By: Jim Hynes, Making a Scene

Saxophonist and band leader Chris Madsen leads his Chicago-based quartet on Bonfire, and album of eight originals, stretching nearly an hour. These compositions have been a long time in the making but allow for plenty of improvisation and interplay. Befitting the album title, there are plenty of moments when the group is on fire, but they display discipline and restraint when called for. Madsen is joined by seasoned veterans, drummer Dana Hall (Ray Charles, Horace Silver), pianist Stu Mindeman (Kurt Elling, Miguel Zenon), and Clark Sommers (Jeff “Tain” Watts, Brian Blade).

Madsen is an in-demand performer in the Chicago area and as an educator teaches at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Wisconsin -Parkside, and formerly and Midwest Young Artists in Highwood, IL and Northwestern University. Madsen serves on the Education Committee for the Jazz Education Network, is a Juilliard graduate and plays frequently in Chicago’s top jazz venues. This is his fifth release as a leader and the first with this unit.

They begin with “Authority” a tight piece, Afro-Cuban rhythmic piece that reveals Madsen has studied the masters but has his own confident voice as his rapid-fire melodically inventive solo is buttressed with Hall’s own solo. “Lone Wolf” has more adventurous Madsen soloing and deep engaged interaction between he and bassist Sommers. The title track reveals the band’s sense for rhythmic precision (i.e.  intro is in 9/8 time). “Hundred Center” brings in some Chicago soul with a strong solo from Mindeman, who also knows when to retreat in view of the rhythms.

“It is All of Value” swings hard with the group alternating between playfulness and sensitivity. “Cool Sun” is a shimmering, contemplative piece that where the band moves easily in and out of written composition. Some of Madsen’s lines here echo Coltrane with hints of spirituality while he shifts into a grittier tone for “Dragline,” which pulsates with danceable energy and has some Monk-like playfulness in the main groove. “Cellar Door” returns to a more contemplative and darker tone, with a progression that evokes Herbie Hancock’s Speak Like a Child, Madsen. Sommers, and Mindeman all take turns at embellishing the melody.

Madsen and his quartet find a great balance between jazz tradition and more modern sounding fare. Madsen’s tone is great, and his compositions are imaginative and leave plenty of room for improvisation. The music is straight ahead and well varied to keep one engaged for multiple listens.

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