The Velvet Lounge kicks off Fred Anderson’s 80th Birthday Tribute Festival tonight with a heavyweight duo that will surely opt for a less aggressive sound than many of the acts playing at the club over the next five evenings. Pianist Willie Pickens has been one of the best postbop musicians in Chicago for nearly five decades, beginning with his appearance on the hit Eddie Harris record Exodus to Jazz. Though he toured regularly with one the later bands of drummer Elvin Jones, by and large he’s remained at home, which has kept his national and international profile low. But his recordings (unfortunately scant) and his live performances are always dynamic and powerful, whether inside sessions or button-popping postbop blowouts.

Tonight Pickens’s duo partner is superb veteran bassist Richard Davis, a Chicago native who’s been based in Madison since 1977, where he teaches at the University of Wisconsin. He’s a walking piece of jazz history and his discography includes many, many classics–including Eric Dolphy’s Out to Lunch!, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure, and Stan Getz’s Focus. He’s worked regularly with Amhad Jamal, Sarah Vaughan, Booker Ervin, Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery–the list goes on and on. He was also the bassist on the classic Van Morrison joint Astral Weeks and over the years did session work with folks like Bruce Springsteen, Janis Ian, and Quincy Jones. If you have a halfway decent jazz collection, chances are Davis is on some of your records. He doesn’t play very often these days, and it’s even rare to be able to hear him in such an intimate setting.

Henry Grimes (pictured), another veteran bassist, will make a guest appearance during tonight’s second set, joining AACM reedists Ari Brown and Edwin Daugherty, bassist David “Dawi” Williams, and drummer Dushun Mosley; multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart will also guest. Grimes will return to the stage on Saturday for a jam session including Hamiet Bluiett, Edward “Kidd” Jordan, and Avreeayl Ra, and then again on Sunday with Anderson himself. Since his return to the scene in 2003–following a 35-year absence–Grimes has been making up for lost time, and he still sounds convincing on two recent albums.

Going to the Ritual (Porter, 2008) is a duo of Grimes and drummer Rashied Ali cut in the studios of New York’s WKCR, and it documents the first time the two had played together since appearing on Archie Shepp’s On This Night in 1965–Grimes also adds some arresting violin work and not-so-gripping spoken word. The pair carves out a wonderfully craggy, tactile space without sacrificing the music’s unerring rhythmic flow–though this is the kind of session better experienced live than on disc, there’s no mistaking their rapport.

More recently, superb Danish imprint ILK Records has released a double CD of solo Grimes performances called, appropriately enough, Solo. These are studio recordings from last August, and you can really concentrate on the wonderfully woody tone Grimes has maintained all these years, a darkly burnished sound that still delivers a percussive snap and the sense of motion of a kinetic sculpture. Granted, 150 minutes of solo bass (he also plays some violin here) is a bit much to absorb in a single sitting–I haven’t tried–but Grimes hasn’t had any trouble holding my interest during the shorter chunks of the collection I’ve taken in.

Tonight’s show starts at 8:30 PM.

Today’s playlist:

Various artists, Old Time Cumbia From Colombia (Discos Fuentes/Creole Stream)
Blue Ash, No More, No Less (Mercury/Collector’s Choice)
Nancy Ajram, Ah w Noss (EMI, Saudi Arabia)
NYNDK, Nordic Disruption (Jazzheads)
Mary Gresham, Voice From the Shadows (Soulscape)