On its new George Lewis portrait album, Chicago’s Ensemble dal Niente vividly illustrates the composer’s talks of an improvisational practice | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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On its new George Lewis portrait album, Chicago’s Ensemble dal Niente vividly illustrates the composer’s talks of an improvisational practice

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George Lewis initially made his mark as one of the greatest trombonists in the history of jazz, but as he gravitated toward more compositional work, his use of improvisation grew more abstract and elemental. Now, he brings improvisation to the act of living itself, a notion he’s long espoused in his writings and talks. The pieces on Assemblage (New World)—a fantastic new CD of some of his recent work, beautifully rendered by Chicago’s Ensemble dal Niente—magnificently illustrate a few manifestations of this thinking. On “Mnemosis” and “Hexis,” the composer presents a series of repeated patterns voiced by different groupings of instruments, often bridged by arresting solo or duo passages that help tie things together. The title piece, which Lewis wrote specifically for Ensemble dal Niente, is more focused on a bricolage of elements he created in the past (an act he calls “self-scavenging”), though deep within the piece he also nods to longtime colleague Roscoe Mitchell via a snippet of coruscating soprano saxophone voiced by Taimur Sullivan. None of the pieces embrace standard compositional forms and the recording has no tidy resolution. For Lewis, this is a philosophical design for living in the moment: as he says in Michael Gallope’s liner note essay, “You are encouraged to stay in one place and really be in the moment. I’m looking for a sense of stasis in these pieces.” When life is driven by fixed routines and getting from point A to point B is a regular goal, it can be hard to be present in the moment—a necessary quality for fruitful improvisation. The members of the ensemble have leeway in their interpretations, and while they may not improvise the same way a jazz musician might, in the thick of these works they navigate solutions by listening and observing where they are. Ensemble dal Niente will perform all four works from the album, which in addition to the title composition includes “The Mangle of Practice,” a duo piece for pianist Winston Choi and violinist Minghuan Xu. The concert is preceded by a talk with Lewis and composer Anthony Cheung at 2:30 PM.   v

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