Gunter "Baby" Sommer | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Gunter "Baby" Sommer


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Just as Cecil Taylor's dissonant pyrotechnics have become the gold standard for freely improvised piano in many people's minds, the colorful, inventive lunacies of Dutch drummer Han Bennink have come to stand for free-jazz percussion. And just as a host of original and creative pianists have been sold short by folks who describe them in terms of Taylor, many drummers have suffered from largely unjustified--and usually unfavorable--comparisons to Bennink. Probably no one has chafed under these comparisons as much as German drummer Günter "Baby" Sommer: he shares Bennink's absurdist sense of humor, and because he's spent most of his career in what used to be East Germany he's still much less well-known than Bennink, especially on this side of the Atlantic. But Sommer's unquestionably his own musician. He includes melody instruments in his solo performances--bandoneon, harmonica, xylophone, and shawm, to name a few--but more importantly, even his drumming boasts a distinctive melodicism. His vocabulary includes martial music, Asian processionals, expertly turned drum rudiments, music-hall ditties, and African beats (he sometimes uses an mbira, or thumb piano), and he uses it to spin fascinating poems of tone and texture. I've seen him explode into hilarious slapstick, but he's more likely to unfold a sturdy narrative on the snare or take a luxuriant excursion on chimes and bells; his ear for drum tunings is impressive, and at times he seems to find an entire octave in a single cymbal. In his first of two Chicago gigs this weekend, Sommer will perform with bassist Peter Kowald and clarinetist Floros Floridis (see Post No Bills) as part of the Empty Bottle's Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music; at his second, he'll go it alone. Friday, 9:30, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600. Sunday, 1 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-7094. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Patrik Landolt.

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