The talent of Chicago’s Keefe Jackson as an improvising reedist has long been beyond reproach. His work as sideman in groups led by Jason Stein, Pandelis Karayorgis, and Josh Berman, to say nothing of his key participation in the collective Fast Citizens has been astonishing—a consistent source of elegantly constructed, logically flowing improvisations that move easily between postbop and free jazz. But I haven’t always felt that way about his skills as a bandleader, although that began to change about four years ago, when he released the stunning Seeing You See Now (Clean Feed).

In 2002 I was pretty unsparing in my criticism of Jackson’s then-new large-band effort, Project Project. He was clearly enamored of the possibilities afforded by a large crew of horn players, but at the time he wasn’t capable of writing music or arranging for such an ensemble; the result was static and aimless. When he got around to making a record with Project Project—Just Like This for Delmark in 2007—he had grown as both a composer and an arranger, but he still had plenty of room to grow. While that unruly outfit seems to be on hiatus, Jackson has just released a record that captures monumental progress in those areas. A Round Goal (Delmark)—recorded live at the Jazzwerkstatt Festival in Berne, Switzerland, this past February— captures a performance by an international reed septet, dubbed Keefe Jackson’s Likely So, that vibrantly shows how the leader’s abilities as a writer and arranger have caught up with his gift for improvising.

Most of the 11 pieces on the album are vehicles for particular members of his group—Chicagoans Mars Williams and Dave Rempis, Pole Waclaw Zimpel, and Swiss reedists Marc Stucki, Peter A. Schmid, and Thomas K.J. Mejer—but even on those works the individual improvisations are routinely sparked or massaged by exquisite passages of harmonically lavish contrapuntal accompaniment. Plus, those solo pieces are pretty fantastic in and of themselves, whether it’s the low-end honks and gut-punching creep Mejer generates on contrabass saxophone in “My Time is My Own” or the typically scalding intensity Williams injects into “Round Goal.”

I thought about posting “Bridge,” one of two solo pieces on the album, where Jackson delivers a knockout statement on tenor saxophone, but I chose the album’s opener, “Overture”—which features no soloing—because it vividly showcases the leader’s gorgeous writing and arranging. Here Jackson shows a deep understanding of the reeds, assigning different lines from each player to construct something fantastically detailed and sonically lush rather than the dense, indiscriminate fire he once extracted from such instrumental power. It’s not particularly representative of what most pieces on the album do, but it does display the rigor and quality that characterize the whole remarkable thing.


Today’s playlist:

Milford Graves, Stories (Tzadik)
Jason Robinson, Tiresian Symmetry (Cuneiform)
Lee Konitz, Bill Frisell, Gary Peacock, and Joey Baron, Enfants Terribles (Half Note)
Brave Old World, Song of the Lodz Ghetto (Winter & Winter)
Dorsaf Hamdani, Princesses du Chant Arabe (Accords Croises)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.