One of the defining characteristics of Chicago's progressive jazz scene is the ubiquity of a tight-knit group of young, post-Ken Vandermark improvisers who alternate sideman and leadership duties in a variety of ensembles. Whether led by individual artists or operating as loose collectives, they approach the tradition from similar angles, seamlessly incorporating aspects of swinging post-bop, edgy free improvisation, and contemporary composition into a cohesive whole. Their historically reverent, yet adventurous inside-outside sensibility has come to define the Windy City's current underground aesthetic.
Fast Citizens is one such group. Formed by tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson in 2002, the sextet's line-up has remained unchanged, with alto saxophonist Aram Shelton and cornetist Josh Berman joining Jackson on the front-line, supported by cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Frank Rosaly. Rather than functioning as a true collective however, this unit features a rotating leadership position. Their first recording, Ready Everyday (Delmark, 2006) featured Jackson as the primary composer; on their sophomore effort, Two Cities, Shelton assumes the role of principle writer and bandleader. Though Shelton currently lives in Oakland, California (hence the album title) the group's longstanding rapport yields a unified sensibility, with each musician making inspired contributions.
The vivacious opener, "Two Cities" is an apt demonstration of Shelton's abilities. The tune's dynamic arrangement alternates turbulent density with spacious introspection, providing a fitting showcase for the front-line's interpretive prowess. Shelton's circuitous cadences careen over the rhythm section's bustling undercurrent, his acerbic tone parlayed by Longberg-Holm's caustic arco. Jackson's tortuous tenor proves a perfect foil for Shelton's fleeting alto before Berman takes a sublime cornet cadenza, accompanied by Rosaly's sensitive accents.
Jackson's "Big News" spotlights Shelton's probing alto, simultaneously highlighting Jackson and Berman's congenial interplay in a spirited duet. Vacillating between sonic extremes, Berman waxes lyrical on the pensive "Western Promenade," unleashing coruscating tirades on "The Twenty-Seven"a bristling free meditation circumvented by the appearance of a hypnotic modal line that fuels the leader's serpentine musings. Revealing the breadth of his talents, Shelton's dulcet ballad "I am Here, You are There" is brief, but poignant.
The supple rhythm section gracefully negotiates abstruse rhythms and modulating tempos, while making strong individual statementssuch as Hatwich's plangent rumination at the center of the episodic "In Cycles." Rosaly provides atmospheric drama to "Western Promenade" and a rousing finale to "Big News," which opens with austere neo-classical refrains from Lonberg-Holm, whose expansive contributions include the distorted electronic detritus that cloaks "Easy." Encapsulating his stylistic versatility, Lonberg-Holm's sole written contribution, "VRC#9" dramatically transforms from contrapuntal minimalism to stark pointillism.
Fast Citizens continues to forge its own direction, reaching beyond formulaic conventions to embrace new forms. Much like their debut, Two Cities yields a formidable hybrid of venerable post-bop and avant-garde traditions.
Personnel: Aram Shelton: alto saxophone, clarinet; Keefe Jackson: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet; Josh Berman: cornet; Fred Lonberg-Holm: cello; Anton Hatwich: bass; Frank Rosaly: drums.