Clip: Chicago's emerging jazz musicians bow to the past to tell their own stories
Chicago's emerging jazz musicians bow to the past to tell their own stories
February 4, 2007
BY JOHN LITWEILER
Ever since Louis Armstrong first dazzled South Side crowds in the
1920s, outstanding, original musicians have grown to artistic maturity
in the fertile soil of Chicago's jazz community. Today, a remarkable
new crop of players is sprouting up from the underground here in the
But right away, I should warn you: They swing, but they play free
jazz. That is, they improvise freely (oh, no!), outside chord changes
(shocking!), and sometimes they're even arhythmic or atonal (the
horror!). Sometimes their music is fierce, with exhilarated honks and
explosions. More often, it's intense, very tight group explorations,
often lyrical or abstract or even charming.
Since they're the free-jazz weeds in Chicago's mainstream-jazz garden,
we'll call them the Wild Onions.
They're bold, often vivid players who have their own stories to tell
and their own ways to tell them. Most of them are not among our most
visible players, for they seldom play in the fashionable parts of
town. While you can hear them often at the famous Velvet Lounge, and
sometimes in the Loop (at Gallery 37, for instance), they're usually
heard at well-hidden spots scattered around the North Side. True, a
few Wild Onions -- for instance, trumpeter Corey Wilkes, multi-saxist
Dave Rempis, and drummers Isaiah Spencer and Mike Reed -- are already
noted musicians because they've been absorbed into long-established
bands. The rest, including some of the best, are only beginning to
become well known.
"I haven't seen such a healthy, cooperative, stimulating scene since
the early AACM. The communal, creative aspect is really working," says
longtime critic Larry Kart, author of Jazz in Search of Itself.
Certainly Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative
Musicians, founded on the South Side in 1965, set a precedent for this
new generation's cooperative works. Moreover, these younger artists
are using the expressive innovations of the first AACM composers and
improvisers to discover their own voices.
Most of all, close listening and responsiveness -- musicians used to
call it "quick ears" -- often result in what Kart calls "genuine
compositional thinking," a feeling for creating structured music
together that recalls some of the first AACM ensembles.
Chicago: city on the edge
A bit of history is in order. While later AACM generations created
colorful fusions of new freedoms with mainstream traditions or African
influences, the radical, roaring excitement of this music was
reinvented during the 1980s and '90s by North Siders like Ken
Vandermark and especially Hal Russell's N-R-G Ensemble. Less renowned
but calmer, the 1990s music of Rob Mazurek's and Guillermo Gregorio's
groups were immediate stylistic precedents for these 21st-century
"Chicago has always been on the edge of something that's new. This
city can't help but rub off on you," says Mike Reed, originally an
"inside" drummer who first ventured "outside," with crisp, urgent
accenting, early in this century. "I began playing with [AACM saxman]
David Boykin. His composing is very detailed, and its demands were
what made me play free."
In 2001, Reed enlisted Josh Berman to help present weekly Sunday-night
sets at an inconspicuous Belmont Avenue bar, The Hungry Brain: "I
wanted to bring people together. Initially we just asked our friends
to come out. After six months, people just came. It's important that
we're still there every week."
"At one time it was hard to get a gig," says Berman. "We were just
figuring our stuff out, and one gig every three months is not going to
make you into a good player. The Hungry Brain kind of solidified the
Berman has blossomed into a beautifully melodic artist with fine,
subtle rhythmic poise. It's especially pertinent that he names swing
cornetists Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff and Rex Stewart among his
influences. "What opened it up for me was learning all these really
old tunes and how they work, and relating it to this new music."
Learning from history
Wild Onions tend to know their musical ancestry, including not only
free jazz, but also bop, swing and early jazz.
Berman is on two Delmark CDs with tenor saxman Keefe Jackson, another
artist with an especially fine sense of spacing and accenting phrases,
as he develops lines that curve and dip above the rhythms. He's
another who cites swing saxophonists and the first AACM generation
among his major influences. Jackson played jazz, klezmer and Latin
music in Arkansas and Maine and "I visited Chicago before I moved here
in 2001. It seemed like it would be easy to meet other musicians and
get something going."
The scene expanded. Dave Rempis appeared, playing saxophones,
especially alto, with eager, breathless intensity like that of the
AACM's Anthony Braxton. Already, since 1998, Rempis had been noted for
his playing in the Vandermark Five. Matt Bauder, on tenor sax, began
exploring Braxton's more minimalist ideas. Women began to emerge,
including alto saxist Matana Roberts and trumpeter Jaime Branch.
Roberts is a daring melodic and dramatic artist who mingles history,
autobiography and music in her grand, ongoing "Mississippi Moonchile"
multimedia concerts. Yet another saxophonist, Aram Shelton, plays alto
with a singing sound and a wonderful way of developing juicy phrases
into full-blown solos. Like most of the others, Shelton composes his
They were joined by superb new rhythm section players. To name a few,
Jason Roebke, Anton Hatwich and Jason Ajemian proved to be powerful
bassists, while drummers Tim Daisy and the complex Frank Rosaly
motivate ensembles with their interplay. Jason Adasiewicz adds ringing
sounds and melodic sparkle to several groups with his vibes. This list
of Wild Onions is far from comprehensive. And a number of older free
musicians play with these younger folks, while new people keep popping
up like weeds.
Where do they all play? Senior saxman Ken Vandermark began presenting
them weekly at a well-hidden Bucktown bar, The Hideout, and Dave
Rempis began presenting them at Elastic, a second-floor performance
space above a Chinese restaurant north of Logan Square. A few nights
each week, they're at the Velvet Lounge, owned by the major
saxophonist Fred Anderson: "Fred's club is a very strong model for
what we're trying to do," says Rempis.
Since so many players appeared regularly at Elastic, The Hideout and
the Brain, last year the producers formed the Umbrella Music
cooperative, to coordinate events.
Underground jazz is an international community, too. Inevitably, some,
like saxophonists Aram Shelton, Matana Roberts and Matt Bauder,
eventually left Chicago to study or seek their fortunes. But they
return often to perform with their pals. Meanwhile, those pals make
occasional tours of the U.S. and Europe, and recordings are beginning
to appear on the 482 Music, Okka-Disk and Delmark labels.
Adasiewicz articulates what many of the others say about this city's
21st century new music scene: "What's keeping me here is more than the
free jazz scene. I've always loved the city. I don't want to leave
Chicago. I have everybody I want to play with right here. We hang out
together, we like to see each other play. It's a family, it's totally
Where to hear the new sounds
10 p.m. Wednesdays: The Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, (773) 227-4433.
10 p.m. Thursdays: Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee, (773) 772-3616, above
the Friendship Chinese Restaurant.
10 p.m. Sundays: The Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, (773) 935-2118.
See schedules for these three places at umbrellamusic.org. In the
spring, Umbrella Music also will produce twice-monthly concerts at
Gallery 37, at 66 E. Randolph, (773) 744-8295.
Also, the Velvet Lounge, at 67 E. Cermak, (312) 791-9050, offers new
jazz six nights a week, including Isaiah Spencer's jam sessions at 9
p.m. Sundays. See the schedule at velvetlounge.net.