Until three years ago, when he moved to New York, bassist Lorin Cohen was ubiquitous in Chicago, playing in uncounted bands and far-flung musical styles.
He returned here briefly over the weekend in the best way possible, celebrating the release of his first album as bandleader, "Home," the Green Mill packed on Friday night with his family, friends and even a few people he didn't know.
There was a palpable sense of return and reunion in the place, people embracing one another, waving at each other across the room, showing off pictures on their smart phones. Better still, Cohen led his quintet in music brimming over with high spirits and warm tones.
To his credit, Cohen has conceived a distinct ensemble sound built on unexpected instrumentation. In essence, melody lines are taken up not by saxophones or trumpet but by percussion and harmonica. Though Joe Locke, who plays vibraphone on the recording, wasn't working the Green Mill engagement, Victor Provost's steel pan and Yvonnick Prene's harmonica vividly captured the ebullient spirit of "Home." Add to this pianist Ryan Cohan's all-across-the-keyboard virtuosity, Donald Edwards' hard-driving drums and Cohen's irrepressible bass, and you had a zesty band that sounded like none other.
Though one wished that Cohen's quintet had varied its textures and voicings a bit more during the first set, giving listeners some relief from its immense wash of sound, otherwise this music proved as compelling as it was unpredictable.
For starters, Cohen's compositions revel in rhythmic complexity while conveying an unmistakable dance pulse. It's impossible not to sway in your seat a bit while listening to this music, even though Cohen refuses to settle into glib or familiar backbeats. Instead, he keeps matters interesting by constantly changing tempos and meter, altering rhythmic accents and otherwise surprising the ear. Structurally, too, his compositions - though carefully built - head off in unusual directions.
Consider "Always in My Heart," from the "Home" album. What started with the intimacy of Prene's harmonica accompanied solely by Cohan's lush pianism evolved into an easy-swing ensemble piece that next featured Provost's steel pan and Cohen's bass trading extended solos. Prene then offered soaring, high-register statements of his own, before the band indulged in a series of stops and starts that confounded presumptions about where this music was headed. This was a performance rich in musical event, allowing neither the musicians nor the listeners to get comfortable for very long.
One might think that a tune titled "Anthem," also from "Home," would be built on a declamatory theme reiterated often, but here, too, Cohen preferred to throw listeners several curves. The work's surging but unhurried tempo set the stage for a performance at once thematically complex yet musically accessible. Multiple layers of melody and rhythm coursed through this piece, all delivered with a joyous, up-tempo sensibility.
And though there was no way to miss the seductively undulating Brazilian feel of Cohen's "Saudade," the combination of full-throated ensemble passages and intricate solos - especially a muscular one from Cohen - gave listeners a great deal to ponder.
The most intimate and disarming moments, by far, occurred in Cohen's "The Sweetest Soul (For My Father)." Cohen opened with a brief reminiscence about his dad, then crafted a gorgeous melody with his bow, accompanied only by Cohan's piano and Provost's steel pan. Even here, though, Cohen did not unfurl a conventionally long-lined melodic arc. Instead, he punctuated his thoughts with spaces and silences, offering sighing, two-note phrases evoking the sound of the human voice.
A few people in the audience wiped away tears, surely recalling the subject of the piece. But you didn't need to have known Cohen's father to be moved by this music, the work attesting once again to the originality and ardor of the bassist's art.