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Umbrella Music Festival 2009

Andrey Henkin By

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Umbrella Music Festival
Chicago, IL
November 5-8, 2009
If jazz is to survive in a modern world without the support of major labels or corporate funding, it will be through the efforts of organizations like Umbrella Music, "a group of Chicago-based musicians and presenters working together to provide concert opportunities for creative and improvising musicians." Residents of the Windy City are treated to three weekly series at venues Elastic, the Hideout, and the Hungry Brain featuring local and visiting musicians. The group, made up of Josh Berman, Mitch Cocanig, Mike Reed, Dave Rempis and Ken Vandermark, is also responsible for the annual Umbrella Music Festival, less a stand-alone event than a culmination of their work throughout the year.

The four-day festival took place at the above venues but began its fourth edition at downtown's Cultural Center, in its Claudia Cassidy Theater and Preston-Bradley Hall. The theme of the first evening was "European Jazz Meets Chicago," continuing a fruitful and well-documented collaboration between Chicago and several Northern European countries. Lithuanian saxophonist Liudas Mockunas played a strong exploratory set with the working rhythm section of Jim Baker (piano and keyboards), Brian Sandstrom bass, guitar and trumpet) and Steve Hunt (drums). Polwechsel member Martin Brandlmayr performed solo, layering acoustic percussion with electronic effects and computer processing. A great set featured Swedish proto-guitarist David Stackenas performing in an unusual trio with wonderful bass clarinetist Jason Stein and bassist Josh Abrams. The only established group and exception to the exchange theme was the German/Dutch trio of Frank Gratkowski, Achim Kaufmann and Wilbert de Joode, whose six years of improvising together have delivered them to a remarkable place of total fearlessness. A quartet featuring Swiss reedman Hans Koch was the only stumble of the night, the nominal leader's bass clarinet working nicely with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm but clashing with Brian Labycz' electronics and Marc Riordan's drums. The final set featured Dutch pianist Guus Janssen in trio with his brother, drummer Wim, and Chicago bassist Anton Hatwich. Janssen, simply put, is a modern traditionalist instead of the less desirable traditional modernist.

The second day moved the proceedings to Elastic. The first group was the 30-year-old New Horizons Quartet featuring saxophonist Ernest Dawkins, trombonist Steve Berry and younger rhythm section Junius Paul and Isaiah Spencer. Locals said it was the best they had sounded in years and the long pieces were drenched in bluesy spirituality, especially "Baghdad Boogie," featuring chanted poetry by Dawkins. Pianist Matthew Shipp may not be from Chicago (born in Delaware) but his brand of cerebral, dense abstraction fit the aesthetic of the festival well across a single 45-minute solo improvisation that had an appealing architecture. Trumpeter Bobby Bradford was to be a featured performer at this year's festival but a minor health issue prevented him from making the trip from California. So Umbrella brought in saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, an embarrassment of replacement riches. For his first appearance, Mitchell played with Dave Rempis, Junius Paul and drummer Frank Rosaly. What began as a convocation became an examination of texture and finally the incendiary blowout the crowd was eagerly anticipating.

Day Three at The Hideout was two parts chamber jazz and one-third post apocalyptic jazz-rock. Voxarcana—James Falzone (clarinet), Fred Lonberg- Holm (cello) and Tim Daisy (drums)—played the drummer's hyperkinetic compositions in relatively compact versions, successful except when Lonberg-Holm's electronics upended the delicate acoustic quality. Drummer Mike Reed had been planning the piece he premiered with his Loose Assembly for at least a year but the opportunity to play it with Roscoe Mitchell made him advance its development. Dressed in color-coded jumpsuits, the sextet (drums, cello, bass, two saxophones and vibes) was armed with cards that seemed to indicate solo order across the piece's three distinct sections. A tune by late Chicago drummer Steve McCall closed the set. The final group of the evening turned out to be the festival highlight. Japanese altoist/clarinetist Akira Sakata was to appear twice at the festival, the first time with the death-jazz trio of Jeff Parker (guitar), Nate McBride (bass) and John Herndon (drums). When the world is ending, I hope whoever is responsible hires this band to be the soundtrack to the final throes of the crumbling planet, that is how intense the music was, especially the tortured shrieks of Sakata, one of the true free jazz shamans.

The festival closed out at The Hungry Brain with another triple-bill. The young quartet Head With Wings (two reeds, bass and drums) demonstrated a post-Dolphy aesthetic that was reasoned and mature, always looking to get quieter instead of louder. Sakata was back with his working trio of bassist Darin Gray and drummer Chris Corsano. This reviewer saw this band in Sweden in March and any worries about second-kiss letdown were quickly dispelled across their 40-minute set. It is hard to tell in this band who is inspiring who but with music this bombastic, it hardly matters. The final performance of the Umbrella Music Festival was Topology: trombonist Jeb Bishop, Vandermark, Rempis, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, Lonberg-Holm, bassist Kent Kessler and Daisy with guest Joe McPhee. An outgrowth of an earlier small ensemble concert in Milwaukee, Vandermark arranged several of McPhee's compositions for this expanded group. McPhee, who turned 70 just a few days before, seemed buoyed by the chance to revisit his compositions, some not played in 30 years, with this inspired bunch of players. The 70 minutes encapsulated the openness and self-determination that make the avant-garde music scene in Chicago a very healthy patient in a sick world.

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