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Daily Herald - August 18, 2000

Trio's Treasure

By Mark Guarino
Daily Herald Music Critic

With so many musical scenes in full health right now in Chicago, it's natural that chameleons such as Paul Wertico will spring up to suddenly fuse several together.

Already well-established in the jazz world as the drummer for the Pat Metheny Group, Wertico's own trio is drawing boundaries well outside the music's often stiff perimeters. "Don't Be Scared Anymore" (Premonition) is The Paul Wertico Trio's first studio album and it sounds as comfortable on the hard, loud end of rock as it does the delicate, subtle side of jazz.

Kicked off by a late-night show Saturday at Martyr's, the album is one of the best Chicago releases out this year.

In their playing, Wertico's trio makes vocalists seem superfluous, a feat today when a lead singer's personality is often the prime focus of a band.

Instead, guitarist John Moulder, bassist Eric Hochberg and Wertico play like they're singing through their instruments. The record's intense emotional range sounds more like a deeply woven musical conversation than just three deft musicians flashing licks.

That expressiveness is what makes this group so intriguing. Instead of simple improvisational banter between players, these three play songs with definite middles and endings and also soaring melodic climaxes. Because they come from jazz, their approach is much more sublime than your typical exploratory rock band. With tricky time changes and bursts of scorching musicianship, each song manages to stand separate from the others.

Led by Moulder's razor riffing, "Clybourn Strut" has a tribal-sounding, second line groove while "The Underground" is a swampy blues number with sly harmonizing.

The more impressionistic "African Sunset" explores different textures, while feedback blowouts like "Long Journey's End" are more about volume and intensity.

But the defining song for this trio is the ending "Testament." In about 11 minutes, the song builds, first with a feverish bop section that leads to a heavy rock section worthy of Led Zeppelin's most menacing moments.

Its middle becomes the eye of its storm, a free-form solo section that allows space to breathe. Then, the song turns to retreat, stepping backwards to end where it once started.

For such a complex effort, the album sprung from pleasant chaos.

"It was totally organic," said Wertico.

Up to four nights a week over three weeks, the musicians gathered at the new Reelsounds studio in Skokie at the invitation of its owner, Mark Brunner, who needed musicians to try out the facilities.

Without a clock to keep them on schedule, the three recorded casually, creating arrangements and even writing some songs as they went.

The finished product was such a nice surprise, Wertico ushered it to the progressive jazz label, Premonition (home of critic faves Patricia Barber and Terry Callier), and suddenly, he had a new record out.

By that time, the trio was only playing four gigs a year and had only released a live album, from a 1994 performance in Warsaw, Poland. But with Metheny's band currently on a two-year hiatus, Wertico is readying his trio to stretch its legs. Now armed with an agent and with Premonition's distribution deal with EMI, he expects his audience to be widened, from jazz to, hopefully, jam band fans.

It's a long way to come for the native South Sider, who is largely self-taught. He soaked up Hendrix, Cream and Who records alongside Coltrane and Miles Davis.

"Through osmosis, it all got into me," he said. "I didn't try to transcribe what the drummers did, I tried to get the emotion."

Although he was awarded a music scholarship at Western Illinois, the day Cannonball Adderly's band arrived for a clinic, Wertico was so impressed, he dropped out of school the next day and decided to just learn by playing for real.

He's been one of the city's most eclectic performers ever since. Aside from his 17 years backing up Metheny, Wertico has kept busy as a prolific session drummer, teacher and producer. Instead of merely being a time keeper, Wertico is known as more of an impressionistic drummer, a player who swings and strikes with attitude. Although he's a fan of jazz players Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a definitive moment for him was when he was 15 and saw The Who play a tiny club in Algonquin.

He stood to the side of drummer/maniac Keith Moon and "they blew out the power seven times and that meant seven Keith Moon solos," he said.

It was a moment that taught him volumes about his future vocation. "It has to feel like something," he said. "(Jazz) came off of old march beats in New Orleans 100 years ago and that stuff grooved its butt off."

Unlike many peers who take middle age too slow or repeat themselves, Wertico, 47, and well-esteemed colleagues Moulder (a Catholic priest in Oak Park) and Hochberg are beginning to bloom - even though it's an age the industry considers a "wasteland," Wertico said. "This is a time many musicians reach a major peak. I feel better than I was in my 20s. I still have a crazed passion for music," he said.

The newfound zeal may have to do with the turning tide of taste. With a younger generation interested in rhythm-based jam bands thanks to the success of Phish and the Dave Matthews Band, the trio suddenly has a new audience.

Even Wertico's 20-year-old avant-garde side project, Earwax Control, may finally have its due since Chicago is currently the center of experimental jazz, thanks to Ken Vandermark and others.

With everything pulsing ahead, it makes him cringe seeing young players wearing zoot suits and playing music from 60 years ago.

"When you're that young, you should be making things up, taking chances," he said. "As an artist you owe it to yourself."

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