Tim Fitzgerald (center, with guitar) and his band Full House Credit: Thomas Mohr

The first moment I knew Tim Fitzgerald would be a great guitarist was at a place in Lincoln Park called the Jazz Bulls. He wasn’t one yet. It was 1990, and he was a teenager at an afternoon jam session for a local jazz teacher’s students, each of them taking tentative little solos. The guitar he played was a solid-body Martin. It was an awkwardly heavy instrument, and I knew well what it could do because it had once been mine. Fitzgerald’s turn came, and suddenly I heard a few nimble, bright bars with real pizzazz—at the end of which my cousin flashed me an impish grin.

Tim Fitzgerald’s Full House

Fri 9/1, noon,
Von Freeman Pavilion

I’ve known Fitzgerald since he was born. He’s the son of my aunt Jayne, and he’s seven years younger than I am. I watched him start to take interest in music and become obsessed with down-home blues; I showed him some blues licks; I marveled as he surpassed my abilities, to the point that he was explaining techniques to me. He began as perhaps the most preternaturally intelligent kid I’ve ever met and grew into a curious adult—and his nose for a good puzzle and love for rich artistry led him to straight-ahead jazz, where he’s made his home for the past 20 years.

I’m looking forward to seeing that same fellow from the Jazz Bulls onstage at the Chicago Jazz Festival. Not just because he’s my kin, but also because he represents so much about what jazz musicians do, as a matter of course, in order to learn their craft and find their inspiration. They spend years in preparation. They apprentice. They session. They jam. They falter. They woodshed. They network. They subsist on fundamentals and oat flakes. They make a mantra of the three Rs: repetition, repetition, and repetition. They take gigs playing other kinds of music to pay the rent. They get stiffed. They improve. They listen to the masters. The play from fakebooks. They analyze solos. They transcribe for themselves because they realize their fakebook is flawed. They watch lesser players land better gigs. They decide they like this drummer better. They decide not to work with that bassist. They begin to look for a particular sound. They buy a better instrument. They form a band. The write out lead sheets and arrangements. They feel a spark. They woodshed more. And more.

And all this is just to get to a starting place.

To endure, jazz musicians have to be insanely disciplined. It’s like being a Talmudic scholar and a master carpenter at once. In Fitzgerald’s case, this compulsive attention is part of his personality, and manifests itself most clearly in a long-standing fascination with guitarist Wes Montgomery. During his short career, which started in Indianapolis in the 50s and ended with his sudden death in 1968, Montgomery indelibly changed the sound of jazz and even influenced pop—a decade later, soul and funk hits by Rufus and Chic bore the unmistakable stamp of his parallel-octave voicings. But that trademark technique is just the most obvious contribution of a soulful spirit and brilliant iconoclast.

“What drew me to Wes was the combination of warmth and badassery,” says Fitzgerald. “His lines are clever—they snake in ways you wouldn’t expect. The intensity during a Johnny Griffin solo tends to go up, and when he follows with his guitar solo the intensity goes up even further. That’s badass. And the warmth is on the records, but it was a profound experience seeing him on a VHS tape, long before YouTube, that friends and I passed around. Wes would play really sophisticated, driving phrases, at the same time looking over his shoulder at pianist Harold Mabern, smiling to let him know he heard some cool thing he’d done. That’s so warm and wonderful.”

People tend to get hung up on the technical side of Montgomery’s playing: his parallel octaves, his use of the thumb rather than a plectrum. Fitzgerald himself has gone deep into the science of his idol’s work, publishing a book called 625 Alive: The Wes Montgomery BBC Performance Transcribed that’s based on that old VHS tape. But ultimately he’s interested in the guitarist’s unorthodox physical approach because he wants to learn how it influenced his relaxed phrasing. “Wes’s classic formula went from single-note line to octave to chord solo. Technically, it was of course difficult to execute, but it had incredible musicality and time feel,” Fitzgerald says. “There’s also a big-band influence in his soloing, when he used chords and octaves in the same phrase or consecutive phrases. He can be like a little big band in one guitar.”

YouTube video

The seven-piece group Fitzgerald presents at this weekend’s festival, Full House, takes its name from a Montgomery song and album. You’ll hear those patented octaves, some arrangements of Montgomery’s actual solos, and a bit of that big-band heft thanks to horn arrangements for trumpet (Victor Garcia), tenor saxophone (Chris Madsen), and alto (Rajiv Halim). It’s a lithe and buoyant ensemble, with the guitar providing a fourth front-line voice, and it beautifully captures the joy of Montgomery’s music. In Fitzgerald’s solos, I’m betting we’ll hear the decades of work that have made a bright beacon out of the glimmer I first saw at the Jazz Bulls.  v