The sunnily ferocious tenor saxophonist Frank Catalano is the subject of a recent film documentary titled Sugar Jazz
. But while his first discs — recorded in his 20s, in the early 2000s — might have veered toward jazz treacle, those days have passed. No less energetic, only slightly less histrionic, Catalano has matured significantly in the past decade, cementing his place in a tenor lineage embodied by Illinois Jacquet, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Johnny Griffin before blossoming into the tonal adventurism and juggernaut improvisations of John Coltrane’s “sheets of sound.”
This might surprise those who once wrote off Catalano’s boyish glee and rock and roll energy, which finds its match in long-running partnerships with Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin and jazz-funk legend Mike Clark, who spurs Catalano’s quartet on this crackling club date. But the sheets are strong with this one. On Catalano’s “Mister MC” — named for Clark and echoing Trane’s “Mr. P.C.” — the saxophonist follows Clark’s go-for-broke drum solo and still manages to up the ante, with split-tone cries, speed-of-thought technique and indefatigable drive. Catalano has never hidden his roots, but in recent years they gleam unencumbered by past extravagances.
Based in Chicago, Catalano boasts an international base of younger listeners and fusion fans drawn to his high-octane style, as well as his willingness to reach beyond the jazz repertoire. He takes “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” a 1980 hit by British rockers Joy Division, and remakes it as a modal funhouse; it raises the question, amplified by Randy Ingram’s Tyner-esque piano, of how the tune might have sounded had Coltrane lived another 15 years. The Ellington blues “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” proves the quartet’s versatility, with Ingram and bassist Julian Smith joining Clark in full swing mode.
Catalano’s stylistic flamboyance will still find detractors, but not among those who appreciate a jazz entertainer that wows crowds without sacrificing artistry. Speaking of which: The cover illustration manifests the febrile imagination of fellow Chicago celeb Tony Fitzpatrick, the widely collected painter whose crowded canvases have graced Catalano’s last four releases. It provides a vibrant visual correlative for the maximalist music within. — Neil Tesser