Produced by: Leo Galbraith-Paul. Crew: Nathan Salon, Slade Warnken, Jason Sloan
Dave Rempis, a saxophonist and Northwestern alum, has performed and recorded with improvising legends such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, Fred Anderson, and Hamid Drake. In addition to his eclectic musical career as a stalwart of Chicago’s thriving experimental music scene, Rempis runs his own record label (Aerophonic), is the board president of the non-profit arts venue/incubator Elastic Arts, and is an organizer of the annual Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. We caught up on the phone during his brief Midwest tour this past week.
Many of the groups you play with have been long-time collaborations, the most obvious of which maybe being the Vandermark 5 (since 1998). How do the musical conversations of a group develop over time? How does the improvised vernacular grow and change?
Yeah, that’s kind of an essential linking point when you make (improvised music) bands like this. With groups that work in a compositional setting it’s like, okay you write a new group of compositions and that changes the sound of the band. With an improvising band, it’s different because nobody is writing the compositions and it becomes more of an evolution over time of how the group operates and works and interacts with one another. It’s a really organic thing, it’s not something that you can predict or control. And it also depends a lot from one group to another, based on what the individual musicians have been doing in their lives, musically, personally, professionally. I don’t know if you could say that there’s a particular process that unfolds every time with every band.
Does the group’s rapport influence the amount of preparation that goes into a performance? With long-time collaborators, does that level of comfort lead to more or less pre-show planning?
I think it’s a combination of both. With groups that I’ve been playing with for years, when we walk on stage, I know I can expect that everybody is going to be fully engaged in the improvisation. I don’t know what’s going to come out musically, but I do know that everybody is going to be paying attention to one another and dealing with each other in creative ways. We are always listening to different things and influenced by different things in our careers. And the people I work with are all accommodating to that, and are trying to deal with each other in new ways, basically. And that’s what keeps bands interesting. I know the people that I play with can play their instruments really well. So if I get on stage and all they do is play their instruments well, but it’s the same old stuff we’ve been playing for years, it’s not particularly interesting (laughs). That’s part of the challenge of pushing groups forward – dealing with those changes and not trying to just predetermine what your sound is and stick with that.
What about newer formations, such as the collaborations with Nate Wooley, Michael Zerang, or Elisabeth Harnik? What is the value/experience of these types of first time improvisatory encounters?
Some of those first time encounters can be some of the most exciting and revelatory ones because they’re so new and fresh. And there are encounters that happen once like that, and the next time you get together it doesn’t work. You just have to keep your sleeves rolled up and keep working on it because it’s a process–based art form, and that means you’ll have failures. I think any visual artist, writer, etc. can say the same thing.
You have played with improvised music legends like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee (among others) – what did you learn from how they approach and exist in the creative space? Were there particular things (or attitudes) that they demanded from you as a younger musician?
No, I wouldn’t say so. The thing that I think most improvising musicians want to hear from a new or younger collaborator is somebody who is really making an effort (whether they’re succeeding or not) to come up with some type of individual voice. There are plenty of good saxophone players who can sound like John Coltrane or whoever else. And I don’t think that’s particularly interesting, because Coltrane did that better than anybody ever will. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be familiar with it, or versed in it. But if somebody gets on stage and starts doing that in an improvised setting, forget about it (laughs). But if they get up and are really trying to do something new, whether they’re succeeding or not, even if there’s a glimmer of success, it’s positive.
As long as you keep pushing forward and keep working on your thing. This is a process-based art form and as long as you’re engaged in that process, it’s something you’re going to be engaged in for the rest of your life. It’s a musical practice, it’s a life practice, it’s an approach to life that people like Roscoe Mitchell and Joe McPhee have spent decades thinking about and refining and defining for themselves. And what those people respect in younger musicians is when people try to find a pathway of their own.
So, maybe just approaching that creative act from genuine and honest place?
Yeah, absolutely. And this isn’t specific to more modern improvised music; this is something very specific to jazz, since the beginning of the art form. People were expected and encouraged to develop their own voices. And that’s why Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins sound completely different. And they’re both incredible, when you hear them it’s difficult not to think ‘why would I play saxophone any different than that?’ I think at the higher level of jazz, that’s what people have been expected to pursue. And I think there’s issues with the academy that date back a long time, where you kind of have to codify things to justify your existence, to justify yourself as a professor or justify this as a study. If it’s always up in the air and always evolving, you can’t really justify your existence, or charge people x amount of dollars per year to come study it. But I do think that’s particular to the academy.
One thing that I’ve seen in the last 20 years in Chicago is a model of existence for both avant-garde musicians and people working in more traditional jazz. I feel like there’s been a lot more coming together of those scenes in the last 20 years, which is a really positive development because those things are helping to inform one another artistically but also structurally and in terms of how the music get presented and organized.
Out of curiosity, who are some musicians that you see bridging that gap?
Someone in the younger generation like Nick Mazzarella really bridges that gap incredibly well. Mike Reed is in between those two worlds in a lot of ways. Jeff Bradfield, Dana Hall, Clark Sommers. Greg (Ward) is an incredible example. An amazingly talented musician who can pretty much do anything. There’s an interesting moment happening right now, especially with Constellation, the Green Mill more and more so. Dave Jemilo, the owner there, has always been supportive of a lot of different types of music. Particularly in the last fifteen years or so he’s made some choices to bring in some more avant-garde type stuff. And that decision had has big ramifications in more straight ahead audiences and musicians paying more attention to some of that stuff.
That leads us perfectly into the next question! What level of engagement do you expect from your audiences? What (if anything) do you expect that they know about avant-garde jazz before entering the room?
I feel like most people who are open-minded who know nothing about jazz can come to a performance and hear something and be totally blown away by it if it’s a good performance. It happens that people hear something completely new to them inadvertently and are totally into it. Like right now I’m doing a Tuesday night residency at a bar in Logan called The Burlington. The first night we played there there was a rock show in the back room and we were playing in the front room. By the end of the night we poached about half of the rock crowd because people were like ‘What the hell is this? This is cool.’ I do like to think that it doesn’t require background information.
You run your own record label (Aerophonic) through which you release all of your projects. How does this model work for you? Do you think that these types of artist-run labels, which deal with distribution directly and allow for plenty of flexibility/creative control for the artist, are becoming more important in avant-garde jazz and experimental music?
Yeah, absolutely. It also mirrors what’s happening in the larger culture. Huge pop artists no longer depend on the media to interface with their fans, they do it directly through social media. That said, the music we do is not broadly based appealing music to a larger commercial audience. So for the most part we’re talking about selling records with numbers in the hundreds. For me, being able to actually reach all those folks directly. I mean – I’m the one on tour who’s going around the states or Europe, meeting fans, meeting the people who actually buy the records. It doesn’t make sense that a record label would be trying to leverage those already existing relationships between me and my small fan base. I already have access to those people. I feel like I should be the one reaching out to them, developing that relationship, keeping them interested in what I’m doing and keeping them updated on what I’m doing.
That makes sense. I will say that as a consumer and as a radio host, there is a certain curatorial association with particular record labels. Like I know when I see a new Clean Feed release, even if I’ve never heard of the musicians on the record, there’s a good chance I’ll be into it.
That’s one of the few labels out there that’s incredibly active in putting out really great stuff. I can’t think of any label nowadays putting out this kind of music that’s as active as they are. That’s really a great label.
You help to run Elastic Arts, a venue that functions as one of the primary meeting places and presenters of experimental music and art in Chicago. Elastic Arts is a non-profit – how does this organizational model feed and inform the institutions mission?
It’s one model of presenting this type of music in this day and age. The space itself actually started as a rehearsal space and recording studio for a group of about ten people. Around 1998, a number of them were Northwestern students, people who needed a place to rehearse and record their stuff. It kind of grew out of that. From the beginning there was the informal process of people having meetings weekly and talking about the space and how they wanted to use and develop it. By 2002, they made the decision to formally incorporate as a not-for-profit, which was a really great idea. It took quite some time to fully realize what that meant. In the last couple of years – my improvised music series at Elastic started fifteen years ago – we moved into a new space. I think that on its own has really energized the organization in a lot of different ways. I took over as board president about a year and a half ago and we have a really serious board of directors that are engaged in the organization and bring a lot of different skills to it. People like Michael Zerang, who has a lot of non-profit experience. Katinka Kleijn, who’s a cellist for the CSO is joining our board in April. We have a really fantastic group of people at the moment, and I think that is going to lead to some longer-term growth and sustainability for the space.
Being a not-for-profit makes it more difficult because there’s a process involved, there’s a board involved, and there are a lot of different voices that need to be heard. I think that really helps to strengthen the organization in the long term, because it’s not just one person’s vision, it’s the result of a careful process of discussion and deliberation and decision making.
Does the process of grant-writing (and the recognition of being awarded money) lead to more visibility for the type of music you’re putting on?
When it really comes down to it, the mission and the drive and the ideas behind the organization have to come from within. When you’re interacting with a foundation or a government entity, it’s really more about not taking ideas from them or playing to them. It’s about showcasing what you do, and convincing them that that is something worth putting money into. A lot of times people end up just chasing grant money and create programs that are going to win a grant. You have to have that mission and that idea before you start, and that has to inform everything about what you do. Ideally, it’s having a really strong vision and an intelligent staff that can present the meaning, ramifications, and value of that vision.
The focus of Elastic Arts has been providing a space for Chicago artists to develop their work, and to then take it out and present that to the world. In many ways, I think of us as an incubator space. At this point, particularly right now in Chicago, there’s an incredible younger generation of people interested in free improvisation, contemporary forms of music. There’s a really great pool of players, and I have to say that right now it’s really inspiring to do my series on Thursdays and see all these folks coming in with new ideas and new energy. Doing their own thing working with older peers. And that’s another thing about Chicago. Across the board in the arts, the city has that reputation as a place where people can come and develop their work.
It’s often said that when you have an experience, you are most likely to only remember the beginning and the end. While this might be true for most events, the triple bill at Lincoln Hall on January 13th, featuring Overcoats, Caroline Smith, and Xenia Rubinos, peaked in the middle. A trifecta of dynamic, soulful songstresses congregated for the Tomorrow Never Knows festival, but Rubinos, billed as the second act of the night, pierced through with wonderful untamed energy.
Opening things up, the New York duo Overcoats mixed soaring harmonies and sparse instrumentation with cool blue and purple lights. Minneapolis-based Caroline Smith closed the night with sparkling, lovelorn soul. Luminous presences on stage, both Smith and Overcoats charmed the audience with effortless vocals and a sleek, cool aesthetic.
By the end of the night, though, it was clear how Rubinos stood in contrast to her bill-mates. Making her way on stage to the slinky dueling bass lines of “Lonely Lover,” she gave the impression that the audience was in for another agreeable set leading up to Smith’s headlining slot. In short order, though, Rubinos broke things wide open with a dense, confrontational take on “Just Like I,” a fiery anthem off her most recent album Black Terry Cat. Rubinos wasted no time diving into the audience for the first of several times that night, singing “I’m just like your sister, your brother, your mother” urging them to see for themselves.
Xenia Rubinos’ first album, Magic Trix, was released in 2013 and made for a disheveled and disarming entrance into the New York music scene. With her sophomore release out this past year, her musical style has taken on more polish, but her live show has not lost its characteristic spunk, humor, and energy.
With Rubinos, every lyric requires an exertion: a punch of the fist, a bend of the knees, a shake of her shoulders. She’s like an antenna that takes every nuance in her music and broadcasts it to the listener through a rhythmic stream of gesturing hands, flailing arms, and bulging eyes.
Throughout the night, Rubinos moves from material that is dense and driving to that which is more funky and atonal. She closes the night with a highlight: the defiant, dance-worthy groove “Mexican Chef,” whose potency lies in its social acuity and humor.
Rubinos’ performance isn’t as “effortless” as Smith’s or Overcoats,’ but I think this is where Rubinos’ appeal lies. She tries, and she tries hard. Her vocals are not without their flaws and her melodies are often more confrontational than agreeable, but it’s clear that she believes in every word she’s singing. And if the audience doesn’t, she’ll dance her way through each song until they do.
The Frequency Series began in 2013 as a weekly Sunday night show curated by Peter Margasak at Constellation focusing on Chicago’s burgeoning new music scene. Since that time both the scene and the series have grown and flourished with new venues, musicians and festivals continually popping up throughout Chicago. This year the Frequency Series Festival will take place over six days at three venues and feature the music of seven exciting and important artists in new music. The festival kicks off tonight with Chicago-based music/performance ensemble, Mocrep, at the MCA presenting a program of identity, chaos and translation. Tomorrow night the festival continues at the Bond Chapel at the University of Chicago with Denver contemporary pianist R. Andrew Lee. Thursday thru Sunday Constellation will host the Morton Feldman Players, Bill Orcutt & Austin Wulliman, Olivia Block & Quince, and Ensemble Dal Niente.
It’s an eclectic and well curated mix that in my opinion explores the relationships between performer, ensemble and composer while also presenting a wide scope of both acoustic, electric and mixed new music performance. No venue in my mind, presents consistently well-curated shows like Constellation and the Frequency Series Festival is a logical extension of that. Tickets are available for the individual shows, some are free and you can pick up a pass to all seven shows for only $40. More information on performers, locations and time here.
Protest is a fluid concept. In that I mean to say the what, how, and why protest “is” changes as much as the cycles of oppression and injustice protest targets. Regardless of the ends and means, to protest is to act subversively against systems of oppression whatever you identify those systems to be. Trump’s recent travel ban on immigrants from Libya, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq calls, in my mind, for protest. In thinking of ways to act, I came along the idea to compile a list of musicians from these seven countries, in order to showcase the incredible humanity and creativity Trump’s hateful, dualistic and un-American policy will keep out of America. It’s important to acknowledge the political regimes and cultures many of these artists live under add an inherent political tone to their work. Many of these artist have been forced to flee their homeland because of war and violence, in this way these artist give a face to the faceless refugee xenophobic American policies attempt to lock out. To create in oppression is a necessary act of resistance, and to present their work in America is to stand in solidarity with that creative resistance by means of our own. To defy globalism is to defy the incredible artists and people of the entire world, to defy xenophobia is to embrace the incredible musics and cultures you will find below. Above all, I hope you enjoy the music of these incredible artists and appreciate the beautiful creators Trump’s ban throws fear and hate against. Please feel free to reach out at email@example.com if you have artist suggestions or comments.
Day One: Naseer Shamma, Iraq
Shamma, who was born in Al-Kūt, Iraq and studied the Oud in Baghdad, was forced to flee to Cairo during Saddam Hussein’s regime as political refugee and remained away from his beloved country of origin during the entire occupation of the U.S. military. Under the occupation of al Qaeda music was forbidden and reason for execution, in the past few years Shamma has been able to return to Baghdad on a few occasions for concerts and educational sessions, he currently runs Arab Oud House, a music conservatory, in Cairo in addition to his activities and collaborations as an artist.
Day Two: Emmanuel Jal, Sudan
Jal’s story is one of violence, loss, and escape. Forced into being a child soldier in the Sudan Liberation People’s Army as a seven year-old attempting to flee the war torn Sudan to Ethiopia, Jal eventually escaped the clutches of the army into neighboring Kenya. While studying in Kenya, Jal used singing as a way to ease the pain he had experienced as a child soldier in Sudan and in becoming a musician hoped his music to promote the unity of the citizens to overcome ethnic and religious division and motivate the youth in Sudan. Jal now lives in Canada and spends his time as an activist and musician spreading his story of loss and hope to the world.
Day Three: Mohsen Namjoo, Iran
Mohsen Namjoo combines religious songs and the everyday, American rock and classical Persian rhythm, Hafez and Rumi with street slang. For these incongruencies, which in many ways reflect the incongruencies of contemporary Iran, Namjoo was forced into exile from his hometown of Mashhad after the New York Times released his illegal music. Music outside of the traditional religious forms is banned in most of Iran. Before leaving the country Namjoo operated in the Iranian underground music scene, giving secret shows in DIY basements and carefully distributing his music. Though making music in itself was a political act for Namjoo, he does not write explicitly political music, in part recognizing the ways political dissent would only reduce his artistic credibility within Iran: “It’s important that you get your identity from art, and not animosity. The nature of art is not war.”
Namjoo currently lives in America as an Iranian immigrant, where he performs and has also been a visiting scholar at Stanford and Brown. In the same way Namjoo’s career embodies a political struggle in Iran, he now stands as a testament to the beautiful people open American borders bring into our country at a time when Trump’s administration has attempted to close them.
Day Four: Lena Chamamyan, Syria
Born to an Armenian family in Damascus, Lena Chamamyan grew up singing in both Armenian and Syriac choirs, as well as oriental Arab music. With the encouragement of her grandmother, Chamamyan decided to pursue singing at the conservatory level and along the way encountered the American Jazz idiom and classical forms. The music she creates now is a blend of this myriad of influences, injected with lyrics about the social situation in contemporary Syria. This social situation forced Chamamyan out in 2010, she currently lives in Paris. In an interview with News and Noise! she had this to say about Syria : “You can’t be Syrian and just live above or beside the situation. Every Syrian is affected by the situation, especially artists connected to the people. There’s no work, so no money, being confronted with too much death and unfairness daily. We feel lost. As if we’re losing our country and losing the trust in each other. I feel we reached a point where no one is protecting the Syrian people. The politicians’ actions cause more deaths and my first concern is in stopping the bloodshed and the deaths and to give the people hope. I keep asking myself questions like where are we going? What can we do? Well, we should never lose our relation with Syria, keep caring for each other, keep supporting each other. We should keep caring about every death because it’s all human blood being shed. Everyone has the right to say his opinion. It’s not possible to just stay silent, but sometimes you just can’t talk.” (https://newsandnoise.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/we-should-support-each-other-an-interview-with-lena-ch…)
Day Five: Kawi, Yemen
The outbreak of hip-hop in Yemen often traces back to the influence of American-Yemen rapper Hagage “AJ” Masae. Kawi is one of the young disseminators of the genre and appears to now split time between Yemen and Nuremberg, Germany. While not much information is available on the life of Kawi, he and his contemporaries, under the name of Yemen’s Montsers, exist primarily on the spheres of YouTube and Twitter.
Day Six: Ahmed Fakroun, Libya
Originally from Benghazi, Fakroun’s career as a musician can be best described by the ways he has straddles Europe and Libya. In terms of his European influences, Fakroun takes after Europop and French Art Rock. As a young child, he picked up the electric bass though he also plays the bouzouki-like saz, mandol and darbouka drum. His combinations of European and Arabic forms have deeply informed popular Arabic music, and he maintains his ties and roots to Libya following a large period of exile during Muammar Gudaffi’s oppressive regime under which all forms of music were illegal.
Day Seven: The Yellow Dogs, Iran
Much like Mohsen Namjoo, the Yellow Dogs came up in the underground Tehran scene, where western rock influenced music was illegal. The band cites Joy Division and Talking Heads as influences and play strictly western rock instruments for The Yellow Dogs. Following their musical contribution to the film No One Knows About Persian Cats and an interview with CNN, the band was forced to flee Tehran. They played their first “above-ground” show in Istanbu in 2010 and have since made home in Brooklyn. In 2013 two members of the band were shot and killed in New York City by another disgruntled musician, the remaining members of the band have continued making music, though The Yellow Dogs ceases to exist.
Day Eight: Kahbez Dawle, Syria
Khebez Dawle is a Syrian five-member rock band. Founded in Damascus, Syria in the late 2012 as a one-man project, the band consolidated in a refugee camp in Beirut, Lebanon in early 2013 after fleeing the conflicts and crises of their own country. Anas Maghrebi, Muhammad Bazz, Bachi Darwish and Hikmat Qassar & Dani Shukri make up the band and are currently working on a follow up to their 2015 self-titled debut.
Day Nine : Nancy Agag, Sudan
Having split time between her birthplace of Omdurman and the Netherlands from a young age, Nancy Agag brings a unique blend of styles to her renditions of traditional Sudan songs. Though she has spent more than half of her life outside of the war-torn country, her connection to the history of Sudan through music acts as a lifeline between her shifting modern global life and the conflicts of her home. Now based in Khartoum, Agag and the Kush Music Band perform music from all parts of Sudan in an effort to unite the shattered country under one peaceful cause of music.
Day Ten: Akvan, Iran
Akvan is the solo “Aryan Black Metal” project of Vizaresa, blending the sounds of western metal instruments with traditional Persian instruments like the tar and setar. His songwriting tackles Iranian history and mythology through deeply considered meditations on his own culture and how it is misinterpreted—not only by outsiders, but by his own country’s leadership. Even the mythologically-charged name of the project, Akvan, aims to encourage western audiences to seek understanding through education about Iranian tradition. In a similar way Vizaresa attempts to reclaim and debase the racist implications of Aryan in reference to his own music and the black metal community. Listen and find out more below.
Day Eleven: Omar Souleyman, Syria
Perhaps the most popular musician on this list thus far, Omar Souleyman got his start as a local wedding singer in his hometown of Ra’s al-‘Ayn in Northeast Syria. He has released over 500 studio and live albums, both from his private engagements as a wedding singer and beyond. In recent years he has worked increasingly with European dance producers like Four Tet to create a very unique blend of Syrian electrified folkloric dabke, Iraqi choubi and Arabic shaabi that has captured the ears of a worldwide audience. Souleyman, in both appearance and sound, challenges conceived negative Western notions and racism toward Arabic culture, and in doing so stands as a testament to the ways music can break down walls of ignorance.
Day Twelve: Wirephobia, Iraq
As he describes himself on his bandcamp page: “Wirephobia is a guy who likes noise music and makes noise music and the albums here are all noise so be careful little child the road is hard to go!” That and his hometown of Erbil, Iraq are the only two things we know about this elusive Iraqi noise musician, and somehow it makes his music all the better.
Day Thirteen: Groupe Amnar Awal, Libya
There is very little information available about this large band from Tripoli. The music, like much of the recordings above, is a blend of Western instrumentation and traditional Libyan rhythms and singing styles. Under the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, music was essentially banned. This ban accounts for the lack of publicly distributed music leaving the country at the current moment as the music community slowly forms amid more political instability in the country. Listen and learn here: https://groupeamnarawallibya.bandcamp.com/album/awal-akalin
Day Fourteen: Sahra Halgan, Somaliland
Sahra arrived in Europe in 1992, a political refugee from her native Somaliland, a territory in the North East of Somalia (East Africa), formerly a British colony, self-proclaimed independent since May 1991, but as yet unrecognised by the international community. Halgan began singing at the thirteen and throughout the Somalian civil war worked as a nurse, using her music as a form of medicine for the soldiers she treated. She now uses her music to spread awareness for the unrecognized state of Somaliland, which has remained independent from Somalia as a sovereign democratic state for over 15 years. Halgan currently splits her time between her home in Hargeisa and touring Europe and Asia.
Day Fifteen: Porya Hatami, Iran
Porya Hatami is an experimental sound artist based in Sanandaj, Iran. Working in the field of ambient/minimal, his compositions explore the balance between electronics and environmental sounds, utilizing processed acoustic and electronic sources and field recording. Hatami is concerned with the land itself and how sound travels through that land, and his albums often feel like journeys through landscapes both imagined and real.
Day Sixteen: Sinkane, Sudan
Born Ahmed Gallab, Sinkane has grown over the course of his career to be a true blend and amalgamation of his many musical and geographic influences. Though he has spent the majority of his life in the U.S. , Gallab considers his origins to be Omdurman, Sudan. Gallab left Sudan when he was five because of political pressure on his professor parents and migrated to the U.S. In his music Sinkane makes near constant reference to his roots in Sudanese pop music and rhythmic structures, while also bringing in his many electronic and new-funk influences into the sound. Before releasing his own music, Gallab worked as a session musician for Caribou and Yeasayer and fronted the Atomic Bomb! Band, a tribute act to William Onyeabor. His newest album “Lif & Livin’ It” is out now on City Slang.
I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard a song by Into It. Over It. I was in my friend’s passenger seat and his iPod cued up “Midnight: Carroll Street.” Within the hour, I had downloaded and fallen in love with the album Proper, one that would soundtrack much of that summer and my freshman year of college. Into It. Over It. started as an outlet for the incredibly prolific songwriting of Evan Weiss, a Chicago-based punk singer-songwriter who had written and recorded upwards of 65 songs under the Into It. Over It. moniker before putting together the first full-band lineup to record Proper. As soon as I saw the announcement that Proper was going to be played in full January 13, I knew I had to go. I’d missed several other chances to see Into It. Over It.; I wasn’t going to miss this one.
The first band on the bill was Mother Evergreen, a five-piece mixing indie-folk vocals with atmospheric post-rock. The twinkling guitars and hazy keyboards give the songs a decidedly Midwestern feel; they evoke nights spent inside with your friends while a storm rages on outside. Their set was incredibly tight, made even more spectacular considering it was their first ever performance, and it closed with the epic sleigh-bell-infused “Endful,” the closer number from their self-titled LP. Next up was Pianos Become the Teeth, a band I actually discovered by reading an Into It. Over It. interview. The Baltimore-based group played a mix of styles from across their career, including the intense post-hardcore from Lack and the more melodic, restrained rock from their Keep You album.
Finally, Into It. Over It. took the stage and began playing the first notes of album opener “Embracing Facts,” after which Weiss laughed and warned the audience that he would be switching guitars between pretty much every song. One of the hallmarks of Into It. Over It.’s guitar playing is Weiss’s use of self-created open tunings, giving the music an echoic quality. Apparently, Proper was recorded before Weiss was “smart enough” to write a whole album in similar tunings, or at least that’s what he says. From there on out, the band never let up.
“Discretion & Depressing People” was fast and loud, and “No Good Before Noon” sounded anthemic after three years of struggling to get up for morning classes. However, nothing could have prepared me for how transcendent “Midnight: Carroll Street” was as a live experience. The recorded track starts quietly with a pulsing guitar riff and Weiss’s voice; on this Friday night at The Metro, it seemed as if every audience member sang every lyric with rapture, each word reverberating through the venue.
Before playing the title track, “P R O P E R,” Evan went into a long list of people he wanted to thank, including managers, producers, engineers and musicians who had played with Into It. Over It. The crowd laughed along, applauding the names they recognized, and shouting some that they expected to hear but didn’t. This list of thank-yous was emblematic of the homecoming nature of this show. The audience gathered for the performance was of such an intimate nature that they even knew the names of people the band had forgotten to thank. Here was an ensemble that was so deeply tied to the city of Chicago, who had made it big and been around the world, performing a fan favorite record that helped put them on the map. Weiss returned tonight as a conquering hero, reporting to raucous cheering that the Proper show was the biggest they had ever played in their hometown of Chicago. To end the night, the band played a second-half set of requests from the audience, collected by Weiss through a didactic method of hand raising and writing on a clipboard. Crowd favorites from both of the bands’ other studio albums, Intersections and Standards, as well as early cuts from various EPs and splits, were played to enthusiastic sing-alongs. One particular highlight was 52 Weeks’s acoustic jam “Pinky Swear,” about using heavy traffic to think about the trajectory of one’s life. This kind of lyrical introspection is a hallmark of Into It. Over It.’s music, and this particular song ends with Weiss asking listeners to make a promise with him that neither will allow themselves to waste the opportunities life affords them. For a brief moment, as everybody quoted those final words alongside the singer who wrote them, it seemed as though audience and performer would be able to keep their promise.
Marquis Hill’s performance this past Thursday evening at Constellation was, in many ways, a homecoming for the young trumpet virtuoso. The awards and accolades which sprung him out of this city go without saying for any fan or frequenter of the Chicago jazz scene, and his current residence in New York is one which surely makes those same fans proud. In coming home, Hill left his current ensemble project, The Blacktet, in New York (with the exception of Joshua Johnson) and instead chose to play with Chicago mainstays Makaya McCraven and Joshua Abrams. The bill, correspondingly, was not simply Marquis Hill, but the names of each in the quartet. In the spirit of this non-permanent ensemble, the feeling of a relaxed homecoming pervades. On Thursday night, the homecoming seeped through in the familial interaction between the four musicians on stage, celebrating the return of their friend, but also, in the sense of the overall connected American jazz culture, asking the question: did he ever really leave? We live in a time, and an international Jazz culture in which Chicago’s tentacles of influence and musicianship extend all around the world. Be it Wadada Leo Smith and Nicole Mitchell in Los Angeles or the annual Doek Festival in Berlin celebrating the ongoing collaboration between musicians from Berlin, Amsterdam and Chicago, Marquis Hill has joined the ranks as a continuing force in/of the Chicago jazz scene, regardless of where he calls residence.
After three flowing and fairly free compositions each with distinct moments of freedom and rehearsed starts and stops, Hill took to the mic for the first time to thank the audience for coming. In doing this he also expressed his motives for coming home “to play some creative music, to play some improvised music.” This statement from him, a declared connection and homage to the AACM tradition in Chicago, set the tone for the rest of the concert, which featured mostly loosely composed, freely improvised extended pieces. For a musician like Hill, who tends to stay more “in” than his AACM forbearers, the choice to play a set of mostly free material was, if nothing else, a bit surprising. But with this surprise there also came a treat, as the sold out room experienced an ensemble and a sound rarely heard from one of the city’s contemporary greats.
These free compositions were structured around the individual sounds of those making up the group. Each took their turn beginning a tune with an open solo, and seemingly dictated the nature of the improvisation to follow from there. The standout player of the night for me, and for many others, talking as they left the club, was Makaya McCraven. Another Chicago staple, McCraven has been playing and recording his unique brand of fast rhythmic “beat-jazz” for some time now. The distinctive and virtuosic voice he brings to the instrument was one which lent itself very well to the creative music sound Hill seemed to be reaching for on Thursday night. There were certainly moments of rhythmic cloudiness and indistinguishable pulses, but to my ears, what made Hill experiment novel was the fairly continual rhythmic underpinning McCraven provided. Halfway through the concert, Hill brought out a friend from New York (via Houston), the young and supremely talented James Francis, who sat down at the piano for the rest of the concert. With the addition of the piano, the group took on a different sound, suddenly tethered to a more complex and harmonically-driven rhythm instrument. Francis, like Hill, plays a more ‘in’ style of jazz than the AACM creative music of the mid-sixties, but nonetheless embraced the genre and experiment with tact and open ears.
Those two descriptors, tact and open ears, for me really sum up the night. In saying “creative music” Hill acknowledged his experiment and the footing he and the rest of the band would be taking outside of their comfort zones. This experimentation and paying homage was admirable for a proper homecoming, but also as an audience member, enlightening to hear musicians playing outside of their primary musical focuses. Frankly, the creative music of the quintet on Friday night pales in comparison to the Wadada Leo Smith and Roscoe Mitchell shows I saw in the same room last year. Maybe that is an unfair comparison, to the true masters and legends of Chicago creative improvised music, though it certainly reflects the conundrum musicians encounter when they take a moment to step outside their sound. While it would be easy, and perhaps commonplace, to tell a musician to stick to what they know, it was above all refreshing to hear musicians at the level of Marquis Hill experimenting and expanding the range of their sounds together in respect for the great Chicago jazz tradition. As with any style of music, there is good and bad free jazz, and as far as I can tell that distinction has to do with respect. Do the musicians approach the tradition with tact and open ears? In the case of Hill, McCraven, Francis, Abrams and Johson on Thursday night, that answer was yes and the resulting experiment was successful because of it.
Catch a show at Constellation soon! Full calendar here: http://www.constellation-chicago.com/calendar/
The mechanics of the live musical performance enter a whole new arena when the separation between the artist and the observer breaks down. When the observer spontaneously becomes the art, the result can be quite exhilarating. When the artist performs without a stage detaching them for the viewer, it is refreshing. I’ll always remember the time my roommate, an extremely casual concert goer, turned to me during Princess Nokia’s headlining set at the Language Between the Lines event and shouted to me “this is one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.” He had not heard a note of Princess Nokia’s music before, but that didn’t matter; when you are accustomed to experiencing art within a bubble, all types of emotions rush by when that bubble pops.
This intimacy was one of the inherent strengths of Living in Color’s event, a showcase of underrepresented expression among the Northwestern community. More specifically, this event exhibited the art of many young creatives who “live in color,” a condition defined by Living in Color as “the heterogeneous, always fluid lived experience of people of color and other ‘others’ such as those in the queer, trans, and epiphenomenal communities.”
In addition to the Afro-Nuyorican Princess Nokia, performers included Northwestern students such as rapper Joshua Kim (pictured above), whose performance focused on the identity crisis lingering over members of the Asian-American community, poet Tanya Munoz, who discussed the pain caused by oppression of Hispanics in America, and punk-rock band Carbona ( lead singer Jacqueline Ovalle below), a bilingual group who delivered venomous political music.
The audience opted to stay seated and munch on many of the mouth-watering snacks from the back of the hall during the student performers, but the first sign of this barrier breaking came when Carbona urged the audience to fill the space and come closer. Just like Princess Nokia, this amped up the dynamic; screeching violin solos are significantly more intense when they occur a few feet in front of your face.
However, when the lights dimmed for Princess Nokia (above), the crowd promptly formed a circle around her, before she proceeded to plow through bangers like ‘Tomboy’ or ‘Cybiko’. The only source of illumination was from the video projection behind her, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t lit (haha lmfao)! When my buddy Samuel Berston lost himself to the music and joined Princess Nokia to dance during the last song, it was sensational. When Princess Nokia handed the mic to someone in the crowd because “she had blood dripping down her leg,” the community of viewers became even more united. Props to Living in Color for throwing together something so visceral. It’s not everyday that student groups put together an experience that transcends expectations and celebrates diversity quite like this.