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CD liner notes
Peter Margasak
In January of 2002 I wrote a piece in the Chicago Reader that attempted to offer a glance at and provide some perspective on a new crop of talent that had developed within the city’s bustling underground jazz and improvised music scene. During the late 90s a crew of players like Ken Vandermark, Rob Mazurek, Kent Kessler, Jeff Parker, and Hamid Drake, among numerous others—combined with the post-rock scene that produced open-ended bands like Tortoise, Isotope 217, and a healthy crew of experimentalists like Jim O’Rourke and Kevin Drumm--helped to revive Chicago’s reputation for producing cutting-edge music. Not since the heyday of the AACM had the scene appeared so healthy, open-minded, and forward-looking. But as often happens in Chicago, the talent eventually scatters: Mazurek left for Brazil, O’Rourke, Chicago Underground drummer Chad Taylor, and hustling young reedist Scott Rosenberg relocated to New York. While most of the key figures have retained residences in the city, an increasing number of musicians like Vandermark, trombonist Jeb Bishop, Drake, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm spend so much time on the road that it sometimes seems like they no longer dwell in Chicago.

The situation precipitated a growing void at the start of the new century, but a steady stream of new players had been arriving in Chicago, poised to fill in the holes. When I wrote that piece a year and a half ago it was clear to me that a bounty of young talent was in place. What wasn’t apparent was if all that nascent promise would translate into results. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the compilation you’re presently holding in your hands provides the definitive answer to that question, but it certainly functions as an inspiring, entertaining, diverse, and optimistic progress report. It would be impossible for a single CD to reflect everything that’s been happening, but it does cast a wide net.

These musicians haven’t had to just find their own voices, they’ve also had to develop their own opportunities and playing situations. While many of the participants have gigged at well-known venues like the Empty Bottle, the Green Mill, the Velvet Lounge, and the Chicago Cultural Center, the music on Document Chicago reflects a blossoming of ideas from a coterie of players built around newer performance spaces like the Hungry Brain—which has presented a variety of exciting jazz every Sunday night since early 2001—3030, Heaven, Michael Zerang’s Candlestick Maker, and revived weekly improvisation series at the Myopic Bookstore. Until recently many of these folks were sadly underrepresented on commercial recordings, but that’s changing too. One quick look at liner information here shows that some of these musicians have either taken matters into their own hands or made a deep enough impression on indie label owners to warrant a deal.

This anthology reveals strong stylistic connections to the players that surfaced during the 90s, but despite certain similarities this music doesn’t seek to replicate Chicago’s recent past. The woolly, free-blowing of Triage, for example, betrays a major debt to the powerhouse performances of the DKV Trio; loose compositional kernels exist, but the trio—whose drummer Tim Daisy and saxophonist Dave Rempis are both members of the popular Vandermark 5—prefers to find its way on the bandstand. Likewise, the nugget of edgy free improvisation turned in by the trio of saxophonist Matt Bauder, percussionist Jerome Bryerton, and pianist Alec Ramsdell—who tragically died at the age of 31 in December of 2002 from a heroin overdose, and whose nickname provides the title for “California Fingers”—has its roots in the flurry of instant composition gambits that served as an important setting during the previous decade for so many players.

If Document Chicago makes anything clear, it’s that the sound of underground jazz in the city is changing. There’s a new dedication to using composition as something more than a launchpad for improvisation--although you’ll find improvisation on everything here. The zig-zagging unison lines and Dolphy-esque intervals—as well as those nice clarinet/vibraphone sonorities—plant the Pavkovic band’s “Clean” in a classic 60s freebop mode, but by the time the leader’s splattery drums settle in there’s no question we’re in the present. There’s a number of more conventional—albeit wide-open--saxophone trios here and despite the fact that Jason Roebke’s Rapid Croche and saxophonist Aram Shelton’s Dragons 1976 both share reedists and drummers, the divergent ideas of the composers prove how far composition can go to giving a group its character.

The excerpt from “Through an Open Window” by reedist Jon Doyle and multi-instrumentalist Jason Adasciewicz ranges far afield from what we might call jazz, with its ever-shifting, beautifully stumbling faux-cabaret waltz patchwork suggesting Tom Waits more than Freddie Waits. The hushed restraint of bassist Brian Dibblee’s trio Design Flaw searches for beauty in whispers and shadows, as drummer Frank Rosaly coaxes featherstroke accents from his kit and the bassist achieves stolidity with tip-toe repetition, giving clarinetist Doyle a hovering plane to dance upon. There’s also a quietly gorgeous lyricism to “Incidentally,” a pretty instrumental written by Bauder, whose sensual, full-bodied tone intimates more than it declares over a lovely harmonic bed sculpted by bassist Jason Ajemian and guitarist Jeff Parker—a scene vet who serves in both Tortoise and the various Chicago Underground ensembles.

The amped-up post-bop of the Treehouse Project—with its unlikely mesh of Colin Bunn’s electric guitar and Ken Champion’s pedal steel braiding with the horn line of Doyle and trumpeter Nate Wolcott—is driven by drummer Mike Reed and bassist Matt Thompson with a rock-informed heft. But when the electric guitar turns up elsewhere it’s surprisingly subtle. Matt Schneider of the Exciting Trio—a musician clearly influenced by Parker’s post-Jim Hall clarity—uses his instrument like a paintbrush, putting it through the paces with careful volume modulation and delightfully jagged note pile-ups. Phil Mosberg, in his duo with drummer Eric Roth, also keeps things quiet even as his lines gain in sharp angularities and harmonic prickliness.

Although electronics are in brief evidence in the Exciting Trio—thanks to bassist Griffin Rodriguez—they’re an essential ingredient in GreyGhost, the duo of Shelton and drummer Jonathan Crawford. Shelton processes and transforms his astringent alto lines in a number of fascinating ways with dissonant loops, digital chops, and tangled soundbursts, but he uses his laptop as a challenging sparring partner, not an idea crutch. While folks like ARP synth master Jim Baker and Rob Mazurek have made fine use of electronics in Chicago, Shelton is doing something genuinely new with it.

One wonders what will become of these individuals. Will they develop and make a name for themselves in Chicago or will they search for greener pastures, like the terrific alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, who like Sticks and Stones drummer Taylor, lives in New York now. While there’s always cause to worry that a mass exodus might wound the scene, the generosity of sounds provided by Document Chicago should only give reasons for optimism. Only time will tell if these musicians become the bedrock of Chicago jazz in the first decade of the new century, but the future looks bright.

Peter Margasak
Chicago, June 2003

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