PERCUSSIONIST · IMPROVISOR · COMPOSER
If ever a nightclub looked ''underground,'' Club Lower Links does.
It's on the northeast corner at the intersection of North Clark Street and North Sheffield and West Newport Avenues-but it's on the dark Newport side, and you have to strain to see the sign. You walk down dark stairs to a T-shaped room barely illuminated by a few shaded lights. Pipes run across the ceiling; a bar in back has just enough light for the bartender to work. There are tables, mismatched chairs, a couple of sofas and a cleared space for a stage.
On a recent Saturday night there, guitarist Hans Reichel and cellist Tom Cora found their instruments in the gloom and casually struck chords. Soon they were playing a rocking rhythm that wasn't quite rock 'n' roll, then music that sounded by turns not quite minor-key classical, not quite Indian, not quite American folk, not quite atonal. They did sound, aided by synthesizer attachments, like a harp, an Indian sarod, a melodic bullfrog, breaking glass, an organ. It was a lively music, ranging from comic to calm, abstract to dramatic.
It was wholly improvised, spontaneous, utterly uncategorizable. New York's Cora and West Germany's Reichel have modest international reputations. But because their music isn't popular, classical, folk or straight jazz, the only places in Chicago where they could play are Club Lower Links.
''I've always been interested in more obscure entertainment,'' says Leigh Jones, who opened Club Lower Links last April. ''I've managed rock 'n' roll bars, and it didn't thrill me that much. I always felt a lot of rock 'n' roll musicians were there for the glory and the glamor and weren't really serious musicians. And I really like improvised music.''
So do a growing number of Chicago listeners, judging from the success of Club Lower Links, Link's Hall (on the second floor over Club Lower Links). Perhaps 45 people came to the Reichel-Cora concert, though as many as 200 have come to concerts at these venues.
It wasn't until 1985 that percussionist Michael Zerang, who played in free improvisation groups, met Leo Krumpholz and others who had presented an Outrageous Music Festival at the University of Chicago. They joined forces to begin a regular concert series at the spacious studio of Links Hall, where dancers and Zerang's bands shared rehearsal space. Links Hall became the major force on today's underground music scene in Chicago.
''I didn't want to make it just a musical performance series,'' Zerang says. ''The idea was that contemporary music, like any other contemporary art form in this day and age, seemed to crossover boundaries into other art forms. I wanted to stretch out and have it be more multi-arts: all underground or experimental or avant-garde. Music was the main emphasis when we first started; now the music is half the programming, and literature readings and performing arts and multimedia are the rest.''
In its first 14 month, beginning in November, 1985, Link's Hall produced nearly 100 events. Free improvisers played there; so did top Chicago jazz artists such as Fred Anderson, Phil Cohran's Circle Of Sound and Hal Russell's wild N-R-G Ensemble. One-of-a-kind events also were held there, such as a duet between saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Steve Lacy; a show by exiled South African bassist Johnny Dyani's quintet, a few weeks before Dyani's death from a liver ailment; and a concert by English saxophone innovator Evan Parker's trio.
Despite the imported performers, Links Hall's orientation was clear: ''We want to nurture Chicago artists,'' Zerang says. ''They need to be appreciated. We want them to stay in Chicago and have a place to perform.'' Moreover, Links Hall has gone on to offer traditional Chinese, Cambodian, Indian and Arabic music. It's an eclectic approach to programming that comes naturally to Zerang:
''My father and brother are musicians, and we still play together in Kismet, a Middle Eastern band. The thing is, when you go to a Middle Eastern nightclub, it's a belly dancer act, so the music is Arabic pop music. The players can play traditional music; that's why we ask them to play Arabic classical music in these series at Links Hall, and they love the opportunity to do it. It's really very ancient music, based more on singing phrases than on quick rhythmic things that make a belly dancer shake real nice.''
''Don't be afraid of that word 'underground,' '' Zerang says. ''A lot of people feel that because it's experimental, that it's some sort of elite thing. In fact, you're likely to find the event is quite accessible.''
© Chicago Tribune
"It's not a dance club. It's not a singles bar." So says Michael Zerang about Club Lower Links, the alternative performance space on West Newport Avenue that's part tavern, part coffeehouse and part cabaret. "People who can't find a niche at other places tend to gravitate here."
With his black hair and neatly trimmed goatee, Zerang looks like he belongs behind a bongo drum in a 1950s coffeehouse instead a programmer for some of the most imaginative shows of any club in the city.
"In a way, it's easier to do this kind of programming because there's nothing else like it," says Zerang. Since opening this past April in the basement of the Link's Hall building, Lower Links has presented experimental and alternative music, poetry readings, performance art and theater pieces.
The decor is fashionably tacky-sort of across between a funky European cabaret and a transient hotel with furniture straight out of Amvet's. Constellations decorate the black walls, second-hand chairs surround shaky tables and, in a good-natured ribbing of the Limelight's VIP Room, several frayed red sofas sit in a corner.
Zerang sees an "incredible groundswell of interest" in alternative entertainment in Chicago. "We couldn't have opened up this place if the artists weren't there," he says. Although Leigh Jones is the owner, Zerang does most of the scheduling.
Lower Links is known for its eclectic approach to programming.
The place: Club Lower Links, 945 W. Newport Ave.; 248-5238.
Hours: Open seven days, 8 p.m.-2 a.m.(Saturday until 3 a.m.).
Description: Cabaret/bar/coffeehouse/performance space with full bar and non alcoholic beverages (coffees, teas, juices).
A smorgasbord of activity: Mondays-music; Tuesday-poetry and fiction reading; Wednesdays-performance/poetry; Thursday-music; Friday-guest deejays; Sundays-"could be anything."
Upcoming: Sundays in October-a Festival of Bagpipes, ranging from the familiar Scottish pipes to the exotic Italian pipes; $3.
PHOTO: Tribune photo by Walter Neal. Rayfield Waller gives a poetry reading at Club Lower Links.
© Chicago Tribune