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Clip: Chicago's emerging jazz musicians bow to the past to tell their own stories

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  • Carl Z.
    Chicago s emerging jazz musicians bow to the past to tell their own stories
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 4, 2007
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      Chicago's emerging jazz musicians bow to the past to tell their own stories

      February 4, 2007

      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
      21st century.

      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
      own music.

      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.

      In clubland
      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
      a family.

      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.
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