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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.


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