[2 January 2007]
Out of the powerful and protean Chicago jazz scene come the Fast Citizens, a new and fresh entity comprised of some familiar faces. For almost a decade, groups like the Vandermark 5 or the variably sized Chicago Underground have been making their mark, drawing the spotlight away from New York’s downtown scene and proving that the Second City is the premier locus for the latest in exciting, avant-garde experimentation. Led by saxophonist Keefe Jackson, the Fast Citizens are simply another manifestation of this energy, a meeting of five highly skilled and individualistic players who channel their hard work into a cogent and coherent whole.
Though the music on Ready Everyday is ostensibly “free,” listeners expecting an unrestrained ejaculation of pure sound will be quite perplexed. The Fast Citizens never approach the dizzying, frenetic surges stereotypical of the genre, nor do they ever really attempt to. Ready Everyday does bear the hallmarks of free jazz, with atypical meters and an obviously spontaneous, collaborative exchange between players, but the band is also very sure to point out that the pieces, at least their core elements, are composed. The Fast Citizens are straddling the fence between fully restrained and over-expressively free, yet it never feels like a hedged bet. The strength of those involved and the innovative, open compositions from Jackson, saxophonist Aram Shelton, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, assure that the album will never rest and never hesitate.
Some of this free-minimalism can be seen in the other work of the group members. Three fifths of the Fast Citizens also comprise the Chicago Luzern Exchange, whose 2005 album Several Lights (also on Delmark) seems to set the stage for a more muted, measured approach to free jazz which dwells in the subtleties instead of overwhelming presence. Fred Lonberg-Holm, a veteran of dozens of ensembles including stints with Peter Brotzman and Anthony Braxton (not to mention his membership in the Vandemark 5), has also explored this contrast in his own quartet. Bridges Freeze Before Roads, on Longbox Recordings, is an entire album of free improvisation centered around his astute cello playing. The album dwells completely in the nooks and crannies of sound and silence, never attempting to fluff things into an impulsive din and instead forcing deep and thoughtful attention on every minute detail of what the players are doing.
Though Ready Everyday isn’t quite so drastic, it retains much of the same emphasis on the spontaneous generation of ideas between players. On first listen however, it may not be apparent that this is what is truly occurring. Interspersing the free passages with tightly composed heads and recurring melodies gives the impression that the whole of the album has been strictly plotted. This isn’t to say that the musicians are failing at their goals, however. In fact, it is their comfort with one another, their familiarity and collaborative spirit that allows them to read one another and create what appears to be solid, free-standing moments of seamless agreement extemporaneously. Ready Everyday is the result of a year-long residency at Chicago’s Hideout club, where the Fast Citizens developed their relationship before committing it to record, and it seems to have been time well spent.
Right from the get go, on the slick opening of the title track, Jackson’s saxophone lays out a melodic snare that grabs the listeners attention, drawing the interest deeper into the moderately paced piece. That initial motif crops up as bookends to the mannered improvisational sections, one of the more stark distinctions on the album. Here, the players are relatively sequestered, spotlighting everyone individually. Josh Berman’s coronet makes use of the breathing room, laying out a full-bodied and tuneful section before leading into Anton Hatwich’s hushed bass solo.
The most unruly the Fast Citizens allow themselves to get is on “Blackout,” clattering and stuttering along a herky-jerky drum pattern from Frank Rosaly. The horns, Jackson, Berman, and Aram Shelton go to town on it with surging, bleating expulsions that strain and stretch against one another. Even here, the track is marked by a significant amount of quietness, keeping things interesting without breaking off into confusion.
Lonberg-Holm’s composition “Pax Urbanum” is a familiar motif in jazz music, an evocative city-sounds exploration that, by this point, should come off as fairly tired. Taking solace in urban soundscapes isn’t anything new, but the Fast Citizens acquit themselves quite nicely and mostly manage to avoid the cliché trap. Lonberg-Holm is simply too well-developed a writer and performer, and the group follows his creaky bowing into the fray, never getting lost in formless chaos but rather stitching together the disparate and disconnected allusions to street traffic and sonic jetsam into a flowing, sculpted new being. The cellists’ instrumental contributions are well-employed, most notably on the persistent “Signs”. He begins squalling over a tight rhythmic loop, scrubbing down the song’s surface like steel wool, providing an aural palate cleanser for the subsequent attacks of his compatriots.
The Fast Citizens have thrown themselves into a challenging melting pot of music, attempting to stir the rich and intangible mixture into something with shape and form. What appears oxymoronic at first glance emerges as a captivating experiment, one that introduced new contrasts to an exciting genre and forces detractors to appreciate the almost metaphysical, impulsive structures that exist in the midst of formlessness.