3rd Annual Jazz Improvisation Festival at the Empty Bottle (1999)

Chicago Tribune | Signal to Noise


Tuesday, May 18, 1999
Tempo Section
By Howard Reich Tribune Arts Critic Jazz Review

Without corporate support, federal funding, city sponsorship or other handouts, the self-styled impresarios at the Empty Bottle saloon pulled off quite the artistic coup over the weekend.

The third annual Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music did more than just spotlight top-notch avant-gardists from the East Coast, Europe, Scandinavia and the Far East in oft-explosive collaborations with Chicago counterparts (though that would have been plenty). The event, in its best incarnation to date, attracted capacity crowds to some of the most iconoclastic forms of music making that the world of “free improvisation” has to offer.

Reedist Ken Vandermark and jazz connoisseur John Corbett, both Chicagoans, have been achieving remarkable results with this idiosyncratic festival and with the Wednesday night series they program at the Empty Bottle, on North Western Avenue. But even listeners who follow musical activities at the Bottle had to be struck by the stylistic breadth, sonic range and intellectual firepower of this year’s event.

In a weekend crammed with was provocative performances, the most deeply affecting came late Saturday night when reedists Vandermark and Mats Gustafsson held the front line in the Aaly Trio (in this case, the ensemble was extended to quartet dimensions, with bassist Kent Kessler and drummer Kjell Nordeson.)

Saxophonists Vandermark and Gustafsson command distinctive approaches to their instruments, but, judging by their profound work together, they represent perhaps the most important tenor duo in cutting-edge jazz.

The immense size and beefy tone of Vandermark’s tenor surely found an ideal complement in the airier sound but equally intense delivery of Gustesson’s horn. Listen to these two virtuosos of novel instrumental techniques working in tandem, and you can savor at least three musical threads: Vandermark and Gustafsson’s and the pungent mixture of the two.

There’s no shortage of “free jazz” tenorists who can shatter crystal with a single blast, but Vandermark and Gustafsson created something more richly nuanced. With Kessler and drummer Nordeson producing turbulent rhythmic ideas, this edition of the Aaly Trio created a complex, intricately textured music that will linger in memory.

Not that the festival lacked for memorable performances. Consider the duo that followed the Aaly Trio, featuring the indefatigable Gustafsson and guitarist Thurston Moore (of the alternative rock band Sonic Youth).

Moore began cunningly, playing such spare, simple motifs that one initially wondered whether his much-anticipated appearance in a non-rock context could amount to much. But after several minutes of playing little more than basic triads and familiar, straightforward scales, Moore shifted to sudden bursts of rhythmic energy and brazen dissonance with Gustafsson responding in kind.

Though the Jumper Cables quartet that opened Saturday night’s proceedings wasn’t nearly so effective, there was no denying the mysterious, other-worldly quality of this band’s pointillistic musical language. Still, the band’s diffuse and ethereal sound would have fared better in a shorter set, despite the appealing blend of Michael Zerang’s drums, Jim Baker synthesizer, Kevin Drumm’s electric guitar and Don Mecklay’s short-wave radio.

Sunday’s performances had a dull start with the trombones-and-electronics set of Sabi Tramontana and Giancarlo Schiaffini, who proved underwhelming at best, rambling at worst. The Michael Zerang, Mats Gustafsson, Jaap Blonk Trio offered a livelier interchange though Blonk’s some-times overwrought merger of hysterical scat, novelty sound effects and hyperactive body movement can wear out its welcome.

The festival closed on an exultant note, with the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet Plus One, a mighty force that extends the aesthetic reach of even the more innovative large ensembles. With a super-charged reed section featuring Brötzmann, Gustafsson, Vandermark and Mars Williams -as well as contributions from trombonist Jeb Bishop, cellist-violinist Fred Lonberg-Holm and bassists Kessler and William Parker, among others–this band sums up several schools of avant-garde improvisation of the ’90s.

Ultimately, it emerged as a breakthrough band for a new millennium, as well as a fitting finale for an indelible weekend.

© Chicago Tribune


June 1999
By Bill Meyer

May 14 thru 16 1999

Music festivals are a classic example of why you should be careful what you wish for; it you want to hear creative live music day in, day out, you just might get it, and then what’ll you do? Listening to a steady stream of improvised music over several days is as exhausting as it is exhilarating; I was ready to take my caffeine by intravenous drip halfway through the event. But despite encroaching fatigue, I managed to attend every single minute of this year’s Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music.

The Festival is an outgrowth of the rock club’s weekly series of mid-week concerts that host both local and out of town improvisors. This year’s ten acts ranged from swinging, time-based jazz to absurdist noise, from academically informed exploration to flat-out energy music, from local jazz to European free improvisation. Would you believe that every performance was at least intriguing and that a few were truly life affirming?

Believe it!

The first night kicked off with a stirring set by local trombonist Jeb Bishop. His trio’s concerts are always engaging, but tonight the group negotiated Bishop’s shapely, swinging tunes with exceptional vigor and expressiveness. They joined forces with Italian trombonists Giancarlo Schiaffini and Sebi Tramontana to close their set with a lengthy, suite like piece that built to multiple crescendos whilst exploring the full range for ‘bone tones; breathy whooshes and slithering melodies, mutters and moans. They were followed by the evening’s surprise set (a Bottlefest tradition). Electronic trumpeter Toshinori Kondo unreeled breathy punctuations theremin-like squeals, and insistent rhythm loops while Thurston Moore used a drumstick to dislodge brilliant colorful sound washes from his electric guitar. Jaap Blonk provided a commanding visual presence, distorting his ultra-stretchy visage in order to achieve absurd, pan-linguistic vocal contortions. Sometimes they gelled, sometimes they collided, but they always entertained.

Friday’s bill concluded with the North American debut of Peter Brötzmann’s titanic Die Like A Dog quartet. The combo’s rhythm section is surely the most criminally underappreciated combination in jazz; bassist William Parker wrenched primal, spirit-summoning rhythms that pulsed within drummer Hamid Drake’s spacious yet driving lattice of grooves and textures. Kondo interjected yearning acoustic trumpet lines and blurry electronic smears, while the leader’s saxophones and clarinets punched through the group’s roiling sound surfaces with commanding melodic statements and raw screams. But the group’s music far exceeded the sum of its parts; each man summoned the far reaches of his technical and emotional range in order to achieve a critical mass of energy expressed as sound.

Another Bottlefest tradition is the off-site Saturday afternoon concert. This year’s took place at the Cultural Center, a downtown library building. French bassist Joelle Leandre, who is as well known for her performances of John Cage compositions as for her improvising, joined Tramontana for a series of duets. They started out formal and distant from one another, but the ice between them soon melted into a swirl of intertwining melodies, overtone-rich drones, and visceral vocalizing.

Regrettably, Tramontana took ill right after the concert, which kept him and Schiaffini from participating in the second evening’s program. Michael Zerang’s Jumper Cables opened, and Zerang provided a welcome reminder that once upon a time radical music was associated with radical politics by delivering an anti-Clinton, anti-war harangue. His rage spilled over into the quartet’s set, which had a ferocity that I’ve not seen in their previous shows around town. Jumper Cables plays carefully structured improvisations using pre-digital electronics (patch-cord synthesizers, short-wave radio, tabletop guitar) and acoustic percussion; their dense but dynamic maelstrom of buzzing, shrieking textures was an apt analog to Zerang’s visions of dropping bombs. The second (surprise) set couldn’t have been more different; tenor saxophonists Mats Gustafsson and Ken Vandermark recruited vacationing drummer Kjel Nordeson and local bassist Kent Kessler to perform hard-hitting all-acoustic free jazz tunes from the book of Gustafsson’s Aaly Trio. They made Albert Ayler’s oft covered “Ghosts” fresh by slowing it way down to unearth the on-your knees-in-the-dirt prayer that it doubtless was in Ayler’s heart. The evening concluded with a vertiginous duo between Gustafsson, playing several different reed instruments, and Thurston Moore. Previously I’ve thought that Moore’s best attributes as an improvisor were his broad textural and his ego-free willingness to support whoever was playing with him, but tonight he dauntlessly stepped into the breech to meet Gustafsson as an equal. They built from a microtonal fluteophone drone adorned by bent-tine harmonics to a deafening, giddy electrical storm of baritone sax blats and cement-crumbling guitar protestations.

Gustafsson, Zerang, and Blonk opened the final evening’s program with a set that worked in fits and starts. I was often mesmerized by the split second communication that the trio had just honed during a two week long road trip, but a little Blonk can go a long way. His persistent employment of the sounds we’re supposed to stop making when we get to a certain age pushes the sonic envelope, all right, and his bizarre gestures provided a welcome visual focus. But by concert’s end I found myself wishing that he’d take a rest. Or maybe it was just fatigue kicking in; their music changes so quickly that it’s best appreciated with a well rested attention span, Tramontana, looking a bit haggard, and Schiaffini followed. They used a table full of electronics as well as their trombones to construct dense, exponentially expanding legions of brass sounds. Periodically one of the men would pop a CD into a Discman and inject fragments of corny Italian pop songs, a gamelan orchestra, or the unaccompanied female voice singing in Arabic. The effect was quirky and intriguing, but rarely visceral. But that was fine, because next up was Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, swollen to an eleven piece group. They played one forty minute long piece that was similar in structure to “Burning Spirit,” the composition which opens the group’s triple CD from last year. It began with a massive unison fanfare, which periodically returned to usher in different sections. Brötzmann’ presided over the ensemble like a conductor, albeit one who directed with emphatic commands from a tenor saxophone and a taragato rather than frantic passes of a baton. After each punctuating blast came an improvisation by a subset of the band, sometimes fueled by the volcanic rhythm section of Zerang, Drake, Kessler, and Parker. Each player elevated himself to the leader’s legendary energy level whilst contributing a personal hue into group’s brilliant banner.

© Signal to Noise