Trombonist Jeb Bishop has been a key player on Chicago's avant-garde jazz scene for the past two decades, working prolifically with such similarly indispensable figures as reedists Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis, guitarist Jeff Parker and bassist Kent Kessler.
So unless you're paying extremely close attention, you might not even have noticed that Bishop left town earlier this year, moving with his wife, Jaki Cellini, to North Carolina, where they're both originally from.
His "50th Birthday Blowout" engagement this weekend at the Green Mill, therefore, will carry multiple meanings, marking not only his eligibility to join the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and his and Cellini's fifth wedding anniversary but his return to the city where he forged his musical identity.
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"It's a huge change," says Bishop, referring mostly to the move, which was precipitated by his wife getting an enticing job offer in North Carolina — not exactly a hotspot for freely improvised music.
"It was difficult both for (Cellini) and for me. I had lived (in Chicago) for 20 years, she for 10. She was sad about leaving, but she really needed a better job and a new job and we decided to try it.
"Though I love Chicago and that's where my musical heart is, I thought maybe it's time to shake things up. I've been back to Chicago a couple of times (since moving), and a return to Chicago is not out of the question at some point. In some ways, I'm still making the adjustment."
At the same time, though, Bishop hastens to note that he remains deeply connected to his Chicago colleagues, a fact that will be underscored with the "50th Birthday Blowout," which, on paper, at least, certainly lives up to its name. For Bishop won't simply be leading a band — he'll be fronting three distinct ensembles, with guests artists from Chicago and across the country joining in.
Specifically, he'll open each evening with the Jeb Bishop Trio, in which he's joined by bassist Kessler and drummer Frank Rosaly, plus guest guitarist Jeff Parker. The second set will spotlight The Engines, featuring saxophonist Dave Rempis, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Tim Daisy. And the third set will present the Hamid Drake/Jeb Bishop/Jeff Parker/Joshua Abrams Quartet. Trombonist Jeff Albert will sit in during the third set on Friday and the first on Saturday; Vandermark and Joe McPhee will join the third set on Saturday.
Ultimately, the event amounts to a mini-festival of creative improvised music, with Bishop as its fulcrum.
Which is not necessarily a role he cherishes.
"I have a natural aversion to being the center of attention or egotistical," says Abrams, who indeed is quite self-effacing on the bandstand, even if his volcanic eruptions on trombone invariably draw attention his way.
"But I was trying to put that aside (for this occasion) and said: If this is going to be about me, I'll showcase some things I've done," adds Bishop, who turned 50 on Oct. 24.
The idea for the celebration, however, wasn't Bishop's — it was his wife's. She had hoped to convene a surprise musical celebration for him, but it quickly became obvious, Bishop says, that he had to be involved if they were going to be setting up dates at the Mill. So though Rempis and Vandermark had been conspiring on the early plans with Bishop's wife, the trombonist built on their initial ideas.
Why these three bands?
"The trio is my longest standing commitment to something I've organized," says Bishop. "The Engines has worked consistently for awhile and is still creatively working. And the group with Hamid and Jeff and Josh has played regularly but not that often, because of people's touring schedules, and I'd love to play more with this band and get more exposure for it.
"Overall, these are some of my favorite musicians to play with," adds Bishop, who has prepared a birthday sampler CD featuring all three bands that will be available at the Mill.
"I wanted to have guests join us. I wanted to do different kinds of tunes. I didn't want this to be a free-blowing night. I wanted different types of compositions, a variety of stuff."
Ironically, then, this marathon Bishop weekend will serve to remind listeners of how vital a contributor he has been, and how much we've lost with his move.
Then, again, considering this is just one more of several return visits Bishop already has made since moving South in July, perhaps it suggests he won't be very far-removed from the scene after all.
Also worth hearing
Larry Coryell Trio: The inventive guitarist's visits to Chicago have become an annual ritual underscoring his ties to the scene, as a collaborates with two formidable Chicagoans: bassist Larry Gray and drummer Paul Wertico. Though Coryell is best known for his fusion-era innovations, in recent years he has been digging more deeply into the fundamentals. 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Dee Alexander: An immensely accomplished and versatile Chicago singer, Alexander presents "Funkin' With Electric Soul: A Tribute to Jimi Hendrix and James Brown," her homage to two artists infrequently celebrated in jazz circles. The event concludes the 15th season of the JazzCity series, organized by the non-profit Jazz Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Park District. 7 p.m. Friday at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.; free; 312-427-1676 or jazzinchicago.org
Asian American Jazz Festival: The 17th annual event, a key attraction in Chicago's fall music season, concludes this weekend with two performances. Vocalist-pianist Yoko Noge will lead Japanesque 2, with saxophonist Jimmy Ellis, guitarist Jimmy Burns, bassist and shamisen player Tatsu Aoki, drummer Bugs Cochran, cellist Jamie Kempers and others; 7 p.m. Friday at the Japanese American Service Committee, 4427 N. Clark St.; jasc-chicago.org or 773-275-0097. And pianist Bradley Parker-Sparrow plays a double-bill with Jeff Chan's Cultural Arts Quartet, featuring reedists Chan and Edward Wilkerson, Jr., bassist Tatsu Aoki and drummer Avreeayl Ra.; 9 p.m. Saturday at Elastic Arts, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $12; 773-772-3616 or elasticarts.org. For general festival information, phone 708-386-9349 or visit aajazz.org.
Ernest Dawkins: The veteran Chicago saxophonist celebrates the release of his newest album, "Afro Straight," which addresses music of Wayne Shorter and John Coltrane. Dawkins will be joined by trumpeter Corey Wilkes, pianist Willerm Delisfort, bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer. 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Andy's Jazz Club, 11 E. Hubbard St.; $15; 312-642-4805 or andysjazzclub.com
Christopher McBride: An up-and-coming Chicago alto saxophonist, McBride appears in one of Chicago's most inviting settings, the Sunday sessions presented in the congenial Room 43 by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; hydeparkjazzsociety.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.