Blastitude 9
issue 12   february/march/april 2002
page 3




Jeb BishopEverybody knows that New York City rules when it comes to just about everything. When it comes to jazz, Chicago may still be The Second City, but it's number two with a bullet. You can see some serious inside or outside jazz almost every night of the week, year round, and the outside stuff is especially nurtured here; back in the Sixties, the AACM planted major seeds that are still growing. In this environment, I’ve been seeing a lot of live jazz, some good, some great, some mediocre...but one of the most exciting groups I’ve seen yet is the Chicago Improvisers Group.
       Founder/organizer/trombonist Jeb Bishop doesn’t necessarily agree. "There have been some live recordings, but nothing is in the works for release. I don't know whether I can say that I think the group has really found a particular voice or vocabulary that needs to be added to the available glut of recordings of improvised music."
       I, for one, think this group could make a great record, even as I agree with the part about the glut. Free jazz and improvised music does seem to be at a standstill. Like George W. Bush, players are increasingly reliant on simple answers and easy juxtapositions. In American politics its good vs. evil, and in improvised music it's soft vs. loud or slow vs. fast. Or, what I think of as the
Ellington vs. Stockhausen dichotomy, where players either whip out smooth, bluesy runs in order to ‘give a nod to tradition,’ or they play noise in order to ‘break from tradition,’ seemingly unable to create a synthesis from the two approaches. This kind of patterning is what leads to the glut.
       The CIG, on the other hand, is creating a model for large-group long-form improvised music that tramples all over the glut. Sure, all of the old signposts -- soft, loud, slow, fast, Ellington, Stockhausen -- are in there, but they're thrown into a blender with a lot of different speeds and settings. Instead of just mapping out two poles and calling it good, they go for the whole globe. Bishop admits "Sometimes I am very pleased with the concerts." So am I, am I....

       Said concerts happen at the Green Mill, a very charming dive bar in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood. The Mill is said to be an old Al Capone hangout. So were approximately 300 other bars or restaurants in the greater Chicagoland area, but the Green Mill actually still feels like it could've been. In fact, the story goes that Capone ran it as a speakeasy during Prohibition. Nowadays it's pretty quiet, especially during the day, as Uptown's plentiful population of bums shuffle by, and occasionally in. On one Sunday afternoon every month, the Chicago Improvisers Group, usually seven or eight players strong, meets at the Mill and performs two sets of their expansive music.
Jeb Bishop: "We've only done it at the Mill. I'm not opposed to doing it elsewhere, but it is kind of thought of as specific to that locale. There's something special about playing in that space on a Sunday afternoon. I'm sure it would affect the music to take it elsewhere, not necessarily in a negative way. I got the idea of doing it there and then from the fact that several years ago Rob Mazurek used to do an early version of the Chicago Underground Orchestra there every Sunday afternoon, but until we started doing the CIG in Dec. 1999 no one had been using that slot regularly for a while."
       There is indeed something special about a Sunday afternoon at the Green Mill. Not only is the decor of the stage area something to see, but as Kevin Whitehead put it in a Chicago Reader Critic's Choice for the February CIG performance, "the Green Mill is never lovelier than on a bright afternoon, when sunshine reflected off passing cars makes light dance around the room." There is no doubt that the Sunday afternoon lighting and ambience adds a lot to the music...although the music adds quite a bit to the lighting as well.

The CIG  live at the Green Mill. L-R: a pre-U.S. Maple Adam Vida, Jeb Bishop (with shorter hair than he has now!), Kent Kessler (with the same absence of hair he has now).

      The sets consist of two or three long pieces, each one spontaneously begun and spontaneously finished, usually on a dime. These beginnings and endings, which almost never involve the entire group, alone set the CIG well apart from the pack. In Derek Bailey's book Improvisation, Gavin Bryars described group improvisations like this: "...pieces always started tentatively, something big in the middle, and then finished quietly. That sort of arc happened every time." The CIG takes this arc apart and turns it into a tangled bundle of shivering wire. Their form is a constantly shifting field that uses the wide variety of players as a pool from which to spontaneously select different duos, trios, quartets, and etcetera. Sometimes a duo will play very loudly; sometimes the entire group will play, but very softly. These various groupings are constantly changing and segueing in and out of each other, according to how and when musicians within the group choose to stop playing. There is a certain stance the players have when they are not playing: standing or sitting still, usually facing the audience, and listening hard. They are ready for action at a moment's notice, but often choose to stay silent for impressively long amounts of time, so that unique combinations of voices can do their thing.
Jeb Bishop: "The music is completely improvised; nothing is mapped out in advance. That's why the group was started, in order to try to do completely free improvisation with a larger number of people than is usually the case. For that to be successful (when it is) requires careful listening and a determination only to make contributions that really add something to the whole. Those are important qualities in all improvising, but as the group gets larger they take on almost qualitatively different forms. Put plainly, if everyone's playing at once it's hard to hear what's going on. And it is important to try to exploit the expanded possibilities for a wide range of colors and textures that are inherent in a larger group. You can make formal changes in the music, creating compositional form spontaneously, while improvising, and one good way to do that is to let the instrumentation change from one combination of players to a different one. I guess that those are skills that we have all developed in our own ways, and of course we've all played together in various different bands, some of us quite a lot."

       The line-up is usually somewhat different each time, but there is a core group of regulars. Bishop on trombone and Jim Baker on grand piano and analog synthesizer strike me as the axis of the group, around which all the other players revolve. They are the only two musicians who have been present at all three CIG performances I've seen, and they even stand on opposite ends of the stage. Bishop gets all kinds of music out of the trombone, between pure melody and pure strangeness. When he is using a mute and Baker is on his synthesizer, it can be hard to tell who is making which sounds. Baker is well-respected in Chicago but really deserves a higher profile in the jazz world. Not only is his piano playing sweeping, expansive, and classically beautiful, he has the ace-in-the-hole of being a mysterious master of analog electronics. Watching Baker play synth is one of the highlights of a CIG performance. He stands at an open suitcase of equipment, mysteriously lit from within like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Illuminated by this light like a Dr. Frankenstein, with patch chords hanging around his neck, he coaxes squelches and buzzes with rather jarring body movements. This strange insectoid music is subtle, and often drowned out by wailing horns, but when it emerges through the cracks in the ensemble it is almost always a perfect futuristic accompaniment. (I recall an all-too-brief duet between Baker on synth and drummer Tim Daisy as being an all-time CIG highlight.)
        In and around the Bishop/Baker axis orbit many different styles, with players old and new. Dave Rempis falls in the latter category; he's a member of the Vandermark 5 but I've only seen him with the CIG. He's very good at fast, subtle runs on both tenor and alto sax. It seems like whenever I hear a surprising new sound and find myself looking from player to player, trying to locate the source, it ends up coming from Rempis.
        Fred Lonberg-Holm has been on cello and electric mandolin for the last two CIG shows. After seeing a rather overly dry performance by his group Pillow, I wondered if perhaps he was a bit overrated, but seeing him in the CIG makes me understand why he’s in demand. He’s a wild card, a seemingly loose player, adept at classically modal music but also the group’s main source for pure noise. He uses the cello in many extended ways, sawing below the bridge, preparing it with various even has an ‘extra string’ that can create quite a racket. I won’t even go into his electric mandolin playing, except to say that it is often surprisingly melodic and even more often creates a sound like primitive bubbling electronics.
       Todd Margasak on cornet is another player who seems destined to be underrated, with a style that sidesteps the Ellington-or-Stockhausen trap by being supple, calm, and unabashedly melodic (though he can get surprisingly noisy). I can't think of any other groups Margasak has played in, but he's just plain good. On bass, I've seen Kent Kessler play two concerts and Jason Roebke one. Roebke is young and good but Kessler is more striking in many ways, from his diverse and physical playing to his bald head (covered by a cowboy hat between sets), Clark Kent glasses, and spaghetti western cheroot. Tim Daisy played drums at the first concert; the second concert was without a drummer. Daisy, who is also in the Vandermark 5, seems like he's about 17 years old but the kid has got mad skills and is completely clued in to the CIG's technique of making improvised music sound totally assured and planned. Never would he play improv music's "searching" cliches...drummers are often most guilty of this by relying too much on 'atmospheric' cymbal washes, but Daisy would leave and then re-enter the fray with big, assured rhythms that sounded like they were played on cue rather than instinct.
       Ken Vandermark plays with the group when he's not on the road. The February concert also featured Aram Shelton, another kid who looks about 17 years old and is quite skilled, on alto sax and clarinet, and there was also room for Mark Unternaehrer, a tuba player visiting from Switzerland.
Jeb Bishop: "The lineup changes according to who's available, but there is a certain core pool that I think of it as drawing from. I try to keep that at least somewhat stable, at least for now, because at the moment what interests me is the idea of the same group meeting somewhat regularly and building on something that came before, rather than dealing with a new situation in terms of newcomers or unfamiliar players."

Aram Shelton      Tim Daisy 

       I asked Bishop if there were any CIG plans or objectives that this interview hadn't touched on, and he responded with some, as well as with a little history.
Jeb Bishop: "It really started at first because the European drummer Paul Lytton was in town for a project, and he was asking whether a large improvising group exists here, and sort of encouraging Ken and me to try to put one together. Lytton has been involved with an influential large European free-improvising band called the King Übü Orchestra. I had the idea of trying to do it at the Green Mill, partly because they have a really nice piano there for Jim Baker to play, and eventually I was able to persuade the Mill to let us try it, for which I would like to take this opportunity to thank them. Ken and I discussed possible personnel and I made the necessary phone calls, etc. At first we were a bit leery of just jumping into total improvisation with such a large band -- the first gigs had 11 or so people in the group -- so Ken and I brought in 'compositions' that were intended as sketches to organize improvising, sort of like bridges between playing compositions and completely improvising. One problem with that is that (in my opinion), no matter how tenuous the instructions on the page, there is still a clear gap between the experience of playing with a chart of some kind and doing completely free improvising. If you have a sheet in front of you you are always directed towards that sheet, everything you do relates to that somehow -- you're always thinking, somewhere in your mind, about 'where you are in the piece' and 'is the end coming up, what do I do next,' etc. And you think about things like that when you're just improvising, too, but really in a different way. So I don't know if the intended 'bridge' can really be built; it's more like you create this structure on one side of the gap that might take you somewhere, but it doesn't get you very far across the gap. Anyway, nobody was entirely happy with that situation, and we quit using the charts fairly early on. Since that time I've been the one doing the organizing for the project, but that really involves only getting the people together at the Mill at the prescribed time. We did at one point have a couple of rehearsals in which we tried to deal with approaches to the problems of improvising with a large band. That hasn't happened in a while, partly because my own tendency is away from the direction of even suggesting guiding ideas in a situation like that. The price to pay for that may be that sometimes there is a lack of focus or absence of a clear 'voice'; but in my view if such a voice doesn't arise organically from the naturally shared (or naturally conflicting) concerns and interests of the players involved there's no point in trying to impose one, or you can't impose one without moving in the direction of composition. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but it is not what the CIG does, at present."

As of this writing, the next Chicago Improvisers Group matinee will be Sunday, May 12, 2PM at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, Chicago.



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