10:58 AM EDT, June 2, 2013
Three of the world's leading jazz experimenters – each with ties to Chicago – returned here over the weekend, playing for audiences that listened intently to their work.
The music-making proved tumultuous and intensely challenging at some moments, serene and transparent at others. But all of it attested to Chicago's continuing role as a laboratory for bracing new ideas in sound.
Peter Brotzmann and Joe McPhee
The pairing of multi-instrumentalists Peter Brotzmann and Joe McPhee drew a nearly capacity audience to the larger of two concert rooms at Constellation, drummer-impresario Mike Reed's suddenly indispensable new venue on North Western Avenue (in the home of the former Viaduct Theater). That this many attentive listeners turned out Saturday night to hear two such fiercely committed iconoclasts said a great deal about this city's appetite for the unconventional.
Between them, Brotzmann and McPhee – who over the years have collaborated with many Chicago innovators – play practically anything with a mouthpiece, so a joint performance conjures as many sounds and colors as one might expect from any dozen musicians. Yet the wonder of their opening set owed not simply to the range of instruments they used but to the ingenuity with which they responded to one another.
No musical score, in other words, could have come close to detailing the profusion of notes they delivered in their first five minutes, let alone during the entirety of their oft-combustive duets. Nor could these musicians possibly have scripted even the general contours of their improvisations – the music was too free-wheeling, mercurial, volatile and abruptly unpredictable for that.
The duo thrived because, at their core, Brotzmann and McPhee brought very different sensibilities to the stage, Brotzmann's larger-than-life sound and oft-explosive manner counterbalanced by McPhee's more lyrical approach and subtle tonal palette.
Brotzmann opened the evening with wide-open horn calls on alto saxophone, his tone characteristically huge and grainy, his rhythms surging with energy. McPhee soon responded via flurries of notes on pocket trumpet, some of his ideas expressed in precisely articulated pitches, others simply with the rush of air through his horn.
Before long, the musicians were adding a range of instruments to the mix, McPhee's plaintive lines on tenor saxophone answered by Brotzmann's eruptions on tenor, alto, clarinet and what-not. Phrases collided and dovetailed; silences emerged seemingly out of nowhere; dissonance turned to harmony and back; music sped up, slowed down and trailed off into the ether. Through it all, these musicians consistently built an unmistakable structure for these instantly created compositions, each piece proceeding to its logical conclusion.
Their free-ranging duets recalled another indelible pairing: Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan at the shuttered Velvet Lounge. Like those leonine tenor men, Brotzmann and McPhee found inspiration in each other's sound and methods, speaking a musical language of their own making.
Nicole Mitchell's Ice Crystal
No one could have been surprised when flutist Nicole Mitchell closed her first set Friday night at the Green Mill with a salute to saxophonist-clubowner Fred Anderson, who nurtured Mitchell and uncounted other musicians at his Velvet Lounge. Were it not for the environment and guidance Anderson provided, Mitchell might never have developed into the leading experimenter-bandleader-composer she has become.
Though based in California since 2011, Mitchell remains indelibly associated with music in Chicago, thanks to her deep well of contributions here and her links to some of the city's most accomplished innovators. She re-established those bonds at the Green Mill, where her Ice Crystal ensemble celebrated the release of its first album, the glistening "Aquarius" (Delmark Records). Joined by Chicagoans Jason Adasiewicz on vibes, Joshua Abrams on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums, Mitchell created a mosaic of instrumental sound, each player contributing significantly to its breadth of color, tone and half-tone.
The highlight came with Mitchell's "Fred Anderson," which also serves as the finale of her recording. Unlike Calvin Gantt's resplendent spoken vocals on the recording, Mitchell provided an incantation of her own: high pitched, nearly whispered and extraordinarily vulnerable. Moreover, the sonic intertwining of Mitchell's arabesques on flute, Adasiewicz's ethereal tintinnabulation on vibes, Abrams' dark-hued expressions on bass and Rosaly's delicately stated rhythms on drums made this piece more a prayer than a song.
Earlier in the set, Ice Crystal showed quite another side, playing with more muscle and grit than on the recording. Perhaps encouraged by the overflow audience and the generally high energy level at the Mill, these musicians offered jazz improvisation of tremendous rhythmic drive, textural complexity and exuberant phrase-making.
Mitchell opened the evening with "Adaptability," from the "Aquarius" album, her ornate figurations floating above Adasiewicz's ringing chord clusters. As soloist, Mitchell drew upon an immense musical vocabulary, jagged themes alternating with silken legato lines and followed by trills, bent pitches and rapid-fire repeated notes.
In "Today, Today," also from the album, Mitchell matched the sensuousness of her sound with the copiousness of her motifs. In this piece, and others, vibist Adasiewicz showed the technique and personal stamina to hold his own alongside Mitchell's virtuosity, no small feat.
For all the rigors of this music, the audience seemed to savor every note, surely recognizing the depth and significance of this work.
At one point, Mitchell told the crowd, by way of thanks, "I'm glad to be home."
Sure sounded like it.
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