Earlier this month in the Horner Park neighborhood on the city’s north side, Grammy-winning saxophonist Frank Catalano and Smashing Pumpkins drummer Jimmy Chamberlin rehearsed inside the historic recording studio at Delmark Records, a label that’s served as home to blues and jazz greats like Sun Ra and Junior Wells since its founding in 1953 by Bob Koester.
Minus mics or amps, it’s within such intimate confines fans truly get a sense for the propulsive playing of each, a performance captured by both WGN TV and WTTW 11 ahead of a special set Monday night, December 27 at City Winery.
Catalano and Chamberlin have known each other for over 20 years, performing together on a trio of studio albums and one live record, with more to come as they prepare to reenter the studio in early 2022.
For Catalano, Delmark is a special place. Signed to the label by Koester himself, he recorded albums like his 1998 debut Cut It Out!?! and 2000’s You Talkin’ to Me?! in the riverside room.
While Catalano has performed at City Winery previously, Monday night’s post-Christmas concert will mark the first headlining performance for both the drummer and saxophone player.
“I’m so happy that Jimmy and I have City Winery on the 27th,” said Catalano. “The last time I was there I played with Los Lobos. And we had a lot of fun. A really cool thing I did [there] was with Elysabeth Alfano. She had a thing called Dinner Party and I’d go play a couple of songs,” he said. “The band [Monday at City Winery] will include Mike Benning on bass. He just recently started playing with us. And we’re gonna have John Roothan our longtime pianist. We’re bringing in the real piano so he doesn’t have to have his keyboards set up. We’re having it tuned the day of. So it’ll be the four of us.”
I spoke with Frank Catalano about his history at Delmark, performing alongside Jimmy Chamberlin and what to expect Monday night at City Winery. A transcript of our conversation lightly edited for length and clarity follows below…
You’ve had shows back in New York and Chicago. What’s it been like getting back on stage in front of actual people after such a long break?
FRANK CATALANO: It was just a really sad year with no performing. Obviously, there’s no income coming in really when you’re not performing. So there’s all of that. But more than anything, it was gut wrenching to not be able to interact with people that I’m used to being around and playing every day. That was just crazy.
But starting with the Green Mill this year, I did my birthday show there six or seven months ago and then things started coming back. The five shows we did last week at Birdland in New York were all awesome and packed. We did a livestream. John Coltrane’s son Ravi Coltrane came out. Ed Sheeran was there. I was alternating sets with Joe Lovano, one of my favorite saxophone players, so that was great. And then I had eight shows in Seattle the week before that. So those are positive things.
My tour that was supposed to happen of France and Italy for March and April of 2020 that was rescheduled for 2021 has now been rescheduled for 2022. It seems like it’s going to stick now? Of course now there’s Omicron. But that’s certainly the hope.
But I’m so happy that Jimmy and I have City Winery on the 27th.
This is not your first time at City Winery, what’s it like coming back there?
FC: City Winery I think is just a beautiful venue – and they’re beautiful in other cities too. The last time I was there I played with Los Lobos. And we had a lot of fun. I’ve played there with other bands a lot. A really cool thing I did was with Elysabeth Alfano. She had a thing called Dinner Party and I’d go play a couple of songs.
This is the first time Jimmy and I will have played there together. And it’s the first time that I’ve played there under my own name. This being a full concert I think will be extra fun. The band will include Mike Benning on bass. He just recently started playing with us. And we’re gonna have John Roothan our longtime pianist. We’re bringing in the real piano so he doesn’t have to have his keyboards set up. We’re having it tuned the day of. So it’ll be the four of us.
As we stand here inside the recording studio at Delmark Records, what does this room, with all of its history, mean to you?
FC: I feel real lucky. Delmark’s catalog is so special. Especially with Von Freeman being my mentor and a Chicago saxophone legend, this room means a lot to me.
I like the vibe of this studio very much. You were here. We knocked out some really cool stuff with no mics – just Jimmy and I playing. It’s just got a great sound. It’s really effortless to play in. Whereas, with some studios, they look really fancy but don’t sound really great. So I love this studio very much.
On a personal level, there’s the fact that my first couple of albums were done here. When Bob Koester signed me to Delmark, I was truly standing right there in that corner where that chair is. [Trumpeter] Ira Sullivan, who played with Charlie Parker for a long time, was right over there [when we recorded the Cut It Out!?! album here]. [Pianist] Willie Pickens. Robert Shy, who used to be Roland Kirk’s drummer. Brian Sandstrom [on bass]. So it’s real special to me.
The following year, Von Freeman and I did our two tenor album [You Talkin’ to Me?!] for Delmark. We were both right there where those amps are.
So this studio means a lot to me. I’m so happy that [Delmark President and CEO] Julia [Miller] and [Vice President and Artistic Director] Elbio [Barilari] haven’t really changed it much. Because it’s a historic place. And that means a lot to me.
Well, over three studio albums and one live record, what does playing with Jimmy Chamberlin mean to you?
FC: Not only is Jimmy a good friend but I think we fill time in a very similar way. What you saw today was just sax and drums. And I feel like me and him could go play five hours of sax and drums and never miss a beat and never be not on the same page. One night might be better if there’s more excitement. One night might be a little more inspired. But I can honestly say if the two of us did ten sax and drums duo concerts in a row, they’d all be of a high level and we’d both be on the same page the entire time. I really can’t say that about almost anyone else.
Jimmy’s time is so good. But what does it mean to have good time? It’s someone’s perception. Because you could have metronomic time – but it could be boring. Like in all of those old Miles Davis recordings that are my favorites, you can hear where the beginning of the song is often one tempo and the end is significantly faster in a lot of cases. Not always. But you can just tell they were feeling the energy and it was picking up speed a little bit. And, to me, that’s perfectly fine – because it’s what was called for.
The thing that was so special about John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Cannonball Adderley – the front line on those recordings – they’re definitely feeling time in a similar way and they’re playing with a lot of fire. I feel like when me and Jimmy play, we play with a lot of energy. That time or pulse is really special.
I heard Jimmy say earlier that you guys have known each other for 22 years. How long have you played together?
FC: I’m thinking we met around 1999. Jimmy was still in the Smashing Pumpkins and I think they were doing the “Machina” tour. So we became friends around that time. I’d go to his house and play and we’d hang out various places – like The Boulevard. I was playing Wrigley at The Boulevard. And that was great. I think I was playing like every Tuesday and Sugar Blue was like every Wednesday. Often, Medeski Martin & Wood would come in. DJ Logic. It was so cool. That was a wonderful place to make music and have creative things happen.
That was such a busy time for me. I was playing quite a bit with Tony Bennett. I was playing a lot with Louie Bellson. I was playing Wrigley with Charles Earland. And he passed away in 1999. That was just a great time for music in my opinion.
This is also a great time too ironically. I feel like people are excited to be back listening to music. Kind of like I remember that excitement from 20 years ago. I wouldn’t say this last decade didn’t have that – because it did. But I think people got used to the fact that any night of the week, if you lived in Chicago, you could go and hear all types of awesome music. And this last year and a half, having that taken away, I think it’s made a lot of people appreciate live music again. So as horrible as this has been for everybody, I feel that if there is some solace to be taken it’s that in some ways it has excited people to get out, hear live music and not take it for granted.
FRANK CATALANO & JIMMY CHAMBERLIN
Monday, December 27, 2021
Doors open at 6PM
Show starts at 8PM
Tickets: $18 – $35
To purchase tickets click HERE