Chicago long ago grudgingly ceded second-banana status to Los Angeles w/r/t population and cultural might, but on all matters jazz, it still answers only to New York. Every medium-sized population center now claims some kind of quote-unquote jazz scene with an accompanying seasonal festival, complete with third-rate Janet Planets and Fattburgers. But only Manhattan has the clubs, the labels, the studios, the iconic imagery, the sheer numbers to challenge the Windy City.
Right, New Orleans has the origin myth, Philly the raw talent from Kenny Barron to Reggie Workman. St. Louis claims Julius Hemphill's Black Artist's Group. Kansas City is/was Kansas City. The West Coast birthed the cool and native son Dave Brubeck (and welcomed Texas transplants Ornette Coleman and John Carter). Still, let's talk Chicago. Like Philly, the city's homegrown talent is legion: Herbie Hancock, Lennie Tristano, Benny Goodman, Ramsey Lewis. Like New Orleans, it goes way back, thanks to a '20s Dixieland brain-drain flooding northward, Louis Armstrong on top. And like NYC, it has both the clubs (Constellation, Andy's, Green Mill) and the shops (Jazz Record Mart on E. Illinois). And best of all, the scene challenged even Manhattan's supremacy when playful '60s revolutionaries pooled their resources into jazz's greatest manifesto-by-action: the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM henceforth).
Jack DeJohnette is of both Chicago and the AACM. In the early '60s, he was a South Side pianist studying at Wilson Junior College while augmenting theory with downtown "breakfast jams." Switching to drums in 1963, he moved to NYC and hooked up with Charles Lloyd, whose 1966 live album Forest Flower sold a million copies. When Lloyd crashed the Fillmore West in '67, DeJohnette was at the center of an as-yet-unnamed fusion scene, eventually signing on with newly electric Miles Davis to replace Tony Williams (and bringing along fellow Lloyd alumnus Keith Jarrett, thus preserving for posterity Jarrett's brief shred-tastic mastery of the Fender Rhodes). DeJohnette was the funkiest drummer Miles ever employed: For proof, proceed directly to five stabs at "Go Ahead John" from the 1970 Jack Johnson sessions.
But moving to Manfred Eicher's ECM label defined his career, from solo outings with Special Edition to anchoring Jarrett's long-running Standards Trio. And though his solo discography is a bit spotty by comparison, few contemporary jazz drummers (save maybe Hamid Drake) claim DeJohnette's level of influence and/or chops. And his new ECM release, Made in Chicago, is something real special. Offered an open program for the 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park, he assembled a quintet consisting entirely of Chicago homeboys: pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, saxmen Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and bassist Larry Gray. Coinciding with the AACM's 50th anniversary, it's one hell of a neighborhood reunion.
A generation removed from the others, Gray straddles the classical/jazz world with Third Stream matter-of-factness. Altoist Henry Threadgill, equal parts performer/composer, led large ensembles Very Very Circus and Zooid after carving out a distinct legacy with Air (which, since you asked, has zip to do with the '90s French electronic act), a trio peerlessly exploring the no-man's-land between Scott Joplin and post-New Thing composition. (Threadgill also invented the hubkaphone, which beats '90s Air coming and going.) And reedman Roscoe Mitchell's 1966 album Sound offered a decisive break from NYC's free jazz school, moving beyond maximalist workouts portended by John Coltrane's Ascension toward something more playful, toying with homemade instruments while preferring texture over bombardment, tendencies perfected in Mitchell's own future Art Ensemble of Chicago.
But it's pianist Muhal Richard Abrams tipping this lineup into something historical. At 84, Abrams is the great autodidact of Chicago, having never witnessed fame commensurate with either his talent (that old story) or influence. Yet his shadow colors the city's entire post-bop narrative. Jamming with Dexter Gordon, comping behind Ruth Brown, Abrams soaked up all manner of popular music before assembling the freewheeling Experimental Band in 1962, later morphing into the AACM with Muhal at the helm. Presaging New York's loft scene by a decade, AACM served as both intellectual center and hothouse environment for young talent: an avant-garde Jazz Messengers. Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis, Chico Freeman, Fred Anderson, and the four elders on Made in Chicago all came up through the ranks.
That's just the legacy stuff: Abrams also claims a 50-year back catalogue, with my personal faves being 1969's 30-minute stride/Chopin/Duke/Partch solo fantasia "Young at Heart" and 1995's ensemble outing One Line, Two Views. In a just world, the delightful melody line from the latter's "Tribute to Julius Hemphill and Don Pullen" would be a post-fusion jazz standard more ubiquitous than Joe Zawinul's "Birdland." In the world we actually live in, Ken Burns did not see fit to grant Muhal screen time in his 2001 PBS series Jazz.
So with all that context in mind, here's the pitch. If your budget allows for only one jazz purchase per season—and yes, given that ECM is a strictly non-streaming operation, I'm afraid you'll actually have to crack open your wallet—consider investing in this documentation of the quintet's August 29, 2013 performance. Open-ended and uncompromising, imbued with '60s radicalism yet tempered with the intellectual rigor common to all AACM ventures, the performance is more subterranean club date than lakeside summer festival: five strenuously rehearsed compositions, two from Roscoe, one each from Muhal, Jack, Henry, plus an encore-induced free improv. ("Somethin' spontaneous," DeJohnette grins.)
The mood ranges from atmospheric ("This") to propulsive ("Jack 5"). Opener "Chant" delves immediately into the dissonance, its circular five-note phrase ricocheted between piano and sax, climaxing with an extended turn by Mitchell on soprano saxophone. Employing circular-breathing techniques mastered decades ago, Mitchell unfurls a frenzied cascade of screeches, blats, and wails, an exhaustive feat of lungwork for any player, let alone a septuagenarian (and a reminder that for all the chatter of little instruments and room ambience, high-energy cacophony remains an essential component of AACM's legacy).
Elsewhere, the quarter-hour rhythmic showcase "Jack 5" serves as a de facto DeJohnette solo, albeit one he shares with his bandmates. Snare/tom dialogue and ride/splash whispers give way to Threadgill's gutbucket honks, the leader's attentive cymbal work coaxing out tonal patterns even while maintaining a steady pulse—in the pocket, with commentary. When bassist Gray digs in, he and DeJohnette lock into a groove reminiscent of electric Miles-era Dave Holland: deep, single-note bass lines anchoring skitters and rumbles. If you wouldn't confuse this cut for funk, it's funky nonetheless.
The closing spontaneous rumble of the five-minute "Ten Minutes" will be red meat for noise fans and chaos for most everybody else, and I'd never claim any of these numbers are easy listens. But this stuff is far from inapproachable. Take note how the performers celebrate between tracks with chuckles and whoops. Or just focus on DeJohnette himself, as facially expressive a performer as any in jazz, described in action by Larry Gray thusly: "His eyes are looking up, and he's watching something." And glance at the accompanying photos if you need reminding that these aging guys won't be around forever. With a lifetime's worth of experience informing every move, Made in Chicago is cerebral, earthy, and as boisterously American as the city it celebrates. Given the Frank Gehry/Lake Michigan setting, one of Threadgill's old compositions comes to mind: "Keep Right on Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water."
Jason Gubbels is the Pop + World Editor at Rhapsody. His favorite Sonny Rollins performance is "Blue 7." He's on Twitter.
Photo by AP.