Few jazz musicians boast a resume as impressive as Chicago-born-and-bred trombonist Julian Priester. Sun Ra, Lionel Hampton, Johnny Griffin, Max Roach, Booker Little, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Herbie Hancock, and Charlie Haden are among the bandleaders he’s worked under since the mid-50s, masterfully tailoring his exceptional skills to the needs of each. Over the decades he’s demonstrated an astonishing flexibility, whether playing straight-ahead charts or taking the music out. He was a key ingredient in defining the sound of Dave Holland’s Quintet, which has maintained the same sonic model for two subsequent decades. In the 70s, when he lived in San Francisco, he delivered his powerful take on post-Miles fusion on a pair of albums for ECM, including the classic Love, Love. But otherwise he’s made just a few records as a leader, which goes a long way toward explaining why he isn’t known better.
Priester has always been a team player—even when soloing at the highest level—and as far as I can tell he’s never been driven too much by stardom. In the early 80s he moved to Seattle, where he began a long stint on the faculty of the Cornish School of Music, but the most threatening blow to his performance availability came in the late 90s when his health failed. In 2000 he received a successful liver transplant, but he still remains a pretty scant presence on the scene. (His last album, In Deep End Dance (Conduit), was released in 2002.) On Thursday and Friday Priester returns home for a pair of rare appearances at the Velvet Lounge with drummer Jimmy Bennington (who recently moved here from Seattle) and bassist Eric Warren. To the best of my knowledge, it’s Priester’s first gig here since 1998, when he played the Chicago Jazz Festival as part of a Sun Ra tribute band. It’s been much longer since he led a group in town. The gigs celebrate a new duo recording by Priester and Bennington called Portraits and Silhouettes (TSP).