Evanston Il’s cross-genre club Space showcased drummer Billy Martin’s lively, upbeat Wicked Knee brass band last night, and the neighborhood tavern Beat Kitchen hosted its weekly exploratory jam by Extraordinary Popular Delusions the night before. I’ve barely scratched the surface but clearly Chicago’s got a broad range of performance venues fun to poke into, considering the bookings.
Billy Martin, the man at the tubs for jam band jazzers Medeski, Martin and Wood, is a generous player, just trying to give everyone (band and himself included) a good time. His chief partner in Wicked Knee is trumpeter-composer-arranger Steven Bernstein who solos in the lyrical/humanistic/humor-tinged spirit that links Louis Armstrong to Lester Bowie and beyond, and leads simple, effective riffs and chorales with tubaist Marcus Rojas and trombonist Brian Drye (also good soloists) above and against the drummer’s syncopated beats.
A lot of Martin’s rhythms center around his snare drum, as if he grew up in high school marching bands and street-parade second lines. But he knows how to tie in the hi-hat, when to go to the toms or splash on his cymbals, how to thump and swing — and to expand in the direction of Balinese gamelan. The brass polyphony sang of New Orleans, with a lope through Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If iI Aint’ Got That Swing)” and nice use of the modal motif at the bottom of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s “Odwalla” (also, I think, Coltrane’s “India”). A crowd of about 75 enjoyed this drop-in by Wicked Knee, during a quick midwest tour including the Dakota in Minneapolis (tonight, Aug 6) and Milwaukee’s Cathedral Park free series (tomorrow, Aug. 7).
Jim (More Questions Than Answers) Baker, pianist/analog synthesist and friend-since-high school of mine, is the fearless leader of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, though there’s no hierarchy imposed on the contributions of reedist Mars Williams, bassist/guitarist/trumpeter Brian Sandstrom and drummer Steve Hunt (if these three seem familiar, it’s ’cause they figured prominently in the Hal Russell Story tribute concert I raved about a few days ago). They’ve played together regularly for the past six years regularly, most recently in the barely-lit upstairs rooms of a corner bar, the likes of which exists on basically every fifth block of this city. There were six, seven, eight people in the audience but we listened devoutly as the musicians perf0rmed real-time experiments in ensemble interplay, taking dynamics, pitch extremes, intensity, density and periodicity as raw materials to shape. The sounds were sometimes abrupt, conflictual, inconclusive, in search of themselves, but from every dry or ugly patch the four players eventually reached sonic areas abrim with pleasure and resolve.
If you’re looking for adventure, there’s nowhere like the underground. It’s an extraordinary popular delusion that music might or must be any one thing. Exploration examines what is and what might be. As Chicago’s home of the El, it’s not odd that there are places like Beat Kitchen where the underground is commonly on the second floor instead of the basement. Makes no difference; to dig you must go deep. We may get lost in the depths, but avant garde music hasn’t by itself killed anyone yet.