Quickies: Three New Delights From Delmark Records

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There are some lines of business where the odds are stacked heavily against you if you decide to go into it. The restaurant biz is notorious for a high failure rate, for instance. The same could be saying about starting an independent record label; they come and go in massive quantities. Probably even more so for jazz labels. And whack jazz labels? Pffft. Good luck. I think any jazz label that reaches its fifth anniversary has achieved something fairly remarkable.

Chicago-based Delmark Records is such a label. Specializing in blues and jazz, especially that jazz of the whack variety, Delmark has been in business for 56 years. That’s a heck an accomplishment for a label that’s never been known for making commercial concessions and have always done things their way. And it has steadfastly celebrated Chicago-area musicians.

Chicago is not exactly a limiting place to concentrate on music-wise, however. I don’t have to tell you about its importance to electric blues. It was also the center of jazz for much of the 1920’s, and since the sixties, it has served as the home of a very vibrant avant garde scene that got started with the establishment of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1965, which helped to launch the careers of the Art Ensemble of Chicago (AEC), Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Delmark has been right there during the development of Chicago improvised music, issuing records by Muhal Richard Abrams, Braxton, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell and Ken Vandermark, to name some more notable examples.

The flame of Chicago’s progressive jazz scene is kept burning bright by an influx of a newer generation of musicians. Below are three Delmark releases this year from some relatively fresh faces who are poised to take the places of the legends who came before them:

Nicole Mitchell Renegades

When discussing that Chicago improvised music scene of today, would be hard to not put Nicole Mitchell somewhere in the middle of it. This virtuosic flautist first made her mark lending her talents to other luminaries in the area, most notably David Boykin, before issuing albums of her own starting in ’01. Since then, she’s racked up awards and recognition, taking home Downbeat Magazine’s “Jazz Flautist of the Year” for four years in a row (2006-08). She’s currently co-president of AACM.

Mitchell’s two main vehicles for her Afrocentric musical expression have been her Black Earth Ensemble and Black Earth Strings. The latter ensemble is an exotic combination of violin/viola, cello, acoustic bass and drums/percussion with Mitchell’s various flutes and on May 19 issued its first album, Renegades.

True to the spirit of Chicago experimental jazz, the Black Earth Strings disregards the lines the separate the different styles of music, freely blending in gospel, classical, African, r&b, whatever. The diversity of this small group ranges from the spiritual “Wade In The Water” re-imagining of “Wade” to the avant hip-hop of “What If”, where Mitchell shows off her uniquely passionate technique.

Renegades recaptures the spirit of an early AEC record, but the unique configuration of Michell’s band gives it an aura and freshness that’s completely its own.

Josh Berman Old Idea

Josh Berman is also a well-established member of Chicago’s jazz mosaic, but the co-leader of Emerging Improvisers and Umbrella Collective and a sideman in about a half dozen other bands has finally come out with a CD of his own, Old Idea. This cornetist employs a quintet format that pairs him up with tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson and backed by bassist Anton Hatwich, drummer Nori Tanaka and Berman’s sometime bandleader, vibrist Jason Adasiewicz.

One of Berman’s main distinctions is that he uses a cornet instead of a trumpet. It provides a warmer, more human-like quality. But in maybe in a bit of unintended irony, Berman’s choice of instrument links the vintage Chicago jazz of the 20’s to the forward-looking spirit of that town’s scene today. His use of unstructured melodies and broken rhythms might actually align him closer to New York’s out-jazz of the sixties than with the AACM crowd, but there’s little doubt that he’s rather comfortable with jazz that bucks against established conventions.

Berman is confident enough in his unhurried and probing phrasing so that doesn’t need to rely on tricks to make his points, but he does show off some imposing arpeggios and smears during “On Account Of A Hat.” “Almost Late” is a clinic in telepathy; Berman and Jackson have a musicial conversation between old friends that’s relaxed and sympathetic to each other. “What Can?” shows what a sympathetic and creative rhythm section can do for its front line.

Also released on May 19, Old Idea convincingly puts forth the notion that if an idea is a good idea, the age of it doesn’t matter.

Rob Mazurek Sound Is

One of the bands Berman has been the member of (Exploding Star Orchestra) is led by yet another cornetist, one by the name of Rob Mazurek. Mazurek has been making records for fifteen years, and involved in a number of noteworthy projects, having organized the improvisational Chicago Underground in its various configurations and serving as a member of the fusion outfit Isotope 217. He has also started ensembles in h
is adopted home town of Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Mazurek’s latest undertaking is his Rob Mazurek Quintet, which debuted last February with Sound Is. Jason Adasiewicz from Berman’s record discussed above is also a part of this group, as is Matt Lux on electric bass, Josh Abrams on acoustic bass and piano, and John Herndon on drums and percussion. Mazurek, Herndon and Lux have served as bandmates in Isotope 217, and Herndon is also the drummer for post rock giants Tortoise. All of which demonstrates the level of cross-pollination that goes on in the Windy City.

Sound Is isn’t radically different from Berman’s record on the surface, but closer listens reveal a greater diversity. Sometimes there’s a clearly devised melody, as in “The Dream Rocker,” other times there is not, as in “As If An Angel Fell From The Sky.” Furthermore, Mazurek’s cornet is no carbon copy of Berman’s, either; Mazurek plays his notes in a more muted, precise fashion.

Stuffed with 14 tracks, Sound Is has highlights aplenty but the hypnotic groove of “The Earthquake Tree” and odd sonic beauty of “The Star Splitter” are among the best. This, like the other two new Delmark releases, is a treat for those with big, open ears.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron

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