Six months in, Constellation fixed in city's musical firmament

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For years, Chicago music lovers have grieved the loss of the Velvet Lounge, which closed in 2010, and HotHouse, which shuttered in 2007.

Those spots had been the epicenters of avant-garde jazz, and their demise meant that experimental musicians based here and around the world lacked a major outpost in Chicago.

Until last April, when drummer-impresario Mike Reed opened Constellation as a music venue in the old Viaduct Theater space at 3111 N. Western Ave. Though smaller Chicago spots such as Elastic, the Hideout and the Hungry Brain have been heroically offering new music on select nights, Constellation emerged as a potentially key room. Reed's expertise at producing the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park, after all, augured well for Constellation. And because he invited Links Hall — a dance center — to share the space and the responsibility of running it, Constellation bristled with possibility.

To observe that in just six months the venue has begun to fulfill its promise would be an understatement. Constellation, which opened with a few bookings a month, now presents new music Wednesdays through Sundays, with plans to push into Mondays soon.

As the fall season approaches, Chicagoans can celebrate a musical victory in the making.

"I'm feeling like it's a 90 percent success rate," says Reed, who never has been easy on himself. "I think it's moving exactly the way it's supposed to."

Not that there haven't been surprises.

"Yeah, cost overruns from contractors," says Reed, who has been steadily refurbishing Constellation, with its three performance spaces, to accommodate dancers with the right flooring and musicians with optimal acoustics. "It's the typical type of stuff that I guess you deal with."

The headaches may belong to Reed and Links Hall, but the pleasures are all ours. In coming weeks, Constellation will present such far-flung attractions as Sidi Toure during the World Music Festival, protean multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, bass clarinetist Jason Stein's quartet, flutist and MacArthur Fellow Claire Chase and three days of the Umbrella Music Festival.

But Reed realizes that the work really has just begun.

"We're moving into a different phase now," he says. "I can concentrate on trying to do different things with our marketing and address how to build audiences — and build some of the responsibilities from the musicians' standpoint: How they deal with gigs and how they get the word out.

"Sometimes (artists) can lose sight — or maybe they never had a sight — about how you get people to your shows. They'll say to me: 'Oh, you're sounding like a clubowner.'

"No, I always sounded like this."

In addition to teaching emerging musicians how to build a following, Reed expects to continue expanding the nature of Constellation's offerings. He envisions lecture-demonstrations by artists and engineers, film events and cross-disciplinary offerings that Constellation's multiple performance spaces make possible.

Amid all this activity, he's also busily touring the world as drummer, leading his own bands and appearing with Jason Adasiewicz's widely admired Sun Rooms.

In the fall, Reed plans to bring out a new recording by his People, Places & Things band, which explores forgotten chapters of Chicago jazz and reinvents them. And he hopes to release a live recording of the duo set he played with Roscoe Mitchell at Constellation and a collaboration with Wadada Leo Smith and Douglas Ewart.

As for Constellation, apparently the sky's the limit.

"The shows have been doing pretty well, especially for summertime," says Reed.

"When things start to cool down, we'll be really raring to go."

Coming up at Constellation, 3111 N. Western Ave.: Pilsen Hot Five, Sept. 11; Matthew Lux, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Sept. 15; Krar Collective with International Blues Express featuring Cedric Watson and Sidi Toure, Sept. 16; Christopher McBride Trio, Sept. 18; Elliott Sharp, Sept. 20; Jason Stein Quartet, Sept. 27; Claire Chase, Sept. 29; Umbrella Music Festival, Nov. 8 through 10; constellation-chicago.com

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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