Steel Wool | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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For the last three years Boston drummer Curt Newton has flown to Chicago to join his old Beantown compatriot Ken Vandermark for annual tribute performances; recipients of their musical homages have been Eric Dolphy, Jimmy Lyons, Sun Ra, and George Clinton. This year's excursion, however, marks a departure: the two will be joined by bassist Kent Kessler for the Chicago debut of Steel Wool, with some original material in store. Vandermark is the hardest working jazzman in town, leading his own quartet as well as participating in other collectives like the NRG Ensemble, Caffeine, the Unheard Music Quartet, and the rock band Waste Kings; Steel Wool provides an opportunity to hear his explosive reed machinations in a different context. Judging from material to be included on the trio's forthcoming debut on the Okka Disk label, the most striking element is the sense of space Vandermark evokes. Whereas the manic rock energy of the Vandermark Quartet has an almost claustrophobic sonic density and the all-improv piano-sax-drums of Caffeine whirl madly into blinding, unmapped territory, Steel Wool traces the shadows of real tunes before floating off into space. Vandermark's extroverted nature commands attention, but his woolly extrapolations succeed because of the excellent musical support he receives. Kessler, who works with him in the Vandermark Quartet and NRG, has become one of this town's unheralded gems; sublimely powerful, his full, woody sound can go head to head with anyone, while his gorgeous lyricism is a masterful trump card. Newton also dazzles. In town a month ago with guitarist Joe Morris he exhibited breathtaking restraint, breaking down time with a subtle hand, tapping out painterly splashes of sound. A drummer usually drives the group, but in Steel Wool he's often coloring in lines sketched by Vandermark and thickened by Kessler. It's an exhilarating triumvirate. Thursday, 8:30 PM, HotHouse, 1565 N. Milwaukee; 235-2334.

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

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