Edgefest 2018: The Chicago Connection

Troy Dostert By

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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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