NRG Ensemble | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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NRG Ensemble

When the founder and leader of NRG Ensemble, Hal Russell, died in 1992, the band stood at a crossroads. Having just completed its second record for the major jazz label ECM, NRG had to ask: should it continue in the vein of its work with Russell, performing as a repertoire band in the hope of playing out its budding success for all it's worth? Or should it break up, letting his baby pass on with its dad and consigning it to a fond memory? In the name of artistic integrity the group did neither. Instead it drafted Ken Vandermark as the second reed player (alongside Mars Williams, now the band's nominal leader) and took off in a brave new direction, not unrelated to the NRG of old, but not looking to imitate its founder's inimitable persona either. With its sensational second post-Hal CD, This Is My House (its first for the Chicago Delmark label), NRG builds on the excitement and freshness of its previous release, Calling All Mothers (Quinnah). Consistent gigging and focused rehearsal has honed the lethally hard-hitting front line into a completely cohesive twosome--Williams and Vandermark also work as the duo Cinghiale, which has added to their already considerable rapport--and shaped the rhythm section into a more versatile, potentially explosive vehicle. It may not have the raggedness and half-assed humor that made Russell the strange charmer he was, but today's NRG lives up to its potential in a different way, successfully assembling each monster tune from the skeleton of original musical structures, rock and funk musculature, improvisational brainpower, and the lifeblood of free jazz. The ensemble makes the most of its multiinstrumental arsenal: drummer Steve Hunt moves between traps, vibes, marimba, and various percussive flotsam and jetsam; Brian Sandstrom freely wheels on electric guitar, trumpet, and acoustic bass; bassist Kent Kessler occasionally drops his humongous upright and reaches for his strap-on second axe; and the reed team wields all possible combinations of clarinet and saxophone. This concert is a release party for This Is My House, and it happens at the club where the ensemble tooled much of the material for the long-awaited record. Friday, 11 PM, Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division; 235-3232. JOHN CORBETT

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

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