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Music Review: Sabertooth Dr. Midnight Live At The Green Mill

What is it about Jazz music that associates it with late nights? Oh sure there is Jazz that's played in the afternoons, but it sometimes feels as much like Jazz as Pat Boon is Rock and Roll. It's polite and well mannered music that you can bring home to meet your mother and she won't throw it out into the street. No, there's just something about the music that calls for the atmosphere that is generated in a big city long after daylight has vanished.

Speakeasies, after-hours bars, and other late night venues just feel like they are made for Jazz. Perhaps it's the seductive sound of the saxophones, the soft hissing of a snare being brushed, or the gentle thrumming of the stand up bass that makes the music feel like it needs the soft velvet of darkness for it to thrive. There is something almost magical about the way the elements of a Jazz tune come together that makes it feel so ethereal that daylight would burn it away.

There is also something about music being performed in the wee hours of the morning that gives it an extra spark of excitement. Perhaps it's some sort of connection to our genetic memory of a time when we performed rituals in the deepest part of the night to aid in our communications with the spirit world. All I know is that one of the most memorable memories I have of Jazz was listening to about a dozen saxophones playing in a fourth floor studio at three in the morning in downtown Toronto.

For the past fifteen years the Chicago Jazz band Sabertooth has been playing a Sunday morning gig that starts at midnight and winds down at five in the morning at the venerable Green Mill Tavern. (The Green Mill first opened its doors in 1907) It says a lot about their quality as a band, and the enthusiasm of Chicago's Jazz fans, that there is an audience for this show week in and week out. However, I bet that a fair number of the audience members are as attracted by the event as much as they are the music. It's still a pretty unique experience to listen to Jazz until the sun comes up the next morning.
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For those of us who can't get to Chicago on a regular, or even an infrequent basis, to catch Sabertooth live at the Green Mill, the good folk at Delmark Records have released Dr. Midnight, Live At The Green Mill. The seven tracks on the CD were all recorded live on June 23rd 2007 during the quartet's regular Sunday morning gig.

It's obvious that these guys are aware they are doing something just a little bit different with this gig. On the introduction to the title track, "Dr. Midnight", Cameron Pfiffner, makes mention of of the time of day's special qualities. He talks about the sounds that you can hear during these hours and wonders if they are messages from people on the other side. That's where Dr. Midnight comes in, as he's someone who can interpret what these sounds mean.

Pfiffner is joined as lead in the quartet by fellow tenor saxophone player Pat Mallinger. Aside from each playing tenor, Pfiffner also plays soprano saxophone, concert flute, and piccolo while Mallinger plays alto sax, and Native American flute. Rounding out the quartet are Pete Benson on the Hammond B3 organ and Ted Sirota on drums. It's not what most people would expect as a standard quartet line up, but these guys aren't exactly what you'd call, if there could even be such a thing, your standard Jazz quartet.

They play everything from original bebop tunes, "It's surely Gonna Flop If It Ain't Go That Bop", adaptations of movie soundtracks, the theme from the movie the Odd Couple, to a cut by the Grateful Dead, "China Cat Sunflower"; not songs that your apt to find sharing most band's set lists for a concert. Of course what those songs have in common is that they all allow plenty of room to manoeuvre, so there is a lot of extrapolating on themes and playing around with tunes by the two leads.

With the two front men taking on most of the improvisational duties Sirota and Benson are responsible for holding the framework together. Not only does Benson handle that with his keyboard, but also with the bass pedals on the Hammond. In many ways he's doing the equivalent of playing both the guitar and bass parts for the band. On the opening track, "Blues For C. Piff", a twelve minute plus hot and heavy bluesy number written by Mallinger for Pfiffner, you can feel Benson's presence running through the tune like an electric current.

As usual for a Delmark live recording the sound is impeccable, and not only have they recorded the band wonderfully, but they have allowed enough of the crowd noise to leak through to ensure that you feel like you're at the gig. A great example of how effective a job they have done with this is the song Tetemetearri. Up until that point the crowd has been boisterously responding to the rambunctious nature of the music, but at the first note of the Native American flute that Pat Mallinger opens the song with, you can hear a pin drop.

Because the sounds of the crowd have been such a constant throughout the disc until this point, having it drop it off to completely in reaction to what's happening on the stage, increases our attention to what's happening on stage. While the song would have been captivating enough on its own, this serves to accent its distinctive quality and pull us into the track deeper then we might have gone normally. I don't think I've ever experienced a live recording where I've become as directly involved in the music as I did on this disc.

When it comes right down to it Sabertooth's Dr. Midnight Live At The Green Mill is an exhilarating Jazz party. Everybody, including the band are having such a good time that it's impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of the moment. There's nothing quite like listening to live Jazz until the sun comes up, and if you can't be there in person this disc is the next best thing.

Leap In The Dark

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