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Jazz Scene: notes on the UndergroundFest


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Don't call Kahil El-Zabar today. Don't call him this weekend. And if you've tried to reach him in the last two weeks or so, you already know that was a waste of time, too. During that time, El-Zabar has been busy pulling together UndergroundFest '87, the series of concerts of Chicago's new black jazz, and he'll be directing last-minute details all weekend--as well as leading two of the bands. Besides, there might also have been some late problems regarding American Music Week, the national celebration that El-Zabar has served as Illinois regional director.

So don't call El-Zabar this weekend, because he won't have time to answer the phone.

El-Zabar is one of the principals behind FEPA (the Forum for the Evolution of Progressive Arts)--the organization that conceived UndergroundFest in 1980. The idea was to provide an alternative to the Chicago Jazz Festival, then in its second year, with avant-garde sets starting at 11 PM each night of the Grant Park festival. Five years ago, FEPA moved the U-Fest to midsummer, where it proved a welcome focal point for the jazz community, preceding the autumn Jazz Fest; but this year, in an attempt to serve the college crowd that's shown renewed interest in the music, the three-day festival has been moved to November.

At the beginning, U-Fest was heavily weighted with musicians from Chicago's AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and it still retains a noticeable AACM flavor in its lineup of new-music explorers. These days the emphasis is on "structured freedom": the improvisation remains rooted in and influenced by free jazz, but distinct frameworks have been imposed on that improvisation. Despite this linkage, El-Zabar felt it necessary to drop out of the AACM--he had been among its most prominent younger members--to work with FEPA.

The reason for this goes beyond one man's personal interests: it points to the need for a broad-based platform that can unify and promote the various expressions of avant-garde art. "The art community should have much more impact on the city and its development," says El-Zabar. Whether FEPA can actually speed this coalescence and concomitant impact remains to be seen.

At any rate, even when he's not organizing festivals, El-Zabar manages to stay busy. Best known for leading an unorthodox trio called the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, he is also at home in considerably more crowded surroundings: he plays percussion in Edward Wilkerson's 22-piece band Shadow Vignettes, and leads the even larger--not to say mammoth--Orchestra Infinity (both of which appear at this year's U-Fest). A West German label, Sound Aspects, has just released the second album in El-Zabar's "Ritual" series (featuring violinist Billy Bang and bassist Malachi Favors); last weekend found him leading his house-music variant, the Beat, at Link's Hall; and Monday he heads for Europe, where he's garnered praise in so many languages his press package looks like a dispatch from Babel.

All this performing has pushed El-Zabar's extramusical efforts to the back burner for the first time in years. Nonetheless, he agreed to act as a coordinator for American Music Week, which runs through Sunday. Now in its third year, AMW is a loose amalgamation of performances and seminars in all 50 states (and several other countries) in an effort to display and celebrate all forms of American sound making--although in past years the AMW in Illinois has emphasized classical music. El-Zabar has expanded its scope by including, under the AMW umbrella, regularly scheduled performances ranging from the blues of Billy Branch to the chamber music of the Chicago Symphony Strings to the new music of U-Fest.

This added exposure comes at the right time, because this year's program looms as one of the strongest in UndergroundFest's history. Friday kicks off with the Sidepocket Experience led by drummer Surah Ramses, an AACM veteran who's had relatively little exposure; the quartet features saxist Vandy Harris. Transource, led by reedman Mwata Bowden and vocalist Rita Warford, will follow; this group has been around nearly a decade, and is capable of some stunning mixtures of human and instrumental voices. Friday concludes with Shadow Vignettes, in which musicality and showmanship combine to form a worthy heir to the showy mantle of Sun Ra.

Saturday belongs to Orchestra Infinity, the band with a hundred legs (or thereabouts); they perform rarely, for reasons of economics, and promise to be a weekend highlight. Also on Saturday's bill: the quartet led by the powerful saxophonist (and surprising pianist) Ari Brown, and the Sound Therapy Ensemble, dedicated to the harmonic healing properties of music. Since they regularly perform at sunrise on the lakeshore, this represents an unusual chance to hear them without squinting.

Sunday opens with the trio led by Fred Anderson, the grand "old man" of the AACM: he helped found the organization, and many younger stars cut their teeth in his groups. After that, Wilkerson returns with his remarkable octet, the Eight Bold Souls, a group that many (including myself) consider to be the most exciting ensemble in Chicago, and one of the finest in modern music. Then El-Zabar heads up his "Ritual" trio (Billy Bang, Malachi Favors) to close out the weekend. The programs are lean and strong, and they well represent the state of contemporary black jazz in Chicago.

This year's U-Fest will inaugurate the second-floor performance space at Heroes Sports Bar & Grill, newly opened at 2347 S. Michigan. Doors open at 6:30 Friday and Saturday and 4:00 Sunday, with concerts set to start (roughly) 75 minutes later. (Punctuality has never been one of this festival's identifying features.) Tickets are $10 at the door, $15 for the entire weekend, and more info is yours at 326-0096.

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

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