Friday was a big night for trumpeter Tito Carrillo.
Though he had played the Green Mill prolifically since 1996, when he moved to Chicago, and though he had commuted here regularly since joining the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2006, Carrillo never had led his own group at the Mill.
Moreover, his belated Green Mill debut as bandleader celebrated the release of his first recording under his own name, "Opening Statement" (Origin Records). If the album makes a compelling case for Carrillo's work as composer and soloist, the live performance proved still more effective. The expertly controlled nature of Carrillo's solos and the surging rhythmic power of his sextet brought welcome tension to Friday's opening set ? more, in fact, than on the new recording. For all the virtues of "Opening Statement," which above all shows the sophistication of Carrillo's compositions, the recording does have a certain freshman quality to it. As it unfolds, Carrillo and his sextet touch all the obligatory bases: up-tempo tunes, ballads, bravura pieces and so forth in somewhat predictable sequence.
In concert, however, Carrillo and friends threw the playbook out the window, offering a first set that unfolded in unexpected ways.
Carrillo opened with the most poetic piece on the recording, "Song for Elisa," producing a softly gleaming tone on fluegelhorn and reminding listeners that a ballad can carry so much more than a single, sustained melodic line. In Carrillo's hands, "Song for Elisa" overflowed with surprise, changing direction and unfurling ornate thematic ideas at every turn. In all, a tour de force of the improviser's art.
From here, Carrillo plunged headlong into the most substantive piece on the recording, his "Theophilus," its merger of Afro-Cuban rhythm and contemporary jazz harmony a showcase for Carrillo's skill with a pen. Ingeniously structured and bristling with the spirit of invention, "Theophilus" constantly threw listeners off-guard as it shifted tone, tempo and texture. The gathering rhythmic momentum and thickening instrumentation of "Theophilus" in some passages represented a high achievement in the art of writing for sextet. And because the Green Mill date featured both a drummer and a Latin percussionist, the excitement level of "Theophilus" outpaced the recording.
Though the propulsive drummer Matt Plaskota was not particularly subtle, there was much to savor in the layered rhythms of conguero Victor Gonzalez and the deep-and-dark tone of saxophonist Geof Bradfield. Lorin Cohen's remarkably fluid work on bass enriched this band in performance and on the recording; and Benjamin Lewis' ability to create both softly shimmering pianism and go-for-broke energy rarely has been expressed more vividly than in Carrillo's company.
If this was Carrillo's opening statement, one hardly can wait to hear the follow-up.