One of Chicago’s most revered pianists, Willie Pickens often shows up at the clubs in the service of some other leader. Last summer, for instance, he pulled off back-to-back engagements at the Jazz Showcase, tempering George Coleman’s deep Memphis blues with a little Maxwell Street one week and jumping like a jackrabbit with bebopper Frank Morgan the next. Pickens has a crisp, forthright attack, and executes fast runs cleanly and evenly; his blues inflections are so pervasive he rarely needs to lean on them. Traveling soloists like to have him aboard because his accompaniment is unfrilly and on point and his timing’s superb: he’ll tease the beat, lagging a little behind, and then catch up, propulsive as a catapult. He’s listened widely and chosen wisely. Thelonious Monk’s dense harmonic language peeks out sometimes, but Pickens places and applies his background chords far more discreetly. On a single number he might reference McCoy Tyner’s scalar sprays (minus the booming use of sustain pedal) and hint at ragtime-derived 1920s stride rhythms. He moves easily from big-chord pounding to spinning lines as delicate as an anchovy’s rib. He brings a high degree of intelligence, taste, and sensitivity to any job: last month at the Green Mill, behind Von Freeman and Ed Peterson, Pickens and drummer sidekick Robert Shy communicated especially well, shooting phrases across the bandstand like friendly telegrams. Shy’s deep-grooving triplety swing will get the quintet Pickens leads here loping as well. Rounding out the band are several other regular associates: bassist John Whitfield, tenor saxophonist Todd Herbert, and Latin and jazz trumpeter Tito Carrillo, who came to these parts from Texas and has toured with the Mighty Blue Kings and Phil Collins. Friday, January 31, 9 PM, and Saturday, February 1, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.

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