Edgefest 2018: The Chicago Connection

Troy Dostert By

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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.


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