He’s made but two recordings in the last 15 years, and it’s been more than a decade since he famously toured the world with trumpeter Red Rodney. So how come Ira Sullivan still marshals such respect and excitement when he comes home to Chicago? Well, for me, the mere mention of Sullivan stirs the memory of my grade-school clarinet teacher curtly informing me that no matter what I’d heard, read, or seen, nobody could play both the saxophone and trumpet without each skill suffering in the process. Of course, he was wrong–much of Sullivan’s charisma derives from his ability to move effortlessly between these seemingly exclusive avenues of expression. Like two-sport athletes and bigamists, multi-instrumentalists readily capture the imagination. But Sullivan’s appeal extends way beyond his stockpile of horns, which includes trumpet, flugelhorn, and the alto, soprano, and tenor saxes. It comes from a restless musical personality that can’t find contentment in a single role, thus leading him to act as star soloist, accompanist, musical director, and front man in a single setting. He can lift conventional rhythm sections to unexpected heights or steer a song down a passage never before glimpsed, let alone explored; you attend his performances partly for fear of what you might miss. This weekend Sullivan will appear with Von Freeman, who, like Sullivan, played a large role in defining Chicago’s hard-bop scene in the mid-50s–and who can defend center stage even from Sullivan. Over the last several years, Sullivan has concentrated on everything but his burly, blowsy tenor work–which makes the focus of the concert, the second in the “Tenor Madness” series, all the more welcome. (The series was organized by the Jazz Institute of Chicago, on whose board this writer sits.) Sunday, 1 PM, DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl.; 312-427-1676 or 312-559-1212. Sullivan will also perform at a jam hosted by the Scott Holman Trio on Monday at 5 PM, Chicago Blue Note, 1550 N. Rand, Palatine, 847-776-9850; on July 29 he’ll open at Jazz Showcase with a quartet. NEIL TESSER
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Bill Klewitz.