During the past couple of decades, Chicago has nurtured a remarkable roster of fiercely iconoclastic jazz guitarists. From the free-ranging experiments of Jeff Parker to the searing solos of John Moulder to the Eastern-tinged work of Fareed Haque, the breadth of talent and ideas seems to be ever expanding.
So it was only a matter of time before Neal Alger stepped forward to make a statement of his own. As sideman with vocalists Patricia Barber and Typhanie Monique, Alger has proved a consistently witty foil. But that's different than leading an ensemble of your own.
In one of his most important and promising gestures in that direction, Alger has convened what he calls his Blue Note Quartet for an ongoing, weekly engagement at Andy's Jazz Club. Dedicated to re-examining little-known repertoire that Blue Note Records produced between 1955 and 1970, the concept thoroughly suits Alger's less-is-more brand of improvisation. For in compositions by such Blue Note stalwarts as Sonny Clark, Horace Silver and Bobby Hutcherson, Alger unspools sleek, streamlined lines inspired by the historic period.
Indeed, on Tuesday evening -- when Alger launched the engagement -- the guitarist's work sounded more lean, concise and boiled down to its essence than ever. In Silver's "Horoscope," for instance, Alger played single-note lines so lithe and rhythmically nimble as to suggest the work of a horn more than a guitar. When he played these riffs in unison with saxophonist Scott Burns, the muscularity of this music propelled it inexorably forward.
But some of Alger's most persuasive work unfolded at slow tempos, the guitarist revealing a sensitivity of expression he only can allude to in collaborations with other bandleaders. In Jackie McLean's "A Ballad for Doll," Alger's unusual chord choices, gently understated lyricism and lushly shimmering colors consistently piqued interest.
As for the Blue Note Quartet, it has a ways to go in establishing a cohesive tone and attitude. Through most of the unit's first set, the approach proved a bit too casual and low-key, though the players clearly were just getting started. Saxophonist Burns, bassist Larry Kohut and drummer George Fludas each offered strong solos -- the challenge will be to forge a cogent ensemble sound.
Yet near the end of the set, in Silver's "Summer in Central Park," the band started to show a sense of atmosphere and instrumental texture that had been lacking. Coupled with Alger's poetic solos, the performance indicated the potential of the Blue Note Quartet, and not only as a forum for Alger's gifts.
"Neal Alger's guitar, in particular, is a thing of beauty, incorporating sinewy blues-rock textures a la John Scofield" Clive Davis, The Times, London, Nov. 24, 2006
Alger "effortlessly steals the show no matter whether he is soloing or merely comping." Larry Hollis, Cadence magazine
"Monstrously talented" and "best known for his spectacular work with Patricia Barber" Christopher Loudon, Jazz Times, April 2005
"Rich, urban-cool harmonies" and "has grown into one of the top soloists in the city" Neil Tesser, Chicago Reader, August 2005
"Fine guitarist with a style all his own" Richard Bourcier, jazzreview.com, April 2005
Alger "matches jazzman dexterity and harmonic mastery with rockist tone" Jon Garelick, Boston Phoenix newspaper, Oct. 1, 2004
"Alger economizes in lieu of instituting an array of technical gymnastics" Glenn Astarita, Downbeat magazine
Neal's "playing ranges from contemplative acoustic solos to searing, pointillist electric accents". John Swenson, Stereophile magazine
"Liquid tone, careful diction, and an aura of cool." John Barrett, jazzUSA.com