3.5.7 Ensemble
  • courtesy of Milk Factory Productions
  • 3.5.7 Ensemble

In a city as large as Chicago, where sizable musical communities consist of far more subsets and cliques, it’s all but impossible to keep tabs on everyone or to even be aware of all that’s going on. I’d seen the name of the 3.5.7 Ensemble plenty of times over the last half-decade or so, but until recently I’d never heard the group’s work. The series of numbers in the moniker refers to how the group both contracts and expands depending on context—the core of the unit features saxophonist Nick Anaya, trumpeter James Davis, guitarist Tim Stine, bassist Chris Dammann, and drummer Dylan Andrews—but sometimes they’ll shrink down to a trio or grow to a septet; it’s the latter for much of a sprawling new double album called Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples (Milk Factory Productions). The recording adds regular auxiliary members Jim Baker on piano and Richard Zili on clarinet. The full group will be present to celebrate the release of the album at a concert Saturday evening at the Hairpin Arts Center.

Most of the musicians brought in original material for the new record, which packs in 14 tracks, and that might explain the easygoing stylistic range that makes room for charged post-bop, knotty free improvisation, translucent west-coast polyphony, Mingus-like blues thrust, and some post-Trane spirituality, often in shifting combinations. You can hear such hybrid styles below by listening to Dammann’s “Red Green and Blue,” a lengthy excursion that wends from raucous free blowing to chamber-like intimacy to loose swing with dissonant harmony and beyond—the changing character is further defined by the individual sound of each soloist. The group also tackles “Wandering,” a tune by the great Fred Anderson—who gave the group playing opportunities early on at his Velvet Lounge—and they open the album with a nifty adaptation of a traditional Shona mbira theme from Zimbabwe, which features deft prepared piano by guest musician Mabel Kwan that sort of translates the sound of the traditional thumb piano for the track.


According to the press materials it took almost three years for the album to be written and recorded—which makes some sense considering that many of the players are involved with loads of disparate projects—but I would hope that 3.5.7 Ensemble exerts a greater presence on the scene. The record isn’t flawless—there are moments that drag, with a reliance on midtempo swing and walking bass lines—yet there’s a real surfeit of ideas at work, with some lovely arrangements distinguishing many of the tunes. If the group managed to play out more those shortcomings would seem easy enough to wipe away.

Today’s playlist:

Buddy Collette Quintet, Buddy’s Best (Dooto/Boplicity)
Abelardo Carbonó, El Maravilloso Mundo de Abelardo Carbonó (VampiSoul)
Charles Bell and the Contemporary Jazz Quartet, Another Dimension (Atlantic, Japan)
Le Super Biton National de Ségou, Anthology (Kindred Spirits)
Hilary Hahn and Valentina Lisitsa, Charles Ives: Four Sonatas (Deutsche Grammophone)