Chicago historically hemorrhages talent: at times it seems that any writer, actor, or musician who's any good at all is destined to leave. Even the post-Vandermark Chicago free-jazz scene--viewed the world over as a model of sustainable self-sufficiency and collaborative spirit--isn't immune to the curse. In the past year, Chicago Underground drummer Chad Taylor and improviser Jim O'Rourke have both moved to New York. Hustling saxophonist Scott Rosenberg made an impression here quickly, but abruptly left to travel the world--he's currently in France. And last month Chicago Underground ringleader Rob Mazurek followed his wife to Brazil.
Maybe more significant, even the guys who're most devoted to Chicago aren't actually here that much. "Ken Vandermark, Kent Kessler, Hamid Drake, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Michael Zerang are not necessarily 'Chicago musicians' anymore," says 26-year-old saxophonist Dave Rempis, who plays in the Vandermark 5. "They're all over the world. They're not just looking at where they can play in Chicago, they're thinking about what festivals they're going to play and what countries they're going to tour in." Vandermark acknowledges that he'll be on the road from February through July this year.
As these local fixtures perform out of town with increasing frequency, the audience they worked so hard to win is faced with a daunting crop of unfamiliar names--many of them younger musicians who've been drawn to Chicago in the past few years. It's still too soon to tell what the new generation might contribute as a whole, but recently some individual players have started to show serious promise. In contrast to their improv-oriented predecessors, the new guys are working toward a sound that's more introspective and composition based and draws on a wider range of jazz and nonjazz influences.
"Initially I was interested in playing more aggressive stuff, but my feelings changed," says 26-year-old bassist Brian Dibblee, who moved from Memphis in 1999 and currently leads three groups. "Being around everybody and hearing what everyone else was thinking, I got a sense that straight-up free playing started to feel old. One of the points of my trio, Design Flaw, is to play really quietly. It's not about blasting someone out, but about moving things slowly, placing things delicately, and trying to be really deliberate about what we're doing."
Nonetheless, with the exception of Rempis's three-year-old trio, Triage--with drummer Tim Daisy and bassist Jason Ajemian--the new wave has yet to produce any distinctive working groups. Some of the players gig with their elders, but most form loose alliances with one another that disband after a few gigs. According to Aram Shelton, a 25-year-old saxophonist who moved here from Florida in 1999, "it's kind of like dating in Chicago. There are lots of girls here and a lot of guys here, and it seems like it's hard for people to commit to each other because they keep thinking, 'Oh, someone better is out there.'" He and his peers acknowledge the role good working groups play in attracting an audience, but as Vandermark approvingly points out, "they're doing what they need to do. They're not making concessions in their aesthetic choices based on what they think the audience needs. That's really good, and if the music is strong people are going to take chances on seeing these guys anyway."
Vandermark, a sage at age 37, may not be around as much, but when he's here he goes out of his way to help the new kids on the block, getting them gigs, introducing them to other players, and freely offering advice. "It took me a very long, unpleasant two years to hook up with people here," he says. "I really remember that, and me helping people is partially out of the memory of that."
They could still use a little help in the area of recording. Triage are ahead of the pack here too; their debut, Premium Plastics, came out in the fall on a label run by guitarist Phil Mosberg. "Nobody has been recording that much, and I think that's a big thing just in terms of getting our names out there," says Rempis. "We can play as many gigs as we want, but unfortunately recordings are the way you get people to pay attention to you." The labels that most strongly supported Vandermark and the Underground groups--Okka Disk, Thrill Jockey, Atavistic--have yet to take on any of the younger musicians, although in April, Walking Road, a new label run by Mike Kandel of Tranquility Bass and Matt Lux of Isotope 217, will release the superb debut album by saxophonist Matt Bauder, another recent immigrant who's already gone off to grad school at Wesleyan. Taking a page from the indie rock handbook, a number of musicians have also started their own imprints--including Mosberg's Solitaire, drummer Eric Roth's RosCo, guitarist Adam Sonderberg's Longbox, and Rosenberg's Barely Auditable, which still operates out of Chicago.
Newbies and old hands alike also have to contend with the continuing instability of local free-jazz venues. Things are far better than they were a decade ago: in 1991, a fan of adventurous jazz could find two or three shows a week to attend; nowadays he can find two or three a night. The Hungry Brain, a bar on Belmont near Western that's become the unofficial home of the younger improvisers, hosts a Sunday-night jazz series run by cornetist Josh Berman, and bookings at Michael Zerang's Candlestick Maker are picking up. But HotHouse's six-month Tuesday-night new jazz series and the long-running Monday improv sessions at Myopic both ended last year, and the perpetually troubled Nervous Center will close in March.
The Empty Bottle, a rock club most nights of the week, hosts the acclaimed international jazz series booked by Vandermark and John Corbett on Wednesdays and has given up most Tuesdays to a residency by the Vandermark 5 and related projects--which hasn't left a lot of room for new local musicians. Before leaving town last year, Scott Rosenberg described his two-year stint in Chicago as both exhilarating and frustrating: "I was meeting musicians and playing really quickly, but on another level it took me almost a year and a half to get a gig at the Empty Bottle."
This weekend some of the next wave's brightest lights are performing at the Nervous Center Improvised Music Festival, organized by Daisy; check the jazz listings for a complete schedule. Most of the players mentioned above will perform, as will up-and-coming percussionists Jason Adasiewicz, Dan Sylvester, and Jerry Bryerton, bassist Jason Roebke, pianist Alec Ramsdell, and reedist John Doyle, as well as vets Ernst Karel, Lonberg-Holm, Vandermark, and Drake (the last two perform on Thursday, January 10). "I think we're all really patient," says Shelton. "We realize that it's going to take a long time to be comfortable playing this music and to get noticed. Everyone that's doing well right now--Vandermark's groups, the Underground groups--those guys are older than us and they've been doing it for a long time. Some people think they can come to Chicago and make a name really quick, but it's impossible. But it is possible to do things, to change your ideas, and to think about what you're going to do with the rest of your life."
Correction: As several readers pointed out, in last week's column I misidentified the British house duo Basement Jaxx as French.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.