When Document Chicago was released in 2003, it re-affirmed Chicago's unique place in contemporary improvised music. In the 1960s the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) brought attention to forward-thinking artists like Henry Threadgill, Muhal Richard Abrams, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But recent years have seen a new wave of creative musicians who are finding fresh ways to advance the AACM's aesthetic into the 21st century through assimilation of more modern devices.
Four players who seemed to show up all over that sampler were woodwind multi-instrumentalist Aram Shelton, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tim Daisy. So it's no particular surprise that these four appear together on Shelton's debut as a leader, Arrive. However, since the session was recorded in 2001, it may not be an accurate picture of where they are today. Still, if Arrive is any indication, not only are the next generation of intrepid Chicago improvisers forging their own direction, Shelton has arrived as a composer of some significance.
The seemingly general term "improvised music" actually refers to a specific approach that, while sharing some of free jazz's premises, aligns itself more closely with contemporary classical writing. Arrival's lineup of saxophone, vibes, bass, and drums could easily imply a conventional jazz aesthetic. The language, however, is different, and what rhythms there are have little relationship to the swing feel that reductionists consider an essential component of jazz. It is, in fact, more akin to modern chamber music, but with a heavy dose of improvisation thrown into the structural blend.
Still, Shelton doesn't eschew jazz values entirely. "All Dressed Up winds its way in and out of a more or less straightforward swing, and it features clearly delineated and liberated solo spacealbeit in an atmosphere of harmonic ambiguity far removed from either change-heavy bop or static modality. Shelton, restricting himself to alto for the session, brings to mind a young Anthony Braxton, with an acerbic asceticism, obliquely rooted in jazz, at work.
"On Time finds Adasiewicz and Daisy pairing off thematically against Shelton and Roebke, each team alternating their unison lines, with the percussion duo's rigid rhythms contrasting the extended elasticity of the sax and bass. Shelton solos over Adasiewicz's stark harmonic backdrop, with Daisy creating a maelstrom of percussion underneathasserting its own rhythm, but seemingly isolated from the rest until everyone seems to almost magically realign together.
As obscure as Shelton's writing is, it's not without its beauty. Adasiewicz begins "Johann & Leo alone, blurring the line between form and freedom, ultimately resolving into a pad of gentle trills over which Shelton's simple theme evolves. Roebke's spare notes gently move this rubato tone poem forward, augmented by Daisy's textural percussion.
A curiously satisfying blend of composition and improvisation, Arrive may not be for the faint of heart. Still, it delivers its recondite message in a way that, by avoiding scabrous edges, will surprise and delight those who might normally avoid such unconventional and nonconformist music.
Personnel: Aram Shelton: alto saxophone, composer; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Jason Roebke: bass; Tim Daisy: drums.