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Edgefest 2018: The Chicago Connection


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Ann Arbor, MI
October 17-20, 2018

This year, Ann Arbor, Michigan's Edgefest Festival turned to Chicago for inspiration. An astonishing array of talented musicians, most with roots in Chicago's storied past or its vibrant present, made appearances at the Kerrytown Concert House for four days of exceptional music that could generally be categorized under the rubrics of either free improvisation or left-of-mainstream creative jazz. The Chicago scene has long been a nexus for the jazz avant-garde, especially since the advent of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965. While the presence of Roscoe Mitchell, Famoudou Don Moye, Harrison Bankhead and Edward Wilkerson reminded everyone of the legendary origins of that musical stream, perhaps the most hopeful aspect of the festival were the outstanding sets performed by younger musicians, suggesting that the future of creative jazz and improvised music is in very capable hands.

Ann Arbor's own Piotr Michalowski brought a septet to launch Wednesday evening's performances at Kerrytown. A multi- instrumentalist who played both soprano sax and bass clarinet during the set, Michalowski featured a winding, freely-improvised piece and then a composed piece, "For Silence," dedicated to Mitchell, the elder statesman of the festival. With cellist Abby Alwin and violinist/violist Mike Khoury to add contrast with Michalowski and cornetist Ken Kozora, the ensemble offered a full, robust sound with bracing moments of energy alternating with an understated tension. It was a promising start to an evening of adventurous music.

Argentinian clarinetist Guillermo Gregorio represented the Windy City well as he joined long-time Chicago veteran cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and vibraphonist Carrie Biolo for a set of classically-inflected, structured improvisation. Gregorio spent much of his musical career in Chicago while teaching at Purdue University, and while he's also composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he has steadily pursued more experimental improvisation since the 1960s. His mastery of the clarinet allowed him to focus as much on texture as tunefulness, but the abstraction and difficulty of the music was tempered by the shimmering surfaces of Biolo's vibes and Lonberg-Holm's uniquely sonorous excavations. The music also possessed at times an almost whimsical aspect, and one could hear in Gregorio's lines a hint—just a hint—of the jazz tradition that first captivated him before his decision to take more unorthodox paths.

Since the release of his iconic album Sound (Delmark) in 1966, Roscoe Mitchell has been the fulcrum of the Chicago avant-garde scene, and he played an essential role as an early member of the AACM and in the creation of his most well-known group, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Mitchell's performances at the festival were some of the most anticipated, and Wednesday's appearance with a broad range of "Detroit friends" surely did not disappoint. Veteran saxophonists Tony Holland and Skeeter Shelton , guitarist A. Spencer Barefield, bassist Jaribu Shahid and drummer Djallo Keita Djakate brought a vast accumulated expertise to the stage, and their ability to navigate Mitchell's challenging terrain was never in question.

Now 78, Mitchell occasionally revealed a tentative, halting manner, but only when talking to the audience; as for the power of his horn, there was no denying his stamina or technique, the latter exhibited to particularly impressive effect during a ten-minute extended solo with circular breathing and overtones. Mitchell also unveiled a brilliant piano composition, performed by the University of Michigan's Stephen Rush, that held the audience spellbound. But it was the rich ensemble performances that were the most memorable of the evening, as Mitchell and his longtime friends and colleagues tapped into the deep well of blues and jazz but pushed it into ever more abstract realms, offering a vivid embodiment of Mitchell's aesthetic. The set was brief, at just over an hour, but it offered a taste of what was to come Saturday night, when Mitchell would perform once again to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Art Ensemble.

Thursday night's opener, a trio led by drummer Adam Shead called "Tradition Talks," lived up to its name with wide-ranging music that remained tethered to the jazz tradition even while taking plenty of chances. Pianist Matt Piet's phenomenal chops were employed to fine effect, as he would offer a seemingly endless supply of figures and riffs that would lead the trio in new directions. Bassist Tony Piazza and Shead were in very tight rapport throughout, giving the music its fluidity and cohesion.

The second set of the night belonged to one of the festival's most intriguing lineups, with the cello tandem of Tomeka Reid and Lonberg-Holm forming a trio with bassoonist Katherine Young. On paper, this might look like a recipe for chamber music—but not with this trio. Eschewing refinement for dynamism and power, Reid and Lonberg-Holm possessed unmistakable synergy from the outset, with both musicians harnessing their astonishing technique to music that was fully improvised and remarkably engaging, with Young's bassoon utilized not to provide melody but driving force, with a steady fusillade of single-note repetitions or longer phrases that somehow melded perfectly with Lonberg-Holm and Reid. With four separate appearances at Edgefest this year, including a Tuesday night "warm-up" performance with saxophonist Peter Formanek's band at Ann Arbor's fabled Encore Records, Reid was the festival's most ubiquitous presence, and she displayed her unique creativity in all her performances, with a command of the instrument equally proficient in abstract or more tuneful endeavors.

Thursday's closers were another group of Chicago stalwarts, with bassist Harrison Bankhead joining longtime colleagues tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson and drummer Avreeayl Ra in a quartet that included pianist/keyboardist Jim Baker. Wilkerson and Bankhead both played together in 8 Bold Souls, one of the most exciting groups to come out of Chicago in the 1980s and 1990s, and they share a deep AACM connection with Ra. Baker is more commonly associated with a more recent generation of Chicago musicians, working with folks like Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis. But all four were clearly in sync, Baker's imaginative synth work contrasting piquantly with the earthy vibe from the rest of the quartet. With a long, extended performance of a continuous piece, Bankhead punctuated the music by chanting or singing, occasionally gesturing toward the tradition with a sung/shouted "Hey, Muddy Waters" or "Hey, Billy Strayhorn" to direct the music's ebb and flow, as calmer moments would lead to furious bursts of energy and back again. Wilkerson harnessed monstrous power on the tenor, with ear-splitting upper- register onslaughts propelled by Ra's thunderous drumming. Although there were plenty of pyrotechnics, what was most memorable about the set was the deep reverence for the blues and jazz origins that are the foundation of the group's music. The desire to channel that reverence through the prism of the avant-garde is perhaps the most distinctive hallmark of the Chicago creative music scene, and Bankhead's quartet exemplified it.

A scheduling change led to the incomparable Joëlle Léandre being moved from the middle of Saturday's programming to the first act on Friday evening. This meant the crowd was a bit thinner than it otherwise might have been. But those who were able to attend Léandre's riveting solo performance were amply rewarded, as the bassist offered an incredible display of improvisatory skill in just 40 or so minutes. To call Léandre a "bassist" would be a gross injustice, as what she does is not so much "play" the instrument as attack it, or struggle with it—or perhaps commune with it (or all of the above). Solo performances sometimes languish due to repetition or monotony setting in, but Léandre's set had none of that: she offered discrete ideas, each being developed for several minutes each, with different aspects of her formidable technique used to trace out their trajectory. Whether scampering up and down the neck of the instrument with tremendous speed, delving into the deepest recesses of its sound with sonorous rumblings, or slapping its sides rhythmically, Léandre drew from her undeniable mastery of the instrument to subdue it and render it a malleable vessel. There is no question in watching Léandre that she is leaving nothing out of the performance—she's fully immersed in it as she struggles to convey her ideas. An extraordinary performance by any measure, and an understandably physically taxing one for Léandre, whose exhaustion by the end was evident.

The evening moved in a dramatically different direction with guitarist Kirsten Carey 's Uruboros Sextet, as the group offered tightly-structured, complex music with a distinctly punk rock-feel. Carey wasn't shy in commanding the stage, even at times shouting out "1-2-3-4" to lead the band through her heady arrangements, which emphasized a well-honed group sound rather than highlighting individual soloists. This is not to say that the musicianship wasn't first rate, as the sextet offered an infectious, driving energy with heavy riffs and knotty time signatures combining with Carey's distorted chords to create something that was neither jazz, nor rock, but something all its own. Short, well-conceived (and wryly-named) pieces like "Godzilla is Coming, But Very Slowly" or "Just as I Think I Might be Financially Stable" kept lots of heads bobbing during the group's set. Carey announced that she's seeking Kickstarter funding for a project to record this music, and it will be exciting to see the results sometime in the near future.

The middle set of Friday night belonged to a group whose Chicago-based AACM credentials are undeniable: flutist Nicole Mitchell, drummer Mike Reed and Tomeka Reid's Artifacts Trio. Their first self-titled recording (482 Music, 2015) was a widely-hailed homage to the AACM tradition, and their performance at Edgefest bore ample testimony to the group's contagious, ear-grabbing sound. The Reed/Reid axis was perfect in anchoring air-tight grooves that allowed Mitchell ample room for her prowess, with scintillating solos that were consistently energetic and adventurous. Reid was able to reveal yet another dimension of her talents, as she largely played the role of bass accompaniment here, with walking lines that were fast and precise. And Reed's instincts as a drummer are unfailing, with support that is by turns feisty, supple and colorful. With melodies that are as strong as their grooves, this is an exceptional trio, and with an upcoming recording project in the works for 2019, a lot of critics will likely be keeping a slot available in next year's top-ten list for it.

Anyone wondering if a bass clarinet can generate as much raw force as a tenor saxophone (or any other instrument, for that matter) need only listen to Jason Stein's Hearts and Minds trio. Unlike the more tempered approach Stein displayed on his recent Lucille! (Delmark, 2017), with its updated cool-school vibe, Hearts and Minds is determined to lock in to a hard-driving groove, with drummer Chad Taylor's percolating mix of rhythms a constant feature, and keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo's fluid left hand holding the bass line while pounding out some punchy riffs with his right. With stunning upper-register control, Stein's work on the bass clarinet is riveting, but he also revealed a strong melodic sensibility toward the end of the set with a lovely ballad. Even so, this trio is all about the energy, and the enthusiastic Edgefest audience loved every minute of it.

One of the most talked-about debuts of 2017, trumpeter Jaimie Branch's Fly or Die (International Anthem) offered a compelling mix of catchy grooves and more abstract, atmospheric playing, and her group performed most of the album as Friday night's headliner. Chad Taylor remained in the drumseat while cellist Lester St Louis and bassist Anton Hatwich assumed those duties held by Tomeka Reid and Jason Ajemian, respectively, on the original record. Despite the different personnel, however, this quartet certainly lived up to expectations. Whether dialed into Taylor's deep rhythms or taking the music into much more unexplored territory, the group possessed an unmistakable sense of purpose, and Branch's impressive technique was fully on display. Played live, with more room to stretch out, the band's music was even more engaging than the recorded version, and the crowd responded heartily to it. With a background as deeply rooted in indie rock as avant-garde jazz, Branch is ideally poised to continue to breathe new life into this music, and the presence of the decidedly more youthful audience members who were on hand for this performance bodes well as a new generation of listeners is introduced to the pleasures of improvised music.

Topping Friday night's lineup would be a challenge, but a Saturday afternoon solo set by pianist Myra Melford was certainly an auspicious beginning to the day's music, despite the rather noisy thunderstorm that arrived just before she started. Although a diminutive physical presence, when Melford performs she dominates the instrument, with a tenacious energy that is captivating. At the same time, an unmistakable emotional core is always present in her music, so that even in her most intense moments there's usually a melodic touchstone somewhere to be found. Her set was perfectly paced, with a series of relatively short pieces, each exploring different emotional registers. From delicate ringing chords to furious upper-register flurries to overpowering bass-register attacks, Melford left no doubt that she remains one of the premier performers on this instrument. Yet despite her phenomenal technique, it may be the beauty of her playing that listeners will remember most fondly, as her gorgeous ruminations toward the end of her set were truly sublime. And her rollicking, bluesy encore was just as magical.

The afternoon's programming continued with tenor saxophonist Tim Haldeman's interesting quartet concept that included two bassists, Tim Flood and Will McEvoy, and Detroit-based drummer David Hurley , who first saw action with Piotr Michalowski on Wednesday. With a well-conceived set that drew heavily from the avant-garde jazz tradition, Haldeman offered a couple pieces from Ornette Coleman and one from Frank Lowe in addition to more recent fare of his own and from guitarist Jeff Parker, as he wove a melodic thread around even the group's more aggressive music. Flood and McEvoy were utilized nicely, with Flood frequently in the conventional bass role so McEvoy could add color and texture with terrific arco technique. And Haldeman proved himself a remarkably patient soloist, building tension gradually with carefully-developed lines before launching into the outer reaches with his most potent solos. A fine set of music that kept up quite convincingly with the day's more high-profile offerings.

Speaking of high-profile performers, one would be hard-pressed to do any better than the Tiger Trio. With an under-appreciated, excellent release, Unleashed, under their belt from a couple years ago (RogueArt, 2016), flutist Nicole Mitchell was once again joined by Joëlle Léandre and Myra Melford for a sensational set that proved the trio to be far more than the sum of its parts. With the audience now having witnessed both Léandre and Melford in solo performances highlighting their individual brilliance, it was remarkable to watch them harness their skills to the trio, where ego was put aside completely in the interest of making concentrated music. The absence of a percussionist didn't prevent the music from having plenty of rhythmic force, as Léandre and Melford each have more than enough percussive power on their instruments to sustain the music's driving motion. And Mitchell was in top form here, soloing with cascades of notes that poured out of her instrument. As this performance closed out the trio's extensive tour through North America, it was evident that the three have by now forged a bond that enables them to take more chances, and to push the music in ever more-unexpected directions. This was a step or two beyond the (relatively) restrained performances found on Unleashed, allowing the group to create a more aggressive, visceral output much more in keeping with its name.

If there was a prize for the loudest music at this year's Edgefest, a likely contender would have been saxophonist Dave Rempis's set with bassist Joshua Abrams, drummer Avreeayl Ra and, for his second performance of the festival, keyboardist/pianist Jim Baker. With exceptional command and astonishing intensity, Rempis delivered torrents of notes with velocity and volume, and witnessing the performance was an experience as physical as it was musical. Although Rempis played alto, tenor and baritone saxophone during this set, his baritone was his best option, as it allowed him the fullest range for his sonic onslaughts. The rhythm team of Abrams and Ra somehow kept up with Rempis at every stage, and Baker's otherworldly keyboard work was perfect for music that frequently aimed for the stratosphere.

After a music-packed four days, the emotional highlight of the festival was undoubtedly the 50th-anniversary celebration of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, held at the Bethlehem United Church of Christ since a venue with a much larger capacity than the 110-seat Concert House was needed for this performance. Longtime AEC veterans Roscoe Mitchell and drummer Famoudou Don Moye headed a 14-member ensemble that included avant-garde mainstays like trumpeters Hugh Ragin and Fred Berry and current-generation all-stars like Nicole Mitchell and Tomeka Reid, both of whom somehow had energy left over after their previous appearances at the festival. Multiple strings, three basses, and a host of percussionists, not to mention vocals and electronics, gave the ensemble an especially rich palette.

The performance started on a somber note, with the ensemble standing stock still until Mitchell rang a bell to signal the opening piece. The music then started with a mournful beauty, perhaps in tribute to the AEC legends no longer with us: Lester Bowie and Malachi Favors. Stephen Rush offered his services in conducting the classically-inflected piece, which made excellent use of the ensemble, the strings providing a steady foundation that allowed the horns to float over the top. Dissonance emerged as the piece unfolded, and even without percussion it developed a subtle pulse and sense of motion. But the evening's best music was still to come, announced decisively by the percussion team of Moye, Titos Sompa and Enoch Williamson, who brought their instruments down from the stage to generate the robust grooves that would catalyze the evening's music from that point forward. Although the relatively staid formality of the presentation was a stark departure from the anything-goes AEC shows of old, which were as much performance art as musical events, the fundamental spirit of the AEC was still present. With pieces that offered the ideal balance between stimulating energy and deep, soulful melody, the extended ensemble functioned remarkably well as a unit, with the strings seamlessly integrated into the larger agenda of the group. And by the end of the set, with the familiar strains of "Odwalla" emanating forth, the ebullient joy that was shared by band and audience alike was tangible and memorable.

With such a terrific cross-section of veteran and younger talent assembled, there was no question that the AEC motto, "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future" was assuredly fulfilled Saturday evening by this glorious performance. There was no better way to celebrate Chicago's unparalleled contribution to this music, and it was the ideal ending to another extraordinary Edgefest.

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