Umbrella Fest welcomes a downpour of novel sounds

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Flutist Nicole Mitchell

Flutist Nicole Mitchell (November 8, 2012)

The music of two continents converged Wednesday night at the Chicago Cultural Center, launching one of the prime gatherings of the fall season: the seventh annual Umbrella Music Festival.

As its name suggests, the event embraces a deluge of musical ideas, though they share a single impulse: innovation. And for the sixth year straight, the Umbrella soiree opened with "European Jazz Meets Chicago," an evening-length marathon in which homegrown musicians collaborated with colleagues from the other side of the Atlantic.

If the rest of the festival, which runs through Sunday, sounds as provocative and satisfying as Wednesday night's opener, there will be fascinating listening ahead. For although not every band achieved equal impact, the best of them left a deep impression.

Festival programmers shrewdly saved the best for last, with Watershed closing the proceedings at the Chicago Cultural Center's Claudia Cassidy Theater. Led by French percussionist Denis Fournier and featuring artists long identified with Chicago – including flutist Nicole Mitchell and cellist Tomeka Reid – Watershed made its Chicago debut playing a music that veered from intense complexity to utter simplicity.

Yet whether the music-making involved an intricate fabric of instrumental improvisation or a surging backbeat propelling straightforward melody lines, Watershed produced an uncommonly transparent ensemble sound. These musicians went out of their way to give their ideas space and light, to let themes breathe and every note ring out clearly.

If drummer Fournier set the tone for the set with the rounded attacks and oft-gentle strokes of his sticks and mallets, flutist Mitchell gave the performance its heightened melodic interest. The luster of her timbre, the measured beauty of her trills and the sheer breadth of her novel techniques would have been compelling even if she had been alone on stage. But augmented by Hanah Jon Taylor's similarly lyric approach on tenor and soprano saxophones and Bernard Santacruz's plush colors on bass, Mitchell enjoyed a sonic environment well-suited to her aesthetic.

The German alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier might be considered a kind of counterpart to Mitchell, at least so far as the warmth and beauty of her sound were concerned. Leading a trio in the Cultural Center's Randolph Street Café, Niescier offered darkly hued phrases of remarkable liquidity. When she played slow, long-held notes, one easily could get lost in the depth of her sound; when she produced more rapid gestures, every fleeting pitch still carried tonal weight and meaning.

Chicagoans Nate McBride on bass and Frank Rosaly on drums provided delicate instrumental detail alongside Niescier, thereby setting in high relief the pervasive lyricism of her playing. Quite a partnership.

Lithuanian trumpeter Dominykas Vysniauskas emphasized a silvery melodic quality of his own, leading a quartet in the Claudia Cassidy Theater, but more often than not he was very nearly blown off the stage by his more assertive Chicago partners: alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, bassist Brian Sandstrom and drummer Avreeayl Ra.

Austrian cellist Clementine Gasser fared better in the Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall, her slashing phrases and italicized gestures counterbalanced by Chicagoan Tim Daisy's lean-and-nimble playing on drums.

In all, a strong beginning for this year's fest.

The Umbrella Music Festival continues through Sunday at various locations; for details, visit umbrellamusic.org.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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