- Illustration by John Garrison
- Extraordinary Popular Delusions, clockwise from upper left: Steve Hunt, Mars Williams, Brian Sandstrom, Edward Wilkerson Jr., and Jim Baker. Wilkerson usually plays with the group only when Williams can't.
The Beat Kitchen in Roscoe Village hosts a respectable variety of entertainment in its downstairs performance space, including singer-songwriters, pop-punk bands, a weekly bluegrass brunch, and the recently popular Heavy Metal Yoga sessions. But devoted fans of Chicago's creative-music scene come to the club for something that happens in its much smaller upstairs room: the long-running Monday-night residency of Extraordinary Popular Delusions.
The musicians' musicians who founded Extraordinary Popular Delusions in 2005 have played their spontaneous, imaginative, unfettered improvisations here almost every week since 2010, after spending their first few years with a regular Tuesday gig at Hotti Biscotti. Their shows are little heralded and often sparsely attended, but 13 years of continuous collaboration have turned this quartet into a beacon of Chicago's indigenous avant-garde, with an unpredictable, provocative sound that arises from the commingling of its members' diverse influences and experiences.
Named after a 19th-century Scottish sociological study of market bubbles and manias, Extraordinary Popular Delusions are Jim Baker (piano, ARP synthesizer, viola), Brian Sandstrom (double bass, electric guitar, trumpet), Steve Hunt (drums, percussion), and Mars Williams (saxophones, toys), with Edward Wilkerson Jr. (reeds, oud, didgeridoo) regularly filling in for Williams. The five of them have spent a combined 200 years making all sorts of adventurous music in Chicago and beyond. Separately or together, they've played with icons of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Fred Anderson, as well as with maverick north-side multi-instrumentalist Hal Russell. They've collaborated with Rahmlee Michael Davis of south-side soul-funk group the Pharaohs and the famous Phenix Horns (Earth, Wind & Fire), toured with postpunk band the Psychedelic Furs, gigged on the 80s Lincoln Avenue blues scene, and studied in university classrooms with contemporary composers such as Herbert Brün and Shulamit Ran. They've shared stages with beloved pop, rock, and postrock acts, including Shawn Colvin, Nicholas Tremulis, and Tortoise, and they've worked closely with peers from their own scene who've gone on to achieve international recognition, win prestigious awards, or land plum academic gigs, among them reedist and MacArthur fellow Ken Vandermark and flutist Nicole Mitchell.
No one in EPD has built a career quite like that—three of the ensemble's five members hold down day jobs—but they don't define their success along those lines. Where this group is concerned, they're just happy to have a place to play together every week, and they'll do it for whatever ends up in the tip jar.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions
Almost every Monday, 9 PM, upstairs at Beat Kitchen, 2100 W. Belmont, donations accepted, 21+
Lewis Achenbach’s Jazz Occurrence No. 17 with Extraordinary Popular Delusions
For this concert, EPD will be Jim Baker, Brian Sandstrom, Mars Williams, and Joe Adamik. Thu 1/24, 6:30 PM, Apple Store, 401 N. Michigan, free, all ages
Extraordinary Popular Delusions have released just two recordings in their 14-year history, both now hard to find: a self-titled album from 2007 and a limited-edition 2011 disc called Apocryphal Fire in the Warehouse, and Other Explanations. Their residencies constitute the vast majority of their shows: outside those engagements, they've played the Hungry Brain a couple times ("Perhaps Elastic," Baker says, vaguely), a release party at Logan Hardware, and a festival in Germany. For most of the group's history, only Williams has devoted himself to music exclusively—though Sandstrom has worked mostly as a musician, and recently left a job as a security guard at the Museum of Contemporary Art that he'd started in 2009. Game for any kind of gig and newly free to book them, this summer he accepted an invitation to Copenhagen and Norway to play with artists who'd heard him with EPD on a Monday night.
Everyone in EPD is in his 60s, and all are lifelong musicians. Their fearless commitment and stubborn integrity have inspired artists across genres and even across media. Jim Staffel, drummer of experimental metal band Yakuza, works at the Beat Kitchen and helped them get their residency there. Chicago visual artist Lewis Achenbach has invited EPD to play while he paints later this month at the Apple Store on Michigan, part of a roving series he calls Jazz Occurrences (for that gig, Joe Adamik of Califone and Iron & Wine will sit in for Hunt).
Baker first convened EPD in 2005 (full disclosure: I've known him since high school), but he'd met Sandstrom and Hunt around 1980—he used to go see them play with Hal Russell's NRG Ensemble, formed in '79. Russell was a swing drummer turned bebopper turned out-cat, and he grounded his musical satire and outrageously corrosive expressionism in accessible structures. "He was not big on completely free playing," Hunt remembers. "He called it playing music without a net." NRG was an important early nucleus for the north-side free-jazz and improvised-music scenes, which would explode in the 1990s (though Russell died in '92). At one point, the ensemble featured the scabrous saxophones of Williams and Vandermark (the former passed in and out of its lineup a couple times), and the two men later played together in the duo Cinghiale and the Vandermark 5.
In 1980, Baker was working at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (today he describes himself as a "headache collector" dealing with data aggregation at Zacks Investment Management). He'd always been serious about music—growing up, he was fascinated and intimidated by Glenn Gould's Goldberg Variations and thrilled by Bartók, Stockhausen, Sun Ra, and John Coltrane's quartet. At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, where he earned a BA in the early 70s, he'd taken courses from conceptualist composer Herbert Brün (among others) and studied developments in electronic music. But because Baker had to be at the CME so early for work, he was performing only once a month, with saxophonist Hal Ra Ru at a venue called Donna's, which later became the Deja Vu. He found it easier to make it to shows as a spectator, and he was often in the audience at the Birdhouse (Fred Anderson's pre-Velvet Lounge club, which closed in 1978) and later the Hideaway (Hunt's Clybourn Avenue rehearsal studio and performance spot).
By the mid-80s, Baker was contributing to Nicholas Tremulis's hybrid of rock, punk, R&B, and jazz, playing electric piano and other instruments—he takes a devastating one-pitch guitar solo on Tremulis's self-titled 1985 debut. He soon formed a trio with Hunt and bassist Kent Kessler, and Vandermark has said that their concert at Club Lower Links was the first he heard after his 1989 move to Chicago. In the early 90s, Vandermark joined Baker and Hunt in the trio Caffeine, which gigged at the original HotHouse and the Lunar Cabaret and released a self-titled album of unfettered free improv in 1994. In the mid-90s, Baker also became the de facto house pianist for the weekly jam sessions at the Velvet Lounge, one of the few places in the decades-long history of Chicago's avant-garde where adventurous improvisers from the south and north sides played together frequently and comfortably.
Eventually, says Baker, he hatched the notion of starting a trio with Sandstrom and Hunt. "At that time, I may have still been taking a guitar out of the house occasionally," he says. "Part of the attraction of Brian was his guitar playing; that he played trumpet was another thing. Steve could play drums, and in Caffeine he'd use this marimba about the size of a piccolo xylophone. I thought, 'Well, this could be different.' With my usual amazing assertiveness and hustle"—Baker's being ironic—"I'd happened into a couple of gigs in 2003 and '04, but in spring 2005 Richard Syska, who used to run the Nervous Center with his brother Ken, asked if we wanted to do Tuesdays at Hotti Biscotti, at Fullerton and Drake. Briefly, I tried to bring in my tunes to try them, but it was mostly free stuff."
About two weeks into that booking, Williams showed up and asked to sit in. He soon became a fixture, though he frequently left to tour with the Psychedelic Furs, acid-jazz group Liquid Soul, or another of his projects. It wasn't until 2014 that Baker invited Wilkerson to be a regular sub. Originally from Cleveland, Wilkerson had earned a BA in music from the University of Chicago in 1975, studying composition and theory with the likes of future Pulitzer winner Shulamit Ran ("I have a good background in critical analysis," he says). At the same time, he was learning from Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, held on Saturdays at the Child City day-care center at 87th and Bennett.
"I was exposed to both sides, the life of the mind and the practical," remembers Wilkerson, now a database manager researching animal population dynamics for the Lincoln Park Zoo. He's probably best known for leading the groups 8 Bold Souls and Shadow Vignettes, though he also served as AACM president for a few years beginning in the late 70s. "Muhal would say, 'Listen to everything in the air. Don't discriminate,' then would play a Bach cantata and some James P. Johnson and talk about the similarities and techniques. For me, at 18 and 19 around 1971, it was the perfect thing to be exposed to."
Before Wilkerson became Williams's regular replacement in EPD, the two of them played together in the quartet of bassist Harrison Bankhead—and when either couldn't make a gig, they'd ask Baker to fill in. In 2018, EPD played 50 Monday nights, skipping only Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve; Wilkerson was aboard for 20 of those, Williams for the other 30. Williams hit the road in November and December with his Albert Ayler/Christmas music mash-up, touring Europe and the U.S.—when he made a local stop at the Hungry Brain, he enlisted Baker, Hunt, and Sandstrom as part of his rhythm section.
Extraordinary Popular Delusions' form-free, incident-rich soundscapes are best heard live at the Beat Kitchen. The musicians set up in half of what was once probably an apartment living room, through a door and up one flight from the front of the first-floor bar. The rest of the dimly lit room is taken up by a few cheap chairs, usually filled by hard-core listeners and fellow musicians—I saw eight EPD shows last year, including several in November, where the attendees included young bassist Mike Harmon (who plays in Bison Bison and backs folk-pop singer V.V. Lightbody, among other gigs), audio engineer Todd Carter (who also plays in TV Pow), and independent Sun Ra scholar Brad Marcus. The tip jar is usually next to a guest book on a tiny table. Behind an untended bar and its stools sits a fridge filled with cans of beer and soda, but I've never seen it plugged in—if you want a drink, you have to order it downstairs.
Despite these mundane surroundings, when the members of EPD begin to play you may feel like you're in an M.C. Escher etching, its dimensions crisscrossing impossibly, or in a Kafka story where stark imagery and weird humor evoke claustrophobia and sensory derangement. This phantasmagorical subjective experience is a natural result of the effort to jettison expectations, open your mind, and absorb and organize the vast amount of sonic information generated. The musicians rarely refer to or signal one another visibly: Baker typically hangs his head low over his piano or stares fixedly at his ARP, wearing a headlamp the better to see the sliders and patch cords on that challenging instrument. Sandstrom keeps his eyes closed a lot. Hunt does try for eye contact, but not even the horn players tend to cooperate—when Williams is there, he keeps busy with one of various saxes, a clarinet, or a table full of little noisemakers (mostly squeezable toys), and when Wilkerson plays, he positions himself about ten feet away, attentive to his tenor sax, alto clarinet, bulky oud, and didgeridoo.
The players' individual sonic streams meander, change continuously, merge orchestrally, and arrive together at unforeseen yet seemingly inevitable conclusions—they can be thunderous as a waterfall or soft as drizzle, but they're almost always as vivid, elusive, and hard to remember as dreams. And like dreams, they convey strong moods and can move the listener. Baker acknowledges that EPD's music is not for everyone. "The band may be extraordinary," he says dryly, "but we'd be deluded if we thought it would be popular."
There was never a time when free improvisation was mainstream, but Baker suspects that changes in patterns of music consumption have further marginalized it. "I was reading something probably written 20 years ago, suggesting that current generations regard a musical recording as the standard," he explains. "If they go out to hear music, the musicians will be judged on how well they replicate that standard. There are probably people who go out to hear music expecting it won't be played exactly as on the record, but maybe expecting the musicians will play songs they recognize. Or if not songs they recognize, at least songs. Or music with some clear relationship to genre attributes like a rhythm section, a degree of timekeeping, an obvious connection between a lead player and the rhythm. It's expected groups conform to that. Which we do sometimes, but not always. More often we don't."
EPD's interactions do follow some rules, but those rules arise from the music itself as it's created. "People think improvisers get together and play whatever they want," explains Wilkerson, "and there is a certain amount of that. However, I always tell people you can play anything, but you can't just play anything." Any one of the players can rebel against the group's momentum, prompting everyone else to react and adjust, but some of those possible disruptive moves are still mistakes—and good improvisers follow a subconscious decision-making process that guides them away from those. Nonetheless, the impression EPD give is that anything might happen at one of their concerts. I joked to an acquaintance that the band might even play a tune eventually, and last month I was astonished—as were Wilkerson, Sandstrom, and Hunt—when Baker intoned the theme of Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" on his piano. The others followed, extending and reshaping the melody far from its formal parameters, which nonetheless remained in distant sight. They'd never played it before, and won't likely again.
"I don't play in any other context that's this open," Wilkerson says. "It took me a long time to learn to play with the ARP, because it's not tuned like a piano and the vocabulary Jim's developed on it, electrically generated, was foreign to me. So I try to lock in on the timbre, sliding notes on the oud. If Brian's playing an ostinato or holding a pedal tone, I might pick up the didgeridoo. Steve to me is just perfect—he's got the ability to insinuate rhythms without necessarily actually playing them. When Jim's on piano, there's usually a tonal center implied, but it's abstract. He's not an easy guy to pin down. I can't describe his style. I don't think I've ever heard anybody else play like that."
Baker is indeed a singular stylist. His touch on the piano (at the Beat Kitchen he uses a Casio CZ-101 for its portability) veers from flinty to limpid, his phrases from fleeting, offhand lines to rhapsodic, fully embodied passages infused with melancholy grandeur. He composes music as well, and continues adding to a collection of 76 short songs he calls "Landscapes" that he first registered for copyright a decade ago. He considers them potential starting points for improvisation but declines to bring them to EPD. "It would be weird," he says, "a different kind of thing than we've been developing. I think, 'Do I really want to mess with this?'"
He identifies EPD's basic plan: "I might start with something that could be the basis for a solo, but someone else will come in and it will change. Or somebody else will start what could be a solo thing and someone else will come in. It varies."
Sandstrom suggests another possible beginning. "That could be me introducing the tonal center Ed Wilkerson hears," he says. "I usually start on the bass, clean with no pedals, and then things happen." Sandstrom was Shawn Colvin's bassist when they both attended Southern Illinois University in the mid-70s, and he's worked for Dave Jemilo at the Green Mill since the day it opened in 1986, including a longtime position in the Green Mill All-Stars. That band used to feature straight-ahead jazz stylists Von Freeman, Willie Pickens, and Robert Shy, now all sadly passed away—on this past New Year's Eve, the All-Stars were Sandstrom, saxophonists Eric Schneider and Eric Alexander, pianist John Campbell, and drummer Kyle Swann (on Christmas break from college in Miami).
Unlike song-form music with its chorus structures, EPD's output is in continuous flux, and its complexity increases further when Baker turns to his synthesizer. He's been using a three-quarters-size clone of his classic ARP 2600—though he prefers the original, it tips the scales at 58 pounds, probably almost half what Baker weighs himself. The ARP can produce silvery chimes, volcanic rumbles, and keening drones among its practically limitless range of sounds. When Baker switches to the synth, Sandstrom might bow noisily below his upright bass's bridge, play his electric guitar through wah-wah and fuzz pedals, or blow his horn—which for most of the past couple months has been muted by a little buglike toy accidentally stuck in its bore. Williams might let rip with a hollering tone, or pick up one after another of his little instruments. Hunt might put down his drumsticks to play by hand, or put one of those bugs that's in Sandstrom's trumpet on his drumheads to create an audible buzz, or strike a cowbell or a scraper. It adds up to immensely more than the sum of its parts.
"What's cool about EPD," explains Williams, "and I noticed this from the Hotti Biscotti days, is that we'll be playing and someone might rise above what's happening, but we're creating this sound as four musicians and it's not like this guy's taking a solo. We're playing and something will start happening that we weren't even aware of, but start to become aware of. Maybe we look at each other, like, 'Did you hear what just happened? Did you hear that other thing? Who's doing that? Whoa, is that me? Is that Jim?' And nobody is doing it—it's a fifth thing that's just happened.
"The music we're creating becomes independent of what we're doing. It's just there. We might try to pull it in or expand on it, and sometimes we can, but sometimes it just goes its own way. It's magical. I think by playing with each other so long, all the time, we're able to subliminally go to this place and listen to each other, not thinking of it as jazz with a rhythm section and soloist, but rather as sound—sound manipulation. This free-improvisation thing!
"You know, Jim started this group—he's the guy who put the musicians together. It's his band in a way, but it's not, because it's a collective of four musicians and nobody is directing the music. The music can go anywhere at any time, and when it does, we try to go with it."
Hunt has a similar perspective. "If you listen to what's happening within the improvisation, you hear melodies and even full pieces that could be written down if someone was to take the time—but they happen in the moment that they're there, and to me that can be a really powerful moment." He's been making music since age five, when he started singing and playing snare drum or piano in his church choir; today he's employed full time by Northfield Block, selling the virtues of concrete-masonry construction to architects, but every Sunday he still backs singers at the jazz service of his church in St. Charles.
He's keen to draw a distinction between what Extraordinary Popular Delusions do and mere jamming. "We may be playing sonically pleasing sounds, and then of course it doesn't stay there very long," he says. "But we're not just playing to play. We're listening and trying to make statements, play lines going in and out of time—the freedom to go back and forth, but definitely rooted in something beyond just sound. There are melodies and harmonies that are really deep and meaningful."
EPD's devout followers agree. "Since moving to Chicago after school in Champaign in 2013, I've heard them like 50 times," says Mike Harmon. "I've gone in spurts, religiously every week for a while. And I think 'religiously' is the right term, because when I attend it's like my weekly service, to break apart everything I've been thinking about and then put it all together again."
The music's density, dissonance, and stream-of-consciousness narrative make it a challenge to process, but the challenge is an enriching one. "I just try to release my ears and take it in," Harmon says. "It's a great practice to listen to them. It's so genuine. There's no faking how much they're playing together, listening at the same time. To play anything you want, to be that free, and actually be enhancing everything else around you—they're all doing that at the same time, and always producing that visceral effect, coming out of nothing. How in the world?"
Extraordinary Popular Delusions continue to build on their singular process every week, with no end in sight. As ephemeral and of the moment as their performances are, though, they haven't been simply dissolving into the air: a recorded archive of EPD's 13 years of weekly gigs exists, started by Malachi Ritscher and continued after his death in 2006 by Sandstrom. He has nearly 1,000 hours of their improvisations stored on his computer.
"We're trying to get our heads around a way to have our live performances up on the cloud," Hunt says. "That's a goal of ours. Jim has talked about making them accessible so people could hear not one performance but how we sound week by week. We're more excited about the flow of them all than creating one exemplary performance to be represented in great audio. The point is to play and hear the music, not to have a perfect record. The music is the priority." v