Free Jazz Storm Under the Umbrella: Umbrella Music Festival 2011 (part 1)
The first day of the Umbrella Music Festival got under way with co-curator Dave Rempis describing Chicago as a “nexus of creative improvised music.” He went on to describe the city as “a resonant, nodal point that makes connections with players and listeners worldwide.” The music that followed reflected upon the vibrancy of the Chicago music scene, as well as the sonic communications that cross both genre boundaries and international borders.
The first two days of the festival were a densely packed tour-de-force focused on various configurations of European improvisers playing with local musicians. Stately introductions from dignitaries from the respective consulates of ten different countries preceded each set staged throughout the expansive interior of the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a concentrated dose featuring ten sets of avant-garde jazz and improvisation over two evenings offered up at no charge for a sizeable and curious general public. Each performance featured at least one player from abroad. This was the scene for the first two days before the music moved back into Umbrella’s usual haunts for the remaining days of this extended celebration of Chicago’s most vital music scene.
The Umbrella Music Organization is a collective run for and by improvising musicians in Chicago for the purpose of creating playing opportunities for its members. The organization also enjoys strong creative alliances and relationships with musicians around the world that allow Chicago audiences to keep an ear on a broad range of creative improvised musics. Umbrella Music consolidates three long-running weekly series under a single promotional structure; the Immediate Sound Series each Wednesday at The Hideout, the Elastic Improvised Music Series at the Elastic Arts Foundation on Thursdays, and the Sunday Transmission Series at the Hungry Brain.
With more than 150 concerts scheduled each year, Umbrella Music offers live music with remarkable consistency. The Umbrella Music Festival is the highlight of the year as the organization celebrates by adding even more sets to the calendar, and for one week they miraculously increase both the quantity and quality of the music that is already presented year round. The “nexus” quality of the Chicago music scene is emphasized by bringing in guest performers with strong connections to the improvising community in Chicago while still showcasing many of the city’s best players. Simply put, it is the best week to bring one’s ears to Chicago.
With such an abundance of great music and guest performers, it inevitably spills beyond the confines of the official festival dates. The pre-festival concerts set the tone for this year’s celebration and featured incredible performances reserved for the true die hards, beginning with the first ever Ratchet Series Home Concert held at drummer Frank Rosaly’s home. The small, invitation-only event featured the duo of John Butcher (from the UK) on tenor and soprano saxophone and Jason Roebke on bass. Their set was an exquisitely restrained music by subtraction. The pair took advantage of the intimacy of the living room to realize music without amplification or projection. Their music was quiet enough to hear John Butcher scrape the reed of his soprano saxophone against his whiskers—a sound that he explored as musical material. Music quiet enough to hear Jason Roebke bow the foot of his double bass. Each player was enormously selective about what they added even as they made multiple break-neck transitions between textures with a coordination that bordered on sounding rehearsed. They also demonstrated a remarkable ability to move freely between idiomatic jazz materials and sparse, open textures dominated by the extremes of their extended technique. It was an impressive set of introspective rapport.
The pre-festival performances continued across town with an all-Chicago Trio of Dave Rempis on reeds, Devin Hoff on bass, and Mike Reed on drums holding court at The Whistler in the Logan Square neighborhood. This trio offered up a pair of high energy sets that packed enough volume to offset the lively environment of one of Chicago’s hippest cocktail bars. Taken together, these two pre-festival performances laid out the dynamic extremes that mark the Umbrella Music experience as one that embraces honest improvised expression in all of its forms. With an advance screening of Soldier of the Road: A Portrait of Peter Brotzmann also happening downtown as yet another pre-festival activity, there was plenty to whet the appetite as things ramped up toward the full-on excess ahead.
The “European Jazz Meets Chicago” celebration over the next two days provided a steady downpour of musical revelations. It was a chance to hear the amazing array of angles different improvisers take toward realizing their music, beginning with an outstanding set by the Hans Peter Pfammatter Trio featuring pianist Hans Peter Pfammatter from Switzerland performing with Chicago’s Keefe Jackson on reeds and Jason Roebke once again on bass. Pfammatter skillfully wove extended piano techniques into a free improvised set as the trio mined an expanse of dynamic range. Keefe Jackson’s cadenza toward the end of the set was particularly stunning as he played single note blasts followed by quiet phrases that took advantage of the acoustics of playing under the dome at the Preston-Bradley Hall. The unaccompanied solo emerging from dense, improvised textures proved to be a recurring theme early in the festival.
Another standout performance from the first day was the Franz Hautzinger Group: Franz Hautzinger on trumpet, Dave Rempis on saxophones and Nick Butcher on electronics. Hautzinger possesses an ear for the expressive qualities of amplified, extended trumpet technique. Nick Butcher works with the relatively “lo-fi” electronics of a single turntable, mic’d cassette players and a guitar pedal. This was the only ensemble of the festival to feature a table-top performer as a substitution for a rhythm section. This group sculpted a texture that built outward from the sound of amplified breath through the trumpet. These were occasionally punctuated with explosive and expressive bursts of sound from each of the members of this trio. Theirs was a music that lives along the contours and mortality of breathing, with equal attention brought to bear on the inhale and the exhale. Again, the acoustics of Preston-Bradley Hall assisted the sound as the physical space took on an increasing presence during this set.
The first day concluded with a kinetic set led by Amsterdam’s prolific Ab Baars on tenor saxophone, clarinet, and shakuhachi. The Ab Baars Quartet was filled out with a trio of Chicago’s best: Jeb Bishop on trombone; Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone; and Mike Reed on drums. Their set was a mix of composed and free improvised music that would frequently break into sub-groups of duos and trios over a wildly diverse set of music. Especially notable was the performance of Toru’s Gone, a duet for shakuhachi and trombone based on a piece by Toru Takemitsu. There was also an extended free improvisation by Mike Reed and Jason Adasiewicz that was incredible. The quartet finally ended the night with a Misha Mengelberg composition, showing off the strong connections between the Dutch and Chicago jazz scenes.
The abundance and stimulation of so much creative music proved to only grow stronger as the festival continued. Already, the ears were ringing within the nexus of the free jazz storm in Chicago. The days that followed will be the topic of part two of this column, so stay tuned.