[31 August 2010]
I sometimes fear that the concept of the live jazz performance is slowly fading. While jazz still maintains a presence in major cities, public support for America’s truly original art form is undoubtedly not at an all-time high. With rising concert costs, it is increasingly more difficult for folks of average economic means to attend gigs. These circumstances are truly unfortunate, for nothing else in the music world rivals the vitality of a live jazz set.
Common wisdom states that a recording can never quite capture the magic that happens in a club or on a concert stage. It is curious, then, that a jazz fan’s induction into the music often comes through records. Where would the jazz world be without such masterpieces as Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, or Maiden Voyage, all albums that originated in a studio? Capturing the energy of a live performance on record is one of today’s major artistic challenges. Given the dire economic and cultural conditions described above, it is good to know that creative and engaging live recordings are still being made. One primary example is an album called Stories and Negotiations, released in April 2010 and recorded live in Chicago’s Millennium Park in August 2008.
Mike Reed, a Chicago drummer and composer, works with an octet—drums, bass, two tenor saxes, alto sax, trumpet, and trombone—called People, Places, and Things. Reed is not only a vibrant musician, but he also presents the music of local artists he admires, as well as dedicates himself to preserving the history of Chicago’s neglected jazz musicians of the past. On his professional website, he lists some of his major musical influences, including artists as diverse as the Impressions, the Beatles, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, John Coltrane, Coleman Hawkins, and Neil Young. After just one spin through People, Places, and Things’ Stories and Negotiations, all of Reed’s influences and interests are prominently displayed.
Upon further listening, Stories and Negotiations reveals itself as one of the most creative and electrifying jazz records of the year. The album’s title is apt, for Reed and his ensemble adroitly negotiate a plethora of styles and approaches from the past, present, and future of jazz. Angular bebop lines are juxtaposed with lush orchestration reminiscent of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans large-ensemble collaborations. Collective, atonal improvisations recalling the Art Ensemble of Chicago at its most daring lead to soaring, melodic solos by the band’s gifted horn players. Reed joyfully embraces the complexity of jazz in the 21st century. He prefers to let tunes build over time, rather than clearly state their artistic intention from the top. Several tracks open with collective improvisation between two or more musicians, only to transition gradually into a more conventional melodic statement. The result is a record that is challenging at times to take in, yet endlessly rewarding.
The album opens with the free improvisatory sounds of “Song of a Star”. These atonal explorations lead abruptly to the tune’s angular melody, which seems to come out of nowhere. Once the solos begin, it is immediately noticeable that the ensemble lacks a piano or guitar. The result of this exclusion is a fascinating harmonic ambiguity. While bassist Jason Roebke grounds the compositions in clear chord structures, at times the soloists take the tune in unexpected directions, exploring less obvious harmonic patterns. In addition to freedom with the songs’ chord changes, the octet is quite creative with texture. With eight musicians, Reed is free to experiment with interesting instrumental combinations. The opening track, for example, features a tenor sax solo accompanied only by light drums and a trombone solo beginning with only bass as accompaniment. The octet provides Reed the versatility as a composer to invoke the quietude of a jazz trio, the raucous exploration of a duo improvising freely, or the lush arrangements of a larger ensemble—textural modes that Reed and company playfully negotiate.
Another standout track is “El is a Sound of Joy”, a tribute to the ensemble’s hometown and its storied public transportation system. The tune opens with a bluesy tenor sax melody followed by a trombone counter-melody. All of the horn players eventually enter, playing soulful improvisations that fit together like a puzzle. Once the bass and drums enter, driving the rhythm, we are hearing the mechanical sounds of Chicago’s elevated trains in motion. This layered ensemble approach is reminiscent of Charles Mingus’ compositions, particularly the classic “Haitian Fight Song”. The tune fades in and out of bluesy melodic statements, collective improvisation, and modal solos as the driving, gospel-derived rhythm holds the musical jumble intact.
Mike Reed’s People, Places, and Things present a bold vision of not just what improvised music has been in the past, but what it can be in the future. Reed and his gifted ensemble take the most creative elements of the Chicago and national jazz scenes, and distill them with the utmost artistic integrity. Stories and Negotiations deserves to be heard by a wider audience. Reed and company clearly demonstrate that the future of live jazz is not the desolate wasteland some have suggested, but rather a bold artistic landscape upon which all of the great musical stories from the past and future may be negotiated.