The city of Chicago continues to find itself in a jazz renaissance well into the waxing years of the 21st century—a status that many of America’s cities can’t easily lay claim to. With the pedigrees of individual improvisers and composers like reedman Ken Vandermark and flutist Nicole Mitchell well established in the 1990s, a slightly younger generation of players has assembled things in their wake, on both the North and South Chicago axis.
The most individual voices to step out of this environment include tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist and composer Keefe Jackson and alto saxophonist/clarinetist Aram Shelton (now based in Oakland, CA), active in Chicago since the beginning of the 2000s, recording in situations ranging from orchestras to duos. Two new releases shed some light on their work—Jackson’s quartet on Clean Feed (his third date under his own name) and the second disc by the cooperative ensemble Fast Citizens.
Keefe Jackson – Seeing You See (CF 176)
Though the Windy City environment has played host and university to a disproportionate number of harmonically advanced and structurally interesting improvisers, Jackson’s gifts and rewards are not worn on the sleeve. His gruff tone and laconic phrasing are reminiscent of another Arkansas native, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, who was a charter member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Phrases often come in short bursts of sound, taut braying split tones or pillowy minor explosions, which in their hesitant, round cadence land in a realm closer to 1970s firebrands like tenor men Frank Lowe and Hans Dulfer.
Seeing You See is Jackson’s second appearance for Clean Feed; he recorded as a sideman with trombonist Jeb Bishop’s Lucky 7’s (Bishop is also featured here). The quartet is rounded out by bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Nori Tanaka on ten of the leader’s compositions. The format of trombone, tenor, bass and drums recalls saxophonist Archie Shepp’s mid-1960s group with trombonist Roswell Rudd, as well as Dulfer’s Heavy Soul Inc., and the opening “Maker” calls up the latter in its singsong atonal theme. That’s not to say anything on Seeing You See is particularly a throwback; after a brief collective improvisation, the tenor man’s phrases hang in bunches or hesitant, feral needling.
Bishop becomes more interesting with each recording, his oily tailgate and plunged accents a garrulous and intelligent complement to Jackson’s rhythmic tug. The light, shimmering chatter of cymbal and snare, outlined by Roebke’s constantly shading outlines are a multidirectional wave for the horns’ dialogue of flinty tenor nips and chortling bugle-flick. An unaccompanied near-calypso tenor melody opens “If You Were,” probing and breathy, leading into a knotty multipart theme, folksy yet moving through a hive-like progression. Bishop digs in with vocal, muted bluesiness over a pliant wood-and-skin gallop, Tanaka and Roebke engaging a push-pull with time and temporality around the trombonist’s solo. Jackson comes in with oddly-paced stabs and towel-shaking grunts, picking at sound and movement in a seeking dialogue.
“Put My Finger on it” is the closest the quartet gets to a yawing bop number, albeit clearly rustling in the litter for something hidden and beyond. Another mixture of swaggering, gutbucket blues and pan-tonal pilings shows up in “Eff-Time,” an updating of structural/sonic mash familiar from Shepp’s Live in San Francisco (Impulse!, 1966); Bishop moves into an unaccompanied flutter and multiphonics section before brashly steamrolling over drone and patter, while the leader stretches his vibrato and harried gruffness over a sharp groove. Meanwhile, “Turns to Everything” snatches a fragment of reedman Eric Dolphy’s “Hat and Beard,” merging it with rockish slink and splayed-open unison. With Seeing You See, Keefe Jackson and his mates have really outdone themselves, updating methods of classic free jazz into something that reminds us how the whole of this music is resoundingly contemporary.
Aram Shelton’s Fast Citizens – Two Cities (Delmark)
The Fast Citizens are a Chicago-Bay Area cooperative consisting of Jackson and Aram Shelton on reeds, cornetist Josh Berman, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Frank Rosaly. The idea behind the group is that each member would take turns “leading.” Jackson led its debut, Ready Everyday(Delmark, 2006), and now it’s Shelton’s turn with Two Cities. Since relocating to California and studying at Mills College, Shelton has proved himself to be an extraordinarily versatile musician-composer, leading the Ornette Coleman/John Carter-inspired Ton Trio, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz’ fractured post-bop quintet, and until Weasel Walter jumped ship for New York, appearing often in the drummer’s extremely out free jazz units. True to its nature as a collective project, four of the disc’s nine tunes are written by other members of the group (including one by Hatwich), but Shelton’s pen gets the lion’s share of space.
The title opener is a buoyant and chock full piece to both begin the date and state the sextet’s aesthetic. The theme is a jubilant upward rondo, moving into short circular patterns before the full ensemble weight drops out to leave alto, cello and percussion in a sharp but highly mobile sparring set. The leader’s alto and Lonberg-Holm’s black-laquered sawing are perfectly matched, as ebullient and loquacious overflow and flattened Roscoe Mitchell-like squall mark Shelton’s phraseology. Another written section emerges with popping, thin riffs behind coiled and somewhat funky exhortations that, with a little brightening, wouldn’t sound out of place on a South African jazz record. Jackson’s tenor is a little more reined in here, but still unfurling in lines that are long and slightly skewed.
Berman and Rosaly engage in an airy and incisive duet, the cornetist’s fat, early-jazz swagger spinning yarns as the drummer’s net of shifting accents provides painterly support. That brass shout carries over into a dialogue with blatting tenor on Jackson’s “Big News,” its theme a lush front-line unison riding clipped tempo a la saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Shelton’s statement is coolly controlled flutter, scalar runs and curlicues, progressive and spinning in an alternate but wholly related structure to the theme. It’s doubtful whether Joe Chambers would have assembled a solo similar to Rosaly’s, though—his waves are detailed, rising floes that check a planar rhythmic influence bridging Pierre Favre and hip-hop.
Shelton’s “Western Promenade” and “In Cycles” seek whimsy in classical poise, the former a rattling sashay that leads into a strange merger of Lee Morgan-like brass, minimalist march and squirrely plasticity. While Jackson isn’t as distinctive on bass clarinet as he is on tenor, his duet with Hatwich is a curious dance within the promenade’s architecture, moving from pensive cries and taps to wryly caressing play. A pendulum-like swing embodies “In Cycles,” even as out-of-sync toms and cymbals jumble rhythm in another direction. Thin staccato backs Shelton’s spry clarinet digs and whirls in a solo that calls to mind Michel Portal and Francois Houle more than Perry Robinson. The composer Anthony Braxton would call the work of Shelton, Jackson and their compadres restructuralist, for though it draws heavily from history and precedent, these influences and ideas are rearranged and combined in a way to exude something not only contemporary, but beautifully futuristic.