Chicago pianist Willie Pickens lets it all hang out: voluble and mercurial, he can play with the force of two pianists. (Not that he always does: on a forthcoming Concord release, recorded at the Jazz Showcase in December, he plays duets with–and leaves plenty of room for–fellow pianist Marian McPartland.) Though a stalwart on the local scene for four decades, Pickens received little acclaim from outside the city until the late 80s, when he toured internationally as a member of Elvin Jones’s Jazz Machine; the legendary drummer put Pickens’s powerful postbop approach, influenced by McCoy Tyner as well as the mid-60s Chicago avant-garde, to especially good use. Since settling back in town (and back into his roles as bandleader and prized accompanist) in the mid-90s, Pickens has consistently grown more, well, consistent. His solos once careened through explosive twists and leaps like roller-coasters, but he’s since learned to balance thrilling technique with simple, infectious lyricism; now the excitement in his improvisations builds and subsides, instead of appearing out of nowhere. The end result of this maturing process–brawny virtuosity in the service of texture and nuance–comes through most clearly when Pickens plays solo, as he will at two events this weekend. First, on Friday he’ll provide the music at a CD-release party, even though it’s someone else’s CD. Composer and pianist George Flynn, Pickens’s labelmate on Southport Records, has released a concert-length solo piano piece, Derus Simples–but because a nightclub would make a bad backdrop for such a demanding modern classical work, punctuated by charged silences, Pickens will play a jazz set instead to celebrate the occasion. He’ll likely present some of his own non-jazz compositions as well; Flynn may also perform. Second, on Saturday Pickens will contribute a brief solo set to a free Southport “piano cavalcade,” featuring all the pianists who record for the label, including Flynn, Don Bennett, King Fleming, and Marshall Vente. Friday, June 22, 6:30 PM, Pops for Champagne, 2934 N. Sheffield; 773-472-1000. Saturday, June 23, 1 PM, Jazz Record Mart, 444 N. Wabash; 312-222-1467.

Neil Tesser

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.