Wednesday night at the Hideout, Chicago percussionist Michael Zerang (pictured) celebrates his 50th birthday with a blowout party. The local jazz and improvised-music scenes are so bustling and strong right now, with dozens of talented performers, that it's easy to forget how fallow they were in the 80s and early 90s--and how vital Zerang has been to their transformation.
You could write a book about everything he's done in his decades on the scene, but for now I'll just mention a few chapters in the Zerang story. He's a member of the great free-improv group Liof Munimula, founded in 1982 with Dan Scanlan and Don Meckley; he programmed a crucial experimental-music series at Link's Hall for years; and as the drummer in the Vandermark Quartet in the early 90s, he helped convince Ken Vandermark to stick it out in Chicago when the saxophonist was considering moving back to Boston.
Zerang will play in two different configurations--first in a trio with keyboardist Jim Baker (another local treasure, whose career runs parallel to his) and Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, then in a behemoth septet with Gustafsson, Baker, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Ingebrigt Haaker Flaten, bassist Kent Kessler (another old-school chum of Zerang's), and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love.
The Thing, the muscular trio of Gustafsson, Haaker Flaten, and Nilssen-Love, will open the evening with a set of its own. Last January the group recorded a new album in Chicago with Steve Albini, but though its projected release date has come and gone, it isn't out yet.
As a side note, at 3 PM on Wednesday afternoon Gustafsson will perform a free solo set at Corbett vs. Dempsey, playing "duets" with five welded steel sculptures by Joseph Goto and "treating them as compositions to be interpreted." A solo concert from Gustafsson is always a tour de force, more like a colossal physical struggle between man, horn, and music than a typical improv set--when he really pours it on, pumping out percussive baritone barrages or slide-saxophone teakettle shrieks, he looks like he's going to burst every vein north of his collarbones. He's got a new solo recording, The Vilnius Implosion (a limited edition vinyl-only release on the Lithuanian No Business label), and while it's no substitute for seeing him in the flesh, its head-fucking variety of tones, timbres, and textures is more than enough to get lost in.
The Girls From Bahia, Pardon My English (Warner Music, Japan)
Mavis Staples, Live: Hope at the Hideout (Anti)
Michael Blake, The World Awakes: A Tribute to Eli "Lucky" Thompson (Stunt)
Horny Trees, Horny Trees (Kilogram)
Burning Star Core, Challenger (Hospital)