Mike Frost Project | Comin’ Straight at Ya’ (Blujazz)

Janice Borla | From Every Angle (Blujazz)

Joan Hickey | Between the Lines (OA2 Records)

By the end of this month, local improvisers will be responsible for more than 50 commercial releases in 2006, ranging from absolutely traditional fare (bebop and its predecessors) to the bubble-bursting experimentation that’s put Chicago back on the modern-jazz map. Three recent discs, taken together, represent a pretty good cross section of the scene in-between–the endlessly malleable jazz mainstream, which has stayed viable year in and year out, despite routine predictions of its demise.

When the MIKE FROST PROJECT released their debut, Nothing Smooth About It, in 2004, it took listeners by surprise all over the country. Practically no one had heard of these guys, even here in town: their regular gig was on the Odyssey, the touristy floating restaurant that sails out of Navy Pier. But when jazz DJs discovered the album, lots of them played it–and its sure-footed 60s postbop, which shared the rough-edged attack of so much Chicago music, impressed plenty of reviewers too.

The recent Comin’ Straight at Ya’ (on the Chicago label Blujazz) proves that the band’s early success wasn’t a fluke. Saxist Mike Frost and his brother Steve, a trumpeter, front the group, but its cornerstone is keyboardist Tom Vaitsas, whose crisp swing and running chordal commentary provide an enviable foundation for the horns. He also consistently contributes the most intriguing solos. Here as on the first disc he plays mostly organ, switching to piano for effect only on the quieter tracks. Organ groups are usually trios, with drums and either sax or guitar, but this sextet has trumpet, sax, and guitar, recalling the powerhouse bands Charles Earland led in the 70s and again in the 90s. The group sometimes uses vibraphone too, courtesy of percussionist Tim Mulvenna, who also adds terrific conga accents to drummer Dave Bernat’s engaging rhythms. Mulvenna, who currently anchors the space-dub combo the Eternals, spent much of the past ten years drumming in some of Ken Vandermark’s bands, most notably the Vandermark 5, and having walked on the wilder side of jazz he approaches the standards that dot the Mike Frost Project’s repertoire–“Little Sunflower,” “I’ll Remember April”–with the relaxed abandon of a returning traveler greeting long-lost friends. Guitarist Bill Boris is the band’s second wild card, complicating the tunes with aggressive colorations. On “Midway’s Lament”–written by Vaitsas and Mike Frost, like all the album’s originals–Boris spins dervish obbligatos around the leader’s tenor solo, increasing the song’s emotional depth by pushing its somber, seductive theme into even murkier waters.

Vocalist JANICE BORLA has navigated those waters for most of her career: as both a performer and a music teacher, she’s been stretching her technique–and with it her expressive range–for two decades. For her previous disc, Agents of Change, she wrote her own words to singer-unfriendly tunes by Joe Lovano and little-known pianist Peggy Stern and stepped decisively out of the vocal-jazz comfort zone with a recitation of poetry. On the new From Every Angle (Blujazz) Borla challenges herself in a new way: despite her excellent track record at writing smart, sincere lyrics to existing jazzmelodies, for the great majority of the disc she sings wordlessly.

You don’t often hear jazz critics, or jazz listeners for that matter, asking for fewer lyrics and more scat singing: the dirty little secret is that such improvisational risk taking is more respected than enjoyed, in large part because most vocalists have a tough time sounding inventive or even convincing when they venture out from behind the words. And since Borla has already proved she has a way with words–including other people’s lyrics, which she presents with admirable diction and emotional heft–you might’ve expected her to stick with them. But on Charlie Parker’s iconic “Segment,” on John Scofield’s delicious “I’ll Take Les,” on Frank Foster’s “Simone”–a juggernaut of a tune, despite its velvety feel–Borla scats the melody, then launches into full-tilt improvised solos that unfold as naturally from the theme as they would in the hands of a horn man. Without words, we’re forced to–or rather have the opportunity to–really hear the voice as an instrument.

And Borla has a very fine instrument indeed, pearly but clear, full-bodied and well tuned; it’s come-hither on slow tunes and transparent on faster ones, and she has its dynamics, vibrato, and shading under precise control. She shatters the stereotype of the jazz vocalist as a poseur or wannabe, infatuated with the idea of improvisation but lacking the mettle to carry it off: she’s a musician who happens to play voice. Of course she still handles lyrics masterfully–four of the ten songs on this disc have them, including Monk’s gorgeous ballad “Ask Me Now,” where Borla sings Jon Hendricks’s words, and Horace Silver’s hypnotic prayer “Peace.” But when you listen to Borla twine with Art Davis’s unsentimental trumpet or match wits with guitarist John McLean–she’s backed here by a quintet–what you hear is above all a triumph of vocal improvisation.

For pianist JOAN HICKEY, the new Between the Lines (on the Seattle imprint OA2 Records) is a triumph of another sort: because the only previous CD under her own name barely got distributed, this will be her debut for most listeners. For me the disc is something of a revelation for other reasons. As I’ve come to expect from her, Hickey holds together this forceful but supple quintet in part by providing solid foundations for the soloists with her comp work, which relies on emphatic chording. The difference comes in her own solos, which in the past have almost always struck me as pedestrian–her heavy touch and blocky chords, assets in the rhythm section, don’t necessarily make for a versatile or even interesting solo style (a weakness shared by predecessors like Tadd Dameron and Horace Parlan). In Hickey’s bands the other soloists have usually carried the weight, and given the strengths of her sidemen on this disc–trumpeter Tito Carrillo, saxist John Wojciechowski, bassist Dennis Carroll, and drum dynamo Dana Hall–that easily could’ve happened again. But Hickey holds her own: sounding relatively relaxed, she spins thoughtful, measured single-note melodies, modest and simple in their strength. They provide an unexpected bonus to her other assets: her arrangements, her talent for corralling disparate sidemen, and her willingness to seek out unexpected chords.

The arrangements deserve extra notice, because they carry the disc–the virginal ballad “With a Song in My Heart” goes dark with a rumbling rhythmic undercurrent and extended harmonies; “My Funny Valentine” gets a reggae beat; “The Man I Love” develops a lopsided lope in 6/4 time. They also spark the imaginations of the horn men: Carrillo sizzles, and Wojciechowski, still unknown to most Chicago listeners, sails far and wide with his throaty tenor. Hickey credits Carroll with assistance on some of the arrangements, but he shapes all the tunes with his playing–his combination of tone, time, and imagination have made him one of the top bassists in the country. And Hickey steps out of the shadows to go toe-to-toe with all these alpha-male players. She calls the tune that opens the album “Herbris,” and I think that neatly sums it up.