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The Reader's guide to the 2013 Umbrella Music Festival

Chicago's most daring jazz fest features Tarbaby, Mark Dresser, Joe McPhee, Eric Boeren, Amina Claudine Myers, and much more.


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The city's most reliable and adventurous showcase for jazz and improvised music returns for its eighth incarnation this week. The Umbrella Music Festival kicks off with a by-now-traditional mini fest, European Jazz Meets Chicago, at the Cultural Center on Wed 11/6 and Thu 11/7, where some of the finest talent from eight European countries will appear on three different stages, often side by side with top-notch locals. In previous years the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday concerts have been spread out among the three regular Umbrella Music venues: Elastic, which hosts improvised ­music on Thursdays; the Hideout, which hosts the Immediate Sound series on Wednesdays; and the Hungry Brain, which hosts the Transmission series on Sundays. But this year all that action will be concentrated at Constellation, a significantly larger venue opened in April by Umbrella member Mike Reed. Nearly every act is worth checking out—and in case you're curious about which I'm most excited to hear, they're the ones with the most lavish write-ups in the complete schedule that follows.

Eric Boeren plays at the Cultural Center on Wed 11/6. - MICHAEL JACKSON
  • Michael Jackson
  • Eric Boeren plays at the Cultural Center on Wed 11/6.

Wednesday, November 6, Chicago Cultural Center, free

Axel Dörner / Fred Lonberg-­Holm / Michael Zerang
6:30 PM
Preston Bradley Hall

German trumpeter Axel Dörner, who sounds as original playing bebop as he does tackling abstract free improv, joins two Chicagoans for a trio set—cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and percussionist Michael Zerang.

Dovydas Stalmokas Quartet
7:30 PM
Claudia Cassidy Theater

Lithuanian saxophonist Dovydas Stalmokas leads a strong local band with cornetist Josh Berman, bassist Kent Kessler, and drummer Tim Daisy.

8:30 PM
Randolph Street Cafe

When guitarist Raphael Roginski, fiery reedist Mikolaj Trzaska, and drummer Macio Moretti formed Shofar in 2006, the Polish trio took a wiry, free-jazz approach to traditional Jewish music, particularly Hasidic nigunim—meditative expressions of faith that employ the principle of improvisation on a theme within a framework. Most of the group's early repertoire consisted of songs collected by Soviet musicologist Moshe Beregovski in Ukraine, Poland, and Moldavia in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. Shofar's new album, Ha-Huncvot (Kilogram), contains three traditional Hasidic melodies, but most of the album is freely improvised—remarkably, the new material blends right in with the old, a vivid demonstration of the musicians' thorough internalization of the modes and forms of Jewish songs. But at the same time, this is clearly contemporary music, marked by quicksilver interaction, meticulously expressed sorrow, and blurts of crushing rage.

Eric Boeren Quartet
9:30 PM
Claudia Cassidy Theater

Dutch cornetist Eric Boeren released one of my favorite albums of 2012, the buoyant Coconut (Platenbakkerij), made with his long-running quartet of reedist Michael Moore, bassist Wilbert de Joode, and legendary drummer Han Bennink. As usual the specter of Ornette Coleman hangs over Boeren's folksy melodies and killer front-line interactions, but he and his cohorts also stake out their own turf, injecting the wonderful loosey-goosey approach of the Dutch free-jazz scene into every possible formal element: freewheeling set lists, bleeding one piece into the next, or calling new tunes in midperformance. I've memorized most of the sudden twists and turns on the album, so I'm excited to hear its tunes totally reworked onstage—and of course to be introduced to new ones.

Seval plays at the Cultural Center on Thurs 11/7. - MICKE KEISENDAL
  • Micke Keisendal
  • Seval plays at the Cultural Center on Thurs 11/7.

Thursday, November 7, Chicago Cultural Center, free

6:30 PM
Preston Bradley Hall

Looked at in a certain light, Seval is an acoustic pop band, but given the fact that it's led by Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, you should take even that qualified description with a grain of salt. On the group's second album, 2 (482 Music), Lonberg-Holm and four Swedish collaborators—singer Sofia Jernberg, guitarist David Stackenäs, trumpeter Emil Strandberg, and bassist Patric Thorman—play pretty postfolk songs with touching intimacy and agile inventiveness. The loose, airy arrangements are flexible enough that this cast of committed improvisers ought to be able to make each tune sound different with each performance—Jernberg might depart from the melody to sustain a parched, wordless cry, for instance, and Stackenäs sometimes coaxes muted, staccato sounds from his guitar by flicking its strings with the blades of a tiny hand-held electric fan. Seval aren't the first ensemble to augment the pop-song format with extended technique and free improvisation, but they may well be the best. This is their U.S. debut.

Wolfgang Reisinger Quartet
7:30 PM
Claudia Cassidy Theater

Austrian drummer Wolfgang Reisinger plays with a Chicago band that consists of trumpeter Jaimie Branch, pianist Paul Giallorenzo, and bassist Jason Roebke.

  • Peter Gannushkin
  • Christoph Erb

Christoph Erb / James Baker / Frank Rosaly
8:30 PM
Randolph Street Cafe

Christoph Erb is an explosive improvising reedist from Lucerne, Switzerland, and ever since he visited Chicago as part of a sister cities program in 2011 he's maintained strong ties with local players. Via his Veto Records label he's also documented those collaborations—his ongoing Exchange series includes eight titles so far, all with gorgeous artwork by Chicago design duo Sonnenzimmer. Pianist and ARP synth master James Baker has been one of Erb's most fruitful partners; he appears on two albums, including the recent Bottervagl, a splendid duo where Baker plays exclusively piano. Tonight they're joined by drummer Frank Rosaly, who appears on Erb's album Sack with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and bassist Jason Roebke.

Joshua Abrams / Jason Adasiewicz / Aymeric Avice / Avreeayl Ra / Benjamin Sanz
9:30 PM
Claudia Cassidy Theater

This ensemble is the latest project of the Bridge, a cultural exchange program connecting musicians from Chicago and France; locals Joshua Abrams (bass), Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone), and Avreeayl Ra (drums) are currently in the middle of a mini tour of the city with French players Aymeric Avice (trumpet) and Benjamin Sanz (drums).

Tarbaby plays at Constellation on Fri 11/8. - EMRA ISLEK
  • Emra Islek
  • Tarbaby plays at Constellation on Fri 11/8.

Friday, November 8, Constellation $20

Frank Rosaly's Cicada Music
9 PM

Drummer Frank Rosaly's first album as a bandleader, Cicada Music (Delmark), evolved from his soundtrack to Scrappers, a 2010 documentary about Chicago scrap-metal scavengers. Rosaly's score consisted of sparse percussion pieces, sometimes mixed with field recordings of the scrap yards in the film, and elegant compositions he performed with several cohorts from the local jazz and improvised-music scene. After he finished the project, he decided he wanted to maintain the band he'd assembled as a working group, so he fleshed out the compositions to function as vehicles for improvisation. Also called Cicada Music, it's the first of Rosaly's bands to release an album (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes), and unlike his others, it has no particular conceptual underpinnings. He simply loves playing with these guys: clarinetist James Falzone, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, reedist Keefe Jackson, vibist Jason Adasiewicz, and bassist Jason Roebke. The material on Cicada Music is relatively simple, designed to give everybody lots of room to improvise—and you can tell that Rosaly is particularly fond of the way clarinet and vibraphone sound together.

Dave Rempis / David Stackenäs / Brian Labycz
10 PM

Firebrand saxophonist Dave Rempis and abstract modular synth player Brian Labycz form the Chicago contingent of this trio with inventive Swedish guitarist David Stackenäs (who also performs Thursday in Seval).

11 PM

The like-minded explorers in loose New York collective Tarbaby never abandon their roots in postbop, no matter how out-there the music gets. Their combination of reliability and pliability can be credited to the group's consistent core members: pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Their fantastic new album, Ballad of Sam Langford (Hipnotic), also features trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and saxophonist Oliver Lake (who was with the group for its previous Chicago gig in 2010), and past guests have included Nicholas Payton, J.D. Allen, and Stacy Dillard. With or without its extended family, Tarbaby thrives in the liminal space between composition and free improvisation. The trio has extraordinary chops and equally impressive power—I'll always remember Revis accompanying Peter Brötzmann without an amplifier and somehow still making his upright bass heard. Their understanding of jazz's history allows them to draw upon any facet of it at any moment, with a fluidity and looseness that shouldn't be mistaken for slackness—these three guys have worked together in so many different configurations that any one of them can seize upon an idea and count on the other two to embrace it instantly. As a representative of everything that's good about New York jazz in 2013, only Jason Moran's Bandwagon (which also includes Waits) can compare—and Tarbaby, without a bandleader, also demonstrates what's good about collectivism.

Mark Dresser plays at Constellation on Sat 11/9. - JIM CARMODY
  • Jim Carmody
  • Mark Dresser plays at Constellation on Sat 11/9.

Saturday, November 9, Constellation $20

Anthony Davis / Mark Dresser Duo
9 PM

Veteran bassist Mark Dresser, a full-time music professor at UC San Diego, has a rich history with some of jazz's most progressive thinkers, including Anthony Braxton, Mark Feldman, and John Zorn, as well as with new-music figures such as Matthias Ziegler and Paul Dresher. He's been important in the development of telematic performance, which uses the Internet to bring together live musicians in far-flung locales. He's also a great improviser, and earlier this year he demonstrated his skills as a bandleader on Nourishments (Clean Feed), a finely etched quintet recording with reedist Rudresh Mahanthappa, trombonist Michael Dessen, "hyperpianist" Denman Maroney, and drummers Tom Rainey and Michael Sarin (who take turns). "Canales Row" is built around a 12-tone row and incorporates duo and trio passages between statements of its theme; "Aperitivo" subverts its C minor blues form by constantly modulating its meter. Like the best bandleaders and composers, Dresser doesn't draw attention to his methods, but they give his cohorts fertile ground for their improvisations. The original Umbrella schedule called for Dresser to play with LA cornetist Bobby Bradford and avuncular New York trombonist Roswell Rudd, both iconoclasts from an older generation; on Dresser's 2011 album with Bradford and trombonist Glenn Ferris, Live in LA (Clean Feed), all three members contributed profound and infectious pieces that took advantage of their instruments' throaty, garrulous collective sound. Unfortunately, Bradford and Rudd both canceled due to illness, so Dresser will duet with masterful pianist and composer Anthony Davis, a collaborator and colleague at UCSD. Davis has also worked at Yale and Harvard, and he's gone deeper into classical composition than Dresser, writing acclaimed operas such as X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X and Amistad. But he devoted his early years to improvised music, working with the likes of George Lewis, Marion Brown, James Newton, and David Murray. This summer he visited Chicago in a band led by another old cohort, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and on the most recent album I've heard from him, a lovely 2010 duet with reedist Jason Robinson called Cerulean Landscape (Clean Feed), his jazz playing is sensitive, lyrical, and crisp.

Russ Johnson Quartet
10 PM

Ever since trumpeter Russ Johnson moved from New York to Milwaukee in 2011 to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, he's maintained a high profile in Chicago, to the benefit of the city's jazz scene. Tonight he presents his own music with the fine working band he's developed here: bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Tim Daisy.

Amina Claudine Myers
11 PM

For this rare appearance, keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers—an important early AACM member who's played and recorded with Lester Bowie, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Henry Threadgill—will focus on organ and voice, in which format she tends to draw heavily upon her gospel roots.

Joe McPhee plays at Constellation on Sun 11/10. - PETER GANNUSHKIN
  • Peter Gannushkin
  • Joe McPhee plays at Constellation on Sun 11/10.

Sunday, November 10, Constellation $20

Joe McPhee / Ingebrigt Håker Flaten Duo
9:30 PM

Norwegian bassist and onetime Chicagoan Ingebrigt Håker Flaten has developed an impressive rapport with veteran Poughkeepsie free-jazz horn man Joe McPhee; they synch up perfectly in their mutual mastery of bluster and tenderness. Last year they released their second duo record, Brooklyn DNA (Clean Feed), an improvised studio session that alternates between lyrical, bluesy ballads ("The Blue Coronet") and spry, fiery postbop ("Here and Now"). Despite the absence of percussion, there's never any doubt about the music's rhythmic center.

Eric Boeren's All Ellington
10:30 PM

Dutch cornetist Eric Boeren, who leads his excellent working quartet on Wednesday, presides over a strong-looking band playing Duke Ellington compositions. Boeren and bassist Wilbert de Joode (also from Amsterdam) are joined by cornetist Josh Berman, trombonist Nick Broste, clarinetist James Falzone, alto saxophonist Greg Ward, tenor saxophonist Cameron Pfiffner, baritone saxophonist Ken Vandermark, and drummer Mike Reed.


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