When this brawny free-jazz group made its debut, here in Chicago back in 1997, it was as an octet–a configuration meant to summon the spirit of another eight-piece band, which had immortalized itself nearly three decades earlier. Machine Gun, the classic 1968 octet recording by German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann, was one of the earliest and most brutal expressions of a new European jazz aesthetic that made no attempt to replicate the blues-derived models current in America. At that first ’97 gig Brotzmann was so pleased with the brash attack levied by the seven Chicagoans–reedists Ken Vandermark and Mars Williams, trombonist Jeb Bishop, percussionists Hamid Drake and Michael Zerang, bassist Kent Kessler, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm–that he chose to make the group an ongoing project. The lineup has since grown to include Swedish reedist Mats Gustafsson and Poughkeepsie multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee as regular members, and occasionally features bassist William Parker and trumpeters Toshinori Kondo and Roy Campbell as well; Brotzmann has also invited other participants to bring in compositions, further expanding the group’s palette. A pair of newly released recordings made in the summer of 2000, Short Visit to Nowhere and Broken English (both on the local Okka Disk label), demonstrates that variety more plainly than ever. Williams’s episodic “Hold That Thought” employs the most traditional colors and rhythms, from the Ellingtonian plunger-mute lines in the brass to the terse ascending-and-descending riffs in the reeds. The propulsive framework gives every soloist plenty to work with, but no one sounds more scalding than Brotzmann, who closes the piece with some furious tenor. Gustafsson’s “Ellington,” by contrast, doesn’t explicitly invoke its namesake, instead unleashing volleys of pointillistic pops and squeaks before exploding over wonderfully drunken-sounding rhythmic patterns. There’s also a new, epic version of Brotzmann’s “Stonewater” that features a lovely chanted intro by Drake. The band will precede its afternoon concerts on Sunday, which are both free, with ticketed performances of quartet and trio configurations on Friday and Saturday night. Friday and Saturday, June 14 and 15, 10:30 PM, Storefront Theater, Gallery 37 Center for the Arts, 66 E. Randolph; 312-742-8497. Sunday, June 16, 2 and 4 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.