a bit over-amplified. This room is quite live, so a little less juice and little more natural sound would have helped. Even so, considering that City Winery is still in its infancy, this was an encouraging start.

Every corner of the room sounded appealing, though the rear – which is a bit elevated – sounded best: warmer, deeper, more resonant than anywhere else.

The room's sightlines were equally appealing, with only a single column toward the back. Otherwise, everyone had an uninterrupted view of the stage.

Visually, the place vaguely recalls Evanston SPACE, both notable for their high ceilings and urban atmosphere, though City Winery's passion for the noble grape conveys a somewhat more upscale tone. The City Winery music room covers 8,000 square feet and seats 300, but it seems smaller, always a welcome feature for jazz and related genres.

At the same time, however, the place exudes a bit of a chill, due partly to the vaulted ceiling and converted-warehouse setting. Because tables are lined up in rows, with guests seated elbow-to-elbow, City Winery sacrifices some intimacy and romance. With this seating arrangement, no couple really can feel removed from everyone else. In this respect, clubs such as the Jazz Showcase, Katerina's and even rambunctious Andy's feel warmer.

Nonetheless, musically speaking Thursday night's show proved quite effective. Though food was served, listeners remained hushed while Grisman and his band performed, and for good reason. After all these years, Grisman and his colleagues lavished great care on what he long has called "dawg music."

That conceit notwithstanding, Grisman's art really is steeped in the aesthetic of Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli, albeit seasoned with touches of bluegrass, country fiddling and other slivers of musical Americana.

For this occasion, Grisman surprised listeners with a previously unannounced appearance by the great Chicago mandolinist Don Stiernberg (who made the band a septet). To hear Stiernberg and Grisman alternating solos was to behold two deeply musical, utterly unostentatious mandolin virtuosos in exquisite synchronicity. Matt Eakle's lush flute solos, Mike Barnett's buoyant fiddle playing and Jim Kerwin's plush bass work enriched the effect.

Overall, then, an impressive beginning for a room that could become an important arena for jazz artists.

The David Grisman Sextet plays at 8 p.m. Sept. 7; $40-$50. Esperanza Spalding performs at 8 p.m. Oct. 1-3; $55-$100; at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St.; 312-733-9463 or citywinery.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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