For fans of improvised music and forward-looking jazz, the annual Umbrella Music Festival has become the city's marquee event. The fifth installment, which runs through Sunday, began Wednesday, November 3, with the first half of European Jazz Meets Chicago—a free mini-fest at the Cultural Center that mixes up top-shelf locals and eminent visitors from abroad. In its third year, nine European nations are participating, more than ever before (there were to be ten, but last week Lithuanian drummer Arkadijus Gotesmanas canceled due to illness), so for the first time the mini-fest is spread across two nights. Each of the festival's three remaining concerts is held at one of the regular Umbrella Music venues: the Hideout, which hosts the Immediate Sound series on Wednesdays; Elastic, which hosts an improvised-music series on Thursdays; and the Hungry Brain, which hosts the Transmission series on Sundays.
As usual the festival is presented and programmed by the folks behind those three weekly series, though for European Jazz Meets Chicago they defer to point man Eugene Sampson, program coordinator for the Goethe-Institut Chicago. Goethe-Institut director Ruediger van den Boom and Cor Hershbach of the Netherlands Consulate General came up with the event in 2007, and when van den Boom handled it alone in 2008 after Hershbach moved away, Sampson watched closely from the wings. Van den Boom left the Goethe-Institut the following year, and for its past two incarnations, EJMC has been Sampson's baby. He's pressed European nations with consular or cultural representation in Chicago to get involved, and last year Lithuania and Sweden signed on (though Poland and Italy dropped out). This year Sampson brought France into the fold for the first time, and Poland and Italy came back aboard.
The Umbrella Music Festival has the same broad-minded approach to booking as Umbrella's year-round series, and this time the typical mix of strong local bands and high-profile out-of-towners includes a healthy number of important veterans, mostly from New York—among them Trio 3, David S. Ware, Leo Smith & Günter "Baby" Sommer, and Mark Helias's Open Loose. The festival has improved year after year, and 2010 is no exception.
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630.
6:30 PM Xavier Charles Trio It's not always easy to be sure which Xavier Charles you'll get when you show up to a concert. The Frenchman has often worked as a sound and installation artist, especially with the long-running group Silent Block, and he's also well-known as a virtuoso clarinetist—in that capacity he's been involved in several noisy electroacoustic projects and done quite a bit of transcendent free improvisation. Charles is especially fluent in his horn's extreme upper register, and on the 2008 duo recording Difference Between the Two Clocks (Textile) he meticulously follows the wavering, levitating guitar feedback of Japanese experimental musician Otomo Yoshihide, creating gorgeous sustained harmonies. In acoustic projects like the excellent quartet Dans les Arbres or his trio with John Butcher and Axel Dörner, Charles demonstrates impressive sensitivity and intelligence whether enmeshed in the composite buzz of massed musicians or negotiating delicate give-and-take interactions. He's been to Chicago before, backing Getatchew Mekuria as part of the expanded lineup of the Ex in summer 2008, but this is his first appearance under his own name; he's joined by two locals, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Tim Daisy. Claudia Cassidy Theater
7:15 PM Alberto Braida and Edoardo Marraffa Over the past few years Italian pianist Alberto Braida has worked with a lengthening list of European heavies, among them John Butcher, John Edwards, and Wilbert de Joode. Unlike many pianists from his country, who tend toward either puckish humor or romantic melancholy, he prefers abstraction and dissonance, borrowing heavily from contemporary classical music; in his improvisations he makes generous use of silence and a dynamic range that runs to the extreme at either end. He'll play in a duet here with Italian saxophonist Edoardo Marraffa, whose name was new to me when this year's Umbrella schedule was announced. What I've heard from him since, though, has made me a fan—his wonderfully tart, biting tone would remind me of Roland Kirk even if he weren't also skilled at playing two horns at once. Marraffa and Braida recently released Redshift (Setola di Maiale), an improvised session whose harmonic explorations ripple with controlled energy and burst with the joy of spontaneous discovery. Preston Bradley Hall
8 PM Christof Kurzmann and James Falzone Electronicist Christof Kurzmann, born in Vienna, Austria, and now based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, plays with local clarinetist James Falzone. Claudia Cassidy Theater
8:45 PM Agustí Fernandez Over the past decade pianist Agustí Fernandez has emerged as arguably Spain's preeminent free improviser, his stormy playing imbued with a deep knowledge of jazz history. As a teenager in the late 70s he was heavily influenced by Cecil Taylor—you can hear it in his ferociously percussive runs and phrase-capping clusters—and studied contemporary classical music with Iannis Xenakis, and the style he's developed combines an acute rhythmic sensibility with thoughtful exploration of harmony and density. He's at his best on the 2009 trio album Un Llamp Que no S'acaba Mai (Psi), with bassist John Edwards and drummer Mark Sanders: the session was improvised freely, but its surges of gorgeous, turbulent melody and coruscating color arrive with an electric urgency, as though the trio were speeding along a familiar racecourse and knew every twist and turn. This solo set is Fernandez's Chicago debut. Preston Bradley Hall
9:30 PM Joost Buis Ensemble Dutch trombonist Joost Buis, who also made his previous visit to Chicago with the expanded version of the Ex, leads an octet with one fellow Dutchman (saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra) and six locals (cornetist Josh Berman, reedists Keefe Jackson and Dave Rempis, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummers Mike Reed and Charles Rumback). On the superb recent album Zoomin (Data), cut with his tentet the Astronotes, Buis arranges his pithy original tunes with a looseness and sense of space that recalls Duke Ellington and complements the improvisational style of his excellent band—which is distinctly Dutch, teetering gracefully on the edge of chaos. Claudia Cassidy Theater
Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, 312-744-6630.
7:15 PM Chicago Luzern Exchange This group consists of three locals—cornetist Josh Berman, reedist Keefe Jackson, and drummer Frank Rosaly—and Swiss tubaist Marc Unternährer. Randolph Street Cafe
8 PM Waclaw Zimpel Quartet This young Polish clarinetist from Warsaw appeared on my radar in 2007, when he played in Ken Vandermark's Resonance, a large-band project convened in Krakow. He's developed a working relationship with Chicago drummer Tim Daisy, and a couple years ago they released Four Walls (Multikulti), a collection of fluidly yet rigorously conversational duet improvisations; alto saxophonist Dave Rempis and bassist Mark Tokar, both members of Resonance, help flesh out two track. For this gig Zimpel leads a quartet with Daisy and two other locals, bassist Devin Hoff and guitarist Matt Schneider. Claudia Cassidy Theater
8:45 PM The Longrun Development of the Universe For the past decade German tubaist Carl Ludwig Hübsch has led this fascinating trio with German reedist Matthias Schubert and Dutch trombonist Wolter Wierbos, making the most of its unusual instrumentation—the group is capable of leaping from orchestral sophistication to absurd comedy in the blink of an eye. Hübsch is a serious motherfucker on his unwieldy horn, whether pumping out bass lines whose tone swings from rubbery to metallic or disgorging odd sound effects—flatulent splatters, startling high overtones, sibilant wheezes. The 2008 album The Universe Is a Disk (Leo) includes several abstract, minimalist pieces, some of which pay explicit homage to Karlheinz Stockhausen—uninflected long tones, tart squeaks, extreme overblowing, vocalic squiggles, unpitched breaths, and the metallic clatter of keys, valves, and mutes combine to create intersecting, overlapping, and constantly morphing masses of sound. But elsewhere the trio's perverse humor is on full display. Most of the rest of the album consists of buoyant, madcap original songs that deftly intercut their fast-paced melodies with terse explosions of outsize extended technique or wacky group vocal shouts—it's easy to hear the influence of Carl Stalling's Looney Tunes scores.
On the trio's brand-new The Creators Bend a Master Plan (Neos), percussionist Gerry Hemingway makes four—a potentially disruptive move for a group that uses mostly breath to articulate its rhythmic structures. But Hemingway has always had a light touch and a fondness for nonrhythmic color; while he does sometimes provide a beat, he often merely uses well-placed cymbal patter to accent the pulse of the horns or adds texture with various types of friction. On this album Hübsch's compositions tend to be either meditative, billowing explorations of ensemble sound or more tunelike and stylistically referential charts that suggest everything from New Orleans polyphony to free-jazz bluster. The Longrun Development of the Universe performs as a trio here. Randolph Street Cafe
9:30 PM Fredrik Ljungkvist Sextet Swedish reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist leads a band of Chicagoans featuring flutist Nicole Mitchell, saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, pianist Jim Baker, bassist Joshua Abrams, and drummer Marc Riordan. Claudia Cassidy Theater
Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee, second floor, 773-772-3616, $15.
9 PM Slow Cycle This local group consists of cornetist Josh Berman, bass clarinetist Jason Stein, bassist Nate McBride, and drummer Frank Rosaly.
10 PM David S. Ware In December 2008, after living for nine years on kidney dialysis, saxophonist David S. Ware learned that the treatment was failing—his only hope for survival was a transplant. His longtime producer, Steven Joerg of the label Aum Fidelity, began an e-mail campaign to search for volunteers. A willing and compatible donor turned up with almost miraculous swiftness, and in May 2009 Ware received a transplanted kidney from Floridian Laura Mehr, whose late hus-band had known him in the mid-70s. Remarkably, Ware was back onstage in October, giving a blazing solo concert—with Mehr in attendance—that's since been released by Aum Fidelity as Saturnian (Solo Saxophones, Volume 1). He needed a cane to walk onto the stage and he played sitting down, but his lungpower sure sounded undiminished as he unspooled three epic pieces, playing saxello and stritch as well as his trademark tenor.
More recently Ware released Onecept (Aum Fidelity), a freely improvised trio session recorded in December 2009 with percussionist Warren Smith and bassist William Parker, a longtime collaborator. It's the culmination of a plan he and Joerg had been kicking around in summer 2008, before Ware's kidney problems became critical—they wanted to make a special recording to mark his 50th year playing the saxophone. Ware is a genius at extrapolating from and recombining source material on the fly, and even without written themes to work with he feverishly reshapes rapid-fire phrases, gnarled lines, and arching cries—his mind as well as his fingers move with electric urgency. In the liner notes he asks, "Is there any limit to the speed at which you can press them keys down, to which it will function correctly? That's what I'm trying to do now, push it as far, as fast as the human fingers can move." The saxophonist has long sought to reach an ideal state as a player—to master the mechanics of his horn so thoroughly that his thoughts can flow straight into music, as though the instrument didn't exist. Far from slowing down out of concern for his still-fragile health—he's developed diabetes since the transplant—he's intensifying that search. This is Ware's first Chicago performance in a decade and his first outside New York since his surgery.
11 PM Mark Helias's Open Loose New York bassist Mark Helias leads this long-running trio, which for tonight's set features saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and drummer Tom Rainey.
Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 773-227-4433, $15, 21+.
9 PM Nick Broste Trio Trombonist Nick Broste leads this local combo, which also includes reedist Keefe Jackson and bassist Anton Hatwich.
10 PM Ljungkvist/Buis/McBride/Reed Swedish reedist Fredrik Ljungkvist and Dutch trombonist Joost Buis play in an ad hoc group with two locals, bassist Nate McBride and drummer Mike Reed.
11 PM Trio 3 Rich in experience and redundant of name, this superb trio consists of bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and reedist Oliver Lake. Individually they've been fixtures in progressive jazz since the 50s, 60s, and 70s, respectively—Workman has recorded with John Coltrane, Art Blakey, and Eric Dolphy; Cyrille worked with Cecil Taylor in the 60s and with Carla Bley, Leroy Jenkins, and the late Marion Brown in the 70s; Lake cofounded the legendary World Saxophone Quartet in 1977. All three continue to play in various contexts, but since they formed Trio 3 in 1986 it's been where they've done their best work, bringing a shared heritage to bracing music that makes room for everything from gestural, exploratory collective improvisation to scalding free jazz to fiercely swinging postbop.
Hungry Brain, 2319 W. Belmont, 773-935-2118, $15 suggested donation, 21+.
9 PM The Outskirts Locals Dave Rempis (saxophones) and Frank Rosaly (drums) formed this trio with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Haaker-Flaten in 2006, during the latter's two-year stay in Chicago.
10 PM Wadada Leo Smith & Günter "Baby" Sommer Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who turns 69 in December, is in the middle of a late-career boom, excelling in many diverse contexts, releasing a slew of strong records, and collaborating with powerfully idiosyncratic musicians young enough to be his children (Vijay Iyer, Okkyung Lee, John Coxon). Last year's double CD Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform) captures two sides of his personality: the first disc is by his long-running Golden Quartet (expanded to a quintet with drummers Pheeroan akLaff and Famoudou Don Moye), a flexible postbop outfit with free-jazz leanings, and the second is billed to Organic, a big raucous combo with three electric guitarists (Nels Cline, Michael Gregory, and Brandon Ross), cello, drums, and acoustic and electric basses. It picks up the thread of Smith's short-lived early-aughts project Yo! Miles, likewise exploring the 70s electric aesthetic of Miles Davis with spacious, groove-heavy original pieces. He's also been making killer music in duos with drummers, among them Alan Rudolph and Jack DeJohnette, and he just released The Blue Mountain's Sun Drummer (Kabell), a 1986 live recording with the brilliant Ed Blackwell that showcases Smith's fiery technique and carefully measured improvisation—every phrase and flurry has its place in a deliberate whole.
In 2007 Smith released Wisdom in Time (Intakt), another great duet album—this one paired him with German drummer Günter "Baby" Sommer. In 1979 Smith had formed a trio with Sommer and another German, bassist Peter Kowald, that made two classic albums for FMP, Touch the Earth and Break the Shells—some of the earliest and most meaningful dialogue between American and European free jazz—before splitting up in '82. Smith renewed his partnership with Sommer in 2005, when they put together a similar trio with bassist Barre Phillips (a mentor to Kowald, who'd died in 2002). They played together in Berlin, and in 2006 Smith and Sommer toured Germany and Switzerland, where they cut the sensitive yet forceful Wisdom in Time, finding common ground between the different traditions they embody without abandoning what makes them distinctive. This is the duo's Chicago debut; they reportedly gave a knockout performance earlier this year at New York's Vision Festival.