Agile freebop trio BassDrumBone celebrates 40 years together | Bleader

Agile freebop trio BassDrumBone celebrates 40 years together

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BassDrumBone (Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, Ray Anderson) - JORDAN HEMINGWAY
  • Jordan Hemingway
  • BassDrumBone (Mark Helias, Gerry Hemingway, Ray Anderson)

Next weekend's Chicago Jazz Festival honors the centennials of three of jazz's most colorful, enduring, and influential figures—Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk—but those aren't the only significant anniversaries it's observing. At 6 PM on Saturday at the Pritzker Pavilion, the trio BassDrumBone—drummer Gerry Hemingway, bassist Mark Helias, and trombonist and Chicago native Ray Anderson—performs as part of an international tour marking their 40th year as working collective. Last year the group released a terrific double album called The Long Road (Auricle) to celebrate this milestone, and its music sounds as vital as ever.

As Hemingway explains in his liner-note essay, the group formed for a 1977 performance in New Haven, Connecticut, when all three members were launching their careers. Though jazz traditionally honors its elders, providing a platform for artists of any age as long as they still deliver on the bandstand, it's nonetheless remarkable for a group to remain intact for so long without any change in personnel. All three have enjoyed fruitful and varied careers, routinely moving between avant-garde experimentation and jazz fundamentals. Anderson played in one of Anthony Braxton's greatest bands in the 80s, and his own projects—some drinking from the well of New Orleans tradition, some steeped in hard funk—have been distinguished by his fat, muscular tone and unerring melodic instincts. Hemingway has pushed toward composed music when not engaged in improvisational practice, and few drummers have matched his ability to microscopically study specific qualities of percussion instruments. Helias, who has one of the strongest, darkest sounds in the history of the double bass, tends to stay in freebop territory, whether leading the long-running Open Loose or lending imperturbable support as a sideman. But these guys arguably sound best together.

The new recording introduces a twist by bringing in a guest on a number of tracks to make the band a quartet: the two visitors are pianist Jason Moran, who presents his homage to Monk's 1959 Town Hall Concert at the fest on Friday night, and saxophonist Joe Lovano. On the Helias composition "Bungle Low," Moran achieves a simpatico fit, playing slinking chords, locking into unison lines with Anderson, and opening up the sound field with his lighter timbre; his nifty solo incorporates infectious repetition of pithy phrases, and he delivers  glassy chords during some extended low-end blubbering from the trombonist. One of my favorite pieces is Anderson's "BluRay," where his horn blends with Lovan's tenor saxophone to evoke the smoky balladry of vintage Charles Mingus. But for me, the best stuff is from the unadorned trio—it straddles sleek postbop, bluesy throwdowns, and free-jazz explorations. Below you can check out "Kemp," a shape-shifting Hemingway piece that deftly morphs between antsy chatter and deep, luxurious swing, magnificently showcasing the agility of BassDrumBone's attack—the band sounds impressively brawny even while navigating the thorniest of passages.
Today's playlist:

Noble/Edwards/Ward, False Face Society (Incus)
Alasdair Roberts, Pangs (Drag City)
David Rosenboom, Life Field (Tzadik)
Geir Sundstøl, Langen Ro (Hubro)
Bobby Williamson, Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream) (Bear Family)

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