|Photograph: Paul Natkin / ECM Records|
Made in Chicago, a Jack DeJohnette album that came out on ECM earlier this year, is an important statement, easily one of the most striking jazz releases of 2015, almost by default. The mere facts of the album—a master drummer of the progressive mainstream reengages with his roots in the unparalleled experiments-in-sound collective the AACM, which turns 50 this year—make it special. And it's a damn good record, one I'm still digesting and savoring months after I first heard it.
But seeing the Made in Chicago group live, as I did Sunday at Cornell University, was a whole other experience. It's clear to me that since their 2013 debut gig, the Chicago Jazz Festival performance documented on the ECM album, this group has evolved from a project, an unusually well-plotted experiment, into an actual band, a collective of composers and improvisers committed to developing a shared language over time.
When an artist or group of artists gains a reputation for experimentalism, there's always a risk, from the perspective of audience or creator, that what once seemed radical can devolve into shtick. Somehow, that hasn't happened with the AACM representatives in Made in Chicago: saxophonists and multi-instrumentalists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill, and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. (Incidentally, Mitchell turned 75 in August, Abrams 85 in September; Threadgill is 71.) Seeing these three together onstage was a profoundly intense experience, and not just because their respective sonic palettes can, at times, tend toward the extreme or confrontational. More what I mean is that all three seemed absolutely sharp, fully attuned to each passing moment.
Watching the show, I got the sense of being in some sort of temple or dojo—an extension of the project founded by Abrams and others back in 1965 as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, and documented and broadcast to the world on Mitchell's debut album, titled, simply and tellingly, Sound—where the practices of listening and responding in real time are sacred. I noticed the listening, the reception of sound—Threadgill, seated when not playing, zeroing in on Mitchell's solos, nodding in approval; Abrams, head bowed as if in prayer while bassist Larry Gray played an unaccompanied intro on arco cello—as much as its creation.
You felt, hearing this band play, the certainty and conviction of the original AACM mission, the self-belief that allowed these musicians to band together 50 years ago in the spirit of pursuing their individual and collective aesthetics, and then live their lives according to that belief. But the miracle is how good it all sounds today—how uncompromising, yes, but also how engaging, how human.
I felt, throughout the set, this strong feeling of pushing, of extremity, like the band was taking an idea into its collective vise and slowly, steadily squeezing and refining. This quality came through especially on a piece during which DeJohnette performed exclusively on an electronic drum pad that I'm pretty sure was a Wavedrum. During a solo intro, he struck the pad, producing echoing, marimba-like tones, and scraped his stick across the side as one would play a güiro. I remember the rest of the band slowly wading in with small, piquant textures—I believe Mitchell was on sopranino and Threadgill flute, with Abrams strumming the piano's strings by hand—so that the sound gradually fattened and amplified, eventually achieving an alarming density, with DeJohnette pounding mercilessly on the Wavedrum. The piece didn't develop so much as expand. It was one sound, one idea, that became a mini universe.
There was something especially driven and focused about that piece, but the whole set had this sort of staring-contest intensity, not hostile or off-putting, but simply extreme. The opening piece, which built off Gray's cello intro into a series of beautifully calm, refined statements, some solo and some overlapping, was extreme in its sparseness. The one that followed brought more of a familiar sort of free-jazz heat, with DeJohnette bashing out rubato time—his drum-hero bravado serving as a fascinating counterpoint to his bandmates' deep-seated strangeness—as Mitchell unleashed for the first time his trademark alien-speech circular breathing on alto. Here and elsewhere in the set, it was fascinating to compare Threadgill's approach—focused more on brief, choppy, gut-wrenchingly soulful phrases than a steady stream of sound—to Mitchell's. The two are just so fully themselves, as is Abrams, who executes the oddest, most ear-bending ideas, either skipping and stabbing his way across the piano or softly caressing the keys, with a palpable sense of loving care. The set ended with Mitchell's "Chant," the seesawing minimalist epic that leads off Made in Chicago—this was the only piece in the set that I'm sure appears on the album, but there may have been others—and came off as a lovably demented roof-raiser live.
The band played a quick encore, a loose, swinging freebop improv that was by far the closest thing to conventional jazz in the set. It was a powerful reminder of the deliberate nature of the whole Made in Chicago endeavor. These are master musicians who can play whatever they want. And time after time during this set, they chose to take it there, pushing, ratcheting up the intensity and the focus and the abstraction to borderline uncomfortable levels, avoiding the easy out. Working up at times to recognizable points of climax or cohesion, but sometimes just letting the sounds exist and hang in the air. There was no hand-holding of the audience, no explanation or disclaimer—DeJohnette didn't say a word to the crowd until he introduced the musicians at the end of the set—just sound and commitment.
Made in Chicago is a band very much still in progress, still finding out what it has to say. If they keep giving concerts as special, as fully realized, as the one I saw, they could become one of the key endeavors of the AACM as a whole, a living emblem of what this collective (not just Abrams, Mitchell and Threadgill, but also Anthony Braxton, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and so many others), this American treasure, has meant and still means.