10:32 AM EDT, April 7, 2013
Ever since the Velvet Lounge closed in 2010 and HotHouse in 2007, Chicago has sorely lacked a major venue that could serve as a nexus for experimental jazz.
Many other important rooms– such as Elastic, the Hideout and the Hungry Brain – have nobly featured the music on select evenings. But devotees of the newest ideas in jazz have yearned for a bigger space with a larger presence, something roughly on a par with HotHouse and the Velvet.
Whether Constellation, in the former Viaduct Theater space at 3111 N. Western Avenue, will fulfill that role remains to be heard. But the first musical event that occurred there late Saturday night (as well as the room's upcoming bookings) suggested that the new-music scene in Chicago has changed dramatically in a single stroke.
A standing-room-only audience crowded into the place, eager to check out the refurbished space and hear an internationally admired ensemble, the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, from Amsterdam. Both the venue and the musicians came off remarkably well, Constellation making its bow far more fully formed than one expects from emerging institutions.
Yes, the physical space still is undergoing some renovations, and some finishing touches – such as evocative signage – will help sharpen Constellation's identity. Even so, the place was immediately appealing and acoustically inviting.
Visitors arrived to find a slender, "C" shaped lobby outfitted with an intimate corner bar. The space comfortably accommodated the approximately 150 people who were able to get tickets and should serve well as a gathering spot and potential performance spot.
Two rooms branch off the lobby. The first, Studio A, seats 50 to 75; the second, Studio B, 100 to 150. Both double as dance spaces for Links Hall, a long-running Chicago dance organization that has moved from its Wrigleyville home into Constellation. This means that the new institution is instantly alive with dance and music (as well as forthcoming film screenings and other events), an ingenious formula crafted by the building's new owner, drummer-producer Mike Reed, and Links Hall.
For music lovers, of course, the overriding question is obvious and inescapable: Can dance studios also serve capably as concert rooms?
At least one listener was skeptical upon entering Studio B, the larger of the two spaces, its high ceiling and stripped-down, black-box format not necessarily foreshadowing superb sound. Moreover, the ICP Orchestra typically tests the sonic limitations of any room: The band tends to veer abruptly from fortissimos to pianissimos and to constantly reassemble itself into smaller groups of varying instrumentation.
But Reed and his production colleagues clearly did their advance work, the ICP Orchestra sounding better than in any other Chicago venue I've heard them. In thunderous, full-ensemble passages, there was no mistaking the colors of individual instruments. In music featuring two, three or four players, the music sounded surprisingly warm and resonant.
The seating, too, proved unexpectedly comfortable, particularly by the rather low standards of new-music venues, where chairs of even the most rickety sort are often considered an extravagance. At Constellation's Studio B, banks of roomy seats surrounded a floor-level performance space, affording fine sight lines and close-to-the-action perspectives.
Furthermore, the room felt right for new music. Its exposed piping, movable furnishings and temporary curtains hiding the "backstage" area made clear that Studio B will remain constantly in flux, ever re-arranging itself for future experiments in music and movement.
Whether by luck or design or both, Constellation could not have had a much more emblematic opening musical attraction than the ICP Orchestra. For the ensemble not only represents innovative ideas in music but relentlessly redefines itself through the course of a single performance. With the musicians constantly regrouping themselves into duos, trios, quartets, quintets and so on, listeners heard in a single night the equivalent of a week's worth of far-flung ensembles.
Better still, the ICP players do not stand still for very long. Instead, they rush about the room, perpetually changing places, horns braying at strings, brass snarling at reeds, some singing, some dancing, no one getting too comfortable. Co-founder Han Bennink may appear to be at the center of the action at the drums, but this much group energy cannot really be contained (alas, ICP co-founder and pianist Misha Mengelberg was not present).
Even after all these decades, the ICP Orchestra continues to catch listeners off guard. Its refusal to be tied to music of a single style, period, genre or methodology produces utterly unpredictable results. During this evening, for instance, listeners heard contemporary classical, jazz swing, hints of ragtime, discordant blues and seemingly anarchic sound. The line between improvisation and composition wasn't merely ignored – it was detonated.
If Constellation's future concerts approach the originality and passionate expression of this one, there will be deeply satisfying listening ahead.
Dee Alexander's Evolution Ensemble plays Friday; the Chicago Underground Duo, Saturday; Roscoe Mitchell & Mike Reed Duo, April 19; Craig Taborn Trio, April 28; at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.; constellation-chicago.com.
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