For hip jazz diggers nothing beats a set so off-the-path that only musicians and a very few aficionados know about it.

In a long, dark upstairs room where horizontal blinds screen out most of the street light bouncing off the hotel wall across King Drive, the crowd is small but way attentive. Dark silhouettes form the classic grouping: bass, trumpet, sax, drums. Almost featureless archetypes speak the ritual sounds–take a tune as far out in their esoteric language as ideas and skill allow, with no fear of leaving the uninitiated behind. Communication between the players and the silent, committed audience is at its peak–there’s no limit to the experimental possibilities and no place to hide musical shortcomings. Everybody’s tuned in.

When it works, all are transported to some high place of tonal free association, the mind’s windmills spun by improvisational gales. There’s a palpable buzz, an almost postlightning ozone smell as the current finds its way seemingly instantaneously. But actually one thing leads to another–the music jumps through this resistor, pushes past that transformer, zapping high voltage around the newly minted circuit.

The players are heavyweights of Chicago’s free-jazz crowd. Drummer Ajaramu, the organizer, captain of the krewe, has invited only the strongest: Malachi Favors Maghostut, the Art Ensemble and Ritual Trio’s legendary lyrical bassman; the fiery, cantankerous trumpeter Billy Brimfield; deep and dignified tenormen Ari Brown and Paul Fenner; Arthur Taylor on sweet and screaming alto; and Joyce Williams eerily vocalizing the words to the shattered and reconstructed tunes. The gravity of this core draws other stellar players into close orbit: Mwata Bowden brings his baritone and soprano saxes, while Shelton Salley on guitar and John Abkins on congas toss their tunes into the brew.

The set hits about 8 PM every Monday at Roberts Penthouse, above the skating rink at 6624 S. Martin Luther King Drive. Park right out front; there’s a $5 cover. Call 349-2561 or 955-1000 for info.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.