To a certain degree, swing drumming is the art of placing the right accent at the right momentand few drummers find that precise instant in time as adroitly as Bellson. That he also has an ear for color, texture and line makes his work all the more satisfying.
Wednesday night at the Jazz Showcase, Bellson's increasingly sleek playing was answered by the muscular, roaring sound of the DePaul University Big Band. Though it took a few minutes for Bellson and the band to find some common ground, the contrast proved consistently fascinating.
Before the set, Bellson mentioned that he considers the DePaul band among the best in the country, ranking alongside the Northern Illinois University Jazz Ensemble in DeKalb and the fabled University of North Texas band down South. Judging by the DePaul performance, it would be difficult to disagree with Bellson's assessment.
Each year, the DePaul organization sounds more musical, technically daring and rhythmically alert than the last time around. That's no small feat, considering the inevitable turnover of personnel that defines every college band.
The credit goes to Bob Lark, who keeps asking more from these students, and gets it. By constantly putting the band in front of the public, on the road and in the recording studio, Lark keeps his charges on their toes.
You could hear it in the screaming horns that opened Don Sebesky's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train," and in the stunning contrast between high brass and low reeds in Ted Nash's bossa nova "5* Weeks."
Like most big bands staffed by young musicians, the DePaul unit sounds best when it's going full tilt, a bit less persuasive in passages that ask for subtlety and restraint. It simply takes a long time for emerging musicians to learn to make the most of an elegant phrase or a beautifully voiced pianissimo chord.
This is where the musicians stand to learn a great deal from Bellson. Through most of the set's repertoire, in fact, Bellson used brushes, in effect forcing his young colleagues to listen to himand control their horns accordingly.
The contrast between Bellson's muted gestures and the band's sonic eruptions made this one of the more interesting sets that Lark and the DePaul band have brought to the Jazz Showcase. Once Lark shows the students how to give more body and depth to their sound without resorting to mere decibels, he will have offered them an invaluable lesson in accommodating a headliner.
If anyone can convey this idea it's Lark, who's doing valuable work at DePaul. For those who wonder how he's able to command the attention and respect of his students, it was apparent when he picked up his fluegelhorn to play a ballad with the band.
There was no bravura display here, nor excessive sentimentality. Instead, Lark's cadenzas were models of understatement and craft, with every note neatly placed in the arc of the phrase. The silence with which he punctuated his ideas and the burnished lyricism of his tone could only be the work of a first-rate musician.
When students hear musicianship of this order, they tend to pay attention.
Though the bad weather kept down the size of the audience, the young musicians played as if it were standing-room only. Clearly, they're teaching professionalism at DePaul as well as music.
As this engagement unfolds, Bellson, Lark and the band likely will find new ways of interacting. By week's end, they should be speaking quite the same language.
Louie Bellson and the DePaul University Big Band play through Sunday at the Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand Ave.; 312-670-2473.