J Town Suite
Cora Street Records, 2023
By Jeff Cebulski | ⭐️⭐️⭐️1/2
The western community of Joliet has, to me, the look and feel of an area that used to “be something” and is struggling to keep pace. Research indicates the city was once known for steel and manufacturing industries but has become a suburb where people who work in Cook County choose to live. The fact that two casinos are listed in the top ten employers (dominated by government, health, and education) helps explain the changes.
An area artist who is situated to address the city’s past and the present is the veteran reedsman Shawn Maxwell, who grew up in Joliet and emerged from its Central High School’s music program to become a recognized educator, performer, and prolific composer. During the pandemic, Maxwell, like many others, turned introspective and created music that represents reflection on his life, present and past.
Maxwell’s second 2023 release The J Town Suite has things in common with his previous album Film at Eleven, in that the same ensemble and overall fusionesque vibe continues and the material flows into an organic whole. While Film sounded like a suite, J Town really is one, this time a tribute to and fragmented story about Maxwell’s home town.
In my previous review about Film, I wrote that Maxwell had assembled “a band that sounds like it jelled during the process.” On this new album, Maxwell expands his contribution to include soprano saxophone and flute along with his usual alto horn. Meanwhile, his quartet mates Colin Clausen on Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer, Michael Barton on electric bass, and Greg Essig on drums provide ample and sensitive support on songs that represent Maxwell’s varying degrees of emotional memory and ranges of symbolic composition.
A perusal of song titles suggests a fond remembrance of a rugged, active middle class community that has faded in recent decades, even if the population grew. But the electric atmosphere and competing moods that pervade the proceedings overrides any maudlin sentiment, even on the more sedate material—a yin-yang of tones dominates. Maxwell doesn’t want to bury his hometown; he just wants people not to ignore it.
The Suite begins with “Steelman March,” a terse stroll propelled by Essig’s slightly funky military cadence. Maxwell’s alto is proclamatory while Clausen’s keyboard and Barton’s bass have dramatic stridency. The rhythm sways and dips, suggesting the ebbs and flows of an industry that had momentum but was impeded by economic change.
“Fries or Rings in the Back” suggests nostalgia, but the music is dark, with Barton playing one of his portentous bass lines. Maxwell applies this tonal palate to a sinewy expression that perhaps symbolizes a behind-the-scenes world, the memory of people having their surreptitious moments of solitude.
“Herald’s News” is one of three relatively short compositions that symbolize more specific things. Here, the group moves with the rhythm of a newsroom; in this case, maybe the news isn’t that good—it has a “bulletin” pace.
“In the Shadow of Statesville” is a tone poem highlighted by Maxwell’s flighty flute playing that evinces prettiness one moment and dysfunction in another, the dualistic status of a municipality that juxtaposes daily life with the memory of a former penal institution. “Jerry” is brighter, suggesting a fond remembrance. Maxwell’s alto dances the melody as the rest pick up on the tune’s upper register as the tune turns jaunty, a bluesy strut that may represent teens turning into young men.
The second shorty, “Tap, Keg, & Tavern,” contains Maxwell’s second flute moment in a spirited abstract duet with an animated Essig. “Hickory Street,” the third briefer piece, follows. This one is pure funk, celebrating what must have been an urban revelation.
“Bridge Closed” may be a reference to a momentous community shift. The pace here is languid, as though the animated existence of Hickory Street and thereabouts is stilled by construction, perhaps a typical urban development tale. Clausen’s even-handed keyboard is overlaid atop Essig’s more frustrated, tied-up desire to move. Maxwell serves as a commentator amidst the tragic yin-yang of change.
The finale, “Ghost Mall on Jefferson,” begins with another portentous bass beat, joined by Essig’s quietly rumbling tomtom while Maxwell’s alto delivers a soapbox oratory proclaiming the end of an era.
On The J Town Suite Shawn Maxwell and his quartet have once again created an original musical document that mixes the old and the new—both musically and thematically—in thoughtful and refreshing ways.
Shawn Maxwell, The J Town Suite. Cora Street Records, 2023.
Shawn Maxwell, alto and soprano saxophones, flute
Collin Clauson, Fender Rhodes and Wurllzer
Michael Barton, electric bass
Greg Essig, drums and percussion
About Jeff Cebulski
Jeff Cebulski, who lives in Chicago, is a retired English educator (both secondary and collegiate) and longtime jazz aficionado. His career in jazz includes radio programs at two stations in southeast Wisconsin, an online show on Kennesaw State’s (GA) Owl Radio from 2007 until 2015, and review/feature writing for Chicago Jazz Magazine since 2016, including his column "Jazz With Mr. C". He has interviewed many jazz artists, including Joshua Redman, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland, John Beasley, and Chris Brubeck, as well as several Chicago-based players. Jeff is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association. Contact Jeff at email@example.com