Chicago drummer Dana Hall calls his jazz quartet "spring," but Friday night at the Green Mill it turned out to be more than a single ensemble.
The core lineup sometimes expanded to a quintet or sextet, sometimes returned to its core identity, defying conventional categorization. Or, to look at it another way, spring – which Hall created a few years ago – emerged as many different bands, the group changing tone, sound, color and style with every original Hall composition.
How Hall will make a cohesive recording out of this music when he takes it into the studio immediately after the Green Mill engagement remains to be heard. Maybe that's not the point.
But there was no questioning the audacity of the enterprise, nor the expressive breadth of its music-making. With his newly expanded approach to spring, Hall vaulted into an intriguing realm of thought, offering listeners a startlingly different musical direction with each piece the band played.
The quartet at the heart of spring remains an ensemble of ample sonic force, the storm of Hall's drum work inarguably at its center. Because Hall last year stepped down as artistic director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble (which is now on hiatus) and last fall took up a new position as associate professor at DePaul University's School of Music, listeners haven't heard much of his work for awhile.
His opening, galvanic volleys Friday night reminded devotees of what they have been missing. As ever, Hall produced a viscerally exciting combination of power and control, energy and discipline, brawn and brains. Add to this deeply satisfying sound John Wojciechowski's larger-than-life tenor saxophone, Geof Bradfield's rhythmically nimble tenor and Clark Sommers' relentless bass, and you had a quartet that very nearly shook the room with its first selection, Hall's "Paper Trail."
That was just the starting point, though, for spring quickly sprung into an idiom most closely identified with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Hall's "Free Huey." If its title and Hall's spoken introduction suggested the spirit of revolution, the music dramatized the concept, Chicago trumpeter Victor Garcia joining the front line for a rangy, declamatory theme right out of the AACM methodology.
Garcia's horn calls and the band's rousing, muscular responses suggested that spring was onto something important here, but "Free Huey" needed still more sound, more crashing dissonance – more freedom, really, to deliver its message. A few more run-throughs should get the band where it needs to be in this piece.
Any ensemble that can switch from the exhortations of "Free Huey" to the serene, incantatory, nearly mystical contemplations of "Honu" shows no lack of ambition. But spring pulled it off, Sommers' hypnotic bass ostinato inspiring shimmering colors from Hall's hand-held percussion and exquisitely fragile, muted sighs from Trinidadian trumpeter Etienne Charles. Wojciechowski's ethereal phrases on flute enhanced the other worldly atmosphere of the work, which easily could become a spring signature.
When all six players closed the first set with Hall's "'Bout Bidness" (as in "about business"), there was no doubt that spring indeed was getting down to it. The rhythmic swagger of the tune, the ferocity of Bradfield's running lines on soprano saxophone, the piercing tone of Garcia's horn and the double-percussion powerhouse of Hall on drum set and Charles on congas put spring at something close to full throttle.
The musical possibilities here are many, and Hall and friends clearly are just starting to explore them.
Dana Hall's spring performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.