Having spent the better portion of two hours Thursday night at Mecca exploring levels of jazz dynamics that shifted from cool, melodic balladry to blasts of free improvisation, the Chicago collective known as The Engines turned to that most lamentably unlikely of inspirations, the neighborhood taqueria. During the finale of El Norte, penned by trombonist Jeb Bishop, the quartet compressed its bounteous instrumental drive, improvisational dexterity and pure performance intuition into a remarkably streamlined musical travelogue.
No sooner did an intro of animated Mexicali-flavored bop establish itself than the band swerved into swing. Then El Norte switched gears again to allow drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Kent Kessler to cook up a light but pronounced groove under a musically acrobatic solo from Bishop. The entire escapade was rich, melodically spacious and taco-rific.
Unlike many of the Chicago-based units that have visited Lexington over the years as part of the Outside the Spotlight, The Engines worked from a compositional base as opposed to a strictly improvisational one.
Some tunes, including Four Feet of Slush, emphasized hushed ensemble cool. Others, including the show-opening suite of two Bishop works, Tilt and Spark, were full tour de forces that incorporated groove, drone-like backdrops, an encyclopedia of percussive exploits from Daisy and a beautifully emotive bass solo from Kessler that served as the true eye of this musical hurricane.
There also were instances when the music pared itself down to free-style solos ripe with wicked humor. Daisy took top honors in that department early into the second set with a restless solo that had him grabbing various percussive devices out of a suitcase for use in creating assorted scrapes and scratches across his drum heads.
The catalyst for all this fun was saxophonist Dave Rempis, who engaged in several cat-and-mouse bouts with Bishop that built to wondrous boil during Stafe. But there was one instance during a brief unaccompanied solo when Rempis seemed to sum up the continually morphing music of The Engines. After establishing a resoundingly clear tone on alto sax, his sound quickly corroded into a coarse squall.
Such a moment was indicative of a jazz vehicle that loved the flow and pace of keen rhythm but wasn’t for an instant shy about changing into something more dangerous when the need kicked in.