Paleontologists can only make educated guesses about the circadian rhythms of saber-toothed cats, but Chicago’s Sabertooth is indisputably nocturnal. Since November 1992 this indefatigable band—currently a quartet with woodwind players Pat Mallinger and Cameron Pfiffner, organist Pete Benson, and drummer Ted Sirota—has been seen almost exclusively after midnight, presiding over an after-hours jazz party at the Green Mill. In order to celebrate 25 years of that gig, though, the group will brave the afternoon sun on Friday and play the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.
Sabertooth first convened in 1990. Pfiffner, who plays tenor and soprano saxophones, flute, and piccolo, recalls how he hatched the idea with his longtime front-line partner. “I had been playing at a bar called the Jazz Bulls at Lincoln Park West,” he says. “It was kind of a sacred hangout of musicians, where you could mingle with musicians from all around the city and not just the north side. I used to play with a different person, who would be my guest cohost, every week. One of those nights it was Pat, and I think that very night we talked at the bar about starting some kind of a band together.”
Fri 8/31, 5:25-6:15 PM, Jay Pritzker Pavilion
Also Sat 9/1, midnight, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, $5, free after 2 AM, 21+
Green Mill owner Dave Jemilo caught the original Sabertooth at another long-gone venue. “They played at the Get Me High Lounge,” he remembers, “and they were playing a Hank Mobley tune. It was a good vibe, kind of late-night.” he recalls. Not long afterward he invited them to take over the late-night Saturday slot.
“We were to play a set of our own music and then invite people up,” says Pfiffner. “We did that for I don’t remember how many years before Dave said, ‘Well, just forget about it being a jam session. You don’t have to let anyone sit in if you don’t want—it’s your guys’ gig.’ We’ve been able to do things pretty much the way we want to ever since.”
Everyone in Sabertooth holds down other gigs. Mallinger (who plays flute as well as tenor and soprano saxophones) leads his own bands, performs in the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, and works as a jazz mentor for the Chicago Public Schools and Ravinia. Pfiffner is a stage actor, bandleader, and farmer. Organist Pete Benson, who joined in 2002, plays with the George Freeman/Mike Allemana organ quartet and performed in the Chicago Lyric Opera’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar this past spring. Drummer Ted Sirota, who came aboard in 1994, has led the Pure Cane Trio, Heavyweight Dub, and Rebel Souls, a righteously political jazz band whose themes dovetail with his work as an antifascist community organizer.
Their varied interests contribute to Sabertooth’s eclectic songbook, which now contains far more than the hard bop that first hooked Jemilo. “Everybody in the band enjoys exploring different sorts of so-called genres of music, if you want to call them that,” says Pfiffner. “But they all come down to having a groove. If it comes from the 12th century, groove it, man.” Besides jazz standards and originals by Pfiffner and Mallinger, they play medieval fanfares, TV show themes, Afro-Caribbean music, and a variety of rock songs—12 of the latter, all by the Grateful Dead, appear on Sabertooth’s first studio recording, which they’ve just completed but will regrettably not have pressed in time for the Jazz Festival.
“We have over a dozen Grateful Dead tunes I’ve written arrangements for, going back to 1994,” explains Mallinger. “We’ve developed a following of Deadheads. We might be the only jazz band that regularly performs this music. This recording is in part dedicated to them, in thanks for their loyalty throughout the years. And our fans have been asking us to do this for a long time.”
On any given Saturday, Sabertooth negotiates a delicate balance between bonding with audiences and overcoming the racket of late-night drinkers. “It’s kind of a never-ending cornucopia of delights and disasters,” quips Pfiffner.
“We’ve developed this pretty intimate relationship with people through the music and through the hours,” says Sirota. “Because people hear things, people see things. Of course, most people are drinking a lot. But not everybody, and different things happen at 4 AM musically—some magic does happen. I like the risk, the challenge.”
For the Jazz Festival, Sabertooth has composed a four-part suite (one movement by each member) that honors their audiences as well as their sources. “It’s titled The Fangs for Listening Suite, and my movement is entitled ‘Circle of Fans,'” says Mallinger. “It’s my dedication to the circle of Sabertooth fans that have come through the Green Mill throughout the years.”
Sirota’s movement owes something to his work as an organizer—specifically to his contempt for the anti-immigrant rhetoric of a very specific fascist. “One of the aspects of Sabertooth is we do play a certain amount of quote-unquote world music,” he says. “We play music from Sudan, we play music Afro-Cuban music, we play Brazilian music, we play reggae, we play calypsos, and without that element it’s not the full picture of the band. And so I said, all right—my part is going to be a dedication to all of the shithole countries.” v