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Stop Channel Surfing, Chicago Saxophonist Doug Rosenberg's Debut 'Better Than TV' Delivers

By Chris Bentley in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 9, 2013 8:20PM


Mid-way through Doug Rosenberg’s debut album, Better Than TV, the saxophonist leads his personnel through “The Comeback.” It’s a thrashing series of free-jazz solos bookended with punchy, up-tempo funk and dynamic explorations that range from mousy to massive.

In all it sounds like the young composer’s ideas are bursting onto the page, not waiting to be born. You can almost hear the blend of excitement and anxiety that must accompany the release of a rising musician’s first album as a bandleader. The tunes have an immediacy, but not one note sounds rushed.

The Chicago saxophonist will celebrate the release of his new album with two shows at Jazz Showcase on Dec. 10. On the album, Rosenberg is accompanied by pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Matt Ulery and drummer Makaya McCraven. Clearfield will appear Tuesday, but Mike Harmon and Juan Pastor will fill out the rhythm section at the album release show.

Marquis Hill plays trumpet on the title track—a topsy-turvy post-bop tune whose 5/4 time signature glides along stealthily thanks to some clever rhythmic fluctuations, especially by the bass and drums (“Drum solo is a curvy ball...,” reads Rosenberg’s notation). It’s a subtle way to keep the listener leaning forward without hitting him or her over the head.

Rosenberg’s compositions defy expectations throughout. “Mato Grosso” delivers on its Brazilian name with the syncopations and chord voicings that typify samba and bossa nova, while the 6/4 time and asymmetrical song structure are decidedly foreign. Here and elsewhere on the album, Rosenberg and his bandmates effortlessly assimilate styles across space and time. Though known for his work with the Balkan fusion band Eastern Blok, Rosenberg eschews any forthrightly eastern European strokes on this album. But there is a soulfulness to much of “Better Than TV” that might owe something to Rosenberg’s proficiency with that often intense style of folk music.

Accomplished composers in their own right, Rosenberg’s bandmates rise above merely supporting the saxophonist. As on the album closer, “Forged Stability,” Clearfield’s cascading chords can add tonal shading, like the glow of an impressionist painting, and then seamlessly lock down the challenging melodic runs and chord changes that undergird these complex tunes.

Ulery is also by turns adventurous and on point. He punctuates the mid-tempo “Snove” and “A Higher Standard” with rhythmic counterpoints, coaxing sophisticated melodic progressions one might not expect from the oft-maligned bass solo.

The bandleader’s compositions—and his full-bodied tone—cut a clear path through the limitlessness of contemporary jazz, which might tempt lesser musicians to stretch themselves too thin or cloak themselves in homage. This is an all-star cast of young musicians with poise beyond their years. Whatever he was watching, it’s a good thing for the future of Chicago’s experimental music scene that Doug Rosenberg decided to put down the remote and make up his own show, which might indeed be better than TV.

The album release party for Doug Rosenberg's Better Than TV will be Tuesday, Dec. 10 at The Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct. Two shows at 8 and 10 p.m.