Young jazz musicians used to sharpen their chops by sharing a stage with their elders, but the classroom is replacing the barroom as the gateway to jazz: opportunities for on-the-job training are drying up, and degree mills that turn out hard-bop clones are proliferating. Local clarinetist and tenor saxophonist Ken Vandermark has taken matters into his own hands, seeking out and recording with free-jazz forefathers like Fred Anderson, Joe McPhee, Peter Brötzmann, and 67-year-old drummer Robert Barry, the senior member of the Sound in Action Trio. Barry isn’t as famous as Vandermark’s other gurus, but he’s got an impressive resumé. He performed and recorded extensively with Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago in the 1950s, the cosmic big band’s formative years; family kept him here when the Arkestra moved to New York in 1961, but he continued to tour with the group well into the 70s. Barry has also put in stints with bluesman Jimmy Reed and tenor titan Gene Ammons, among countless other gigs. After undergoing open-heart surgery in 1992, he gave up the road life and soon began working with younger Chicago musicians like Josh Abrams and Rob Mazurek; in fact, Vandermark first approached Barry after hearing him sit in with Mazurek’s Chicago Underground Orchestra. It took a while for the Sound in Action lineup to jell, though: Vandermark and Barry played with several bassists before taking a cue from the Arkestra, which used as many as five trap sets, and inviting second drummer Tim Mulvenna aboard instead. The group’s repertoire, at least on its 1999 debut, Design in Time (Delmark), is a mixture of Vandermark originals and lesser-known tunes by Don Cherry, Ornette Coleman, Thelonious Monk, and, not surprisingly, Sun Ra. The two drummers complement each other well: Mulvenna, who drives a multitude of Vandermark’s ensembles, handling everything from bop standards to heavy rock rhythms to abstract free jazz, has a busy, richly ornamented trap style; Barry is a subtle, swinging drummer whose relatively sparse approach creates tension not by abandoning meter altogether but by riddling it with holes. Their parts mesh to create dense, carefully sculpted mosaics, and Vandermark disciplines his extroverted playing to fit into them. He peppers Monk’s “Green Chimneys” with emphatic tenor squeals, and on Coleman’s voluptuous ballad “Peace” he keeps his clarinet well behind the beat. Tuesday, August 15, and next Tuesday, August 22, 9:30 PM, Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western; 773-276-3600.


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