Umlaut Big Band Credit: Dominique Hamot

Umlaut Records is one of Europe’s most interesting improvised-music labels, run by a collective with members in Berlin, Paris, and Stockholm. It’s released a ton of great music, including aggressive free bop, austere free improvisation, and contemporary classical music (such as a recent a recording of the brilliant and challenging vocal work 14 Recitations by composer Georges Aperghis). The generally forward-looking slant of Umlaut’s catalog makes the music of the Umlaut Big Band, based in Paris, even more fascinating in contrast. This jazz orchestra dedicates itself to swing music as it was heard in Europe during the 20s and 30s, focusing on historically accurate renditions of vintage tunes by composers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Last year the group released a CD called Euro Swing that collects pieces by Europeans from as far afield as Czechoslovakia, Spain, and the Soviet Union (though calling Rachmaninov a jazz composer is a stretch). From that record I’ve learned more about some names that were unfamiliar to me, such as Belgian saxophonist and arranger Alfons “Fud” Candrix and Swedish bandleader, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Charles Redland. More recently the group released Euro Swing Vol. 2, which puts the spotlight on music written by Americans who played in Europe during the 20s and 30s and made records during their visits. The liner notes (by Pierre-Antoine Badaroux, saxophonist and director of the Umlaut Big Band) explain that fans in Europe encountered early American jazz primarily through sheet music featuring stock arrangements. When actual Americans came over to perform, the Europeans were flabbergasted—but no matter how faithfully they tried to play the scores of the songs they heard from their visitors, they came up short. Sheet music failed to communicate the highly personal styles and arsenals of effects used by the Americans. 

Badaroux quotes from Reid Badger’s biography of James Reese Europe, a prejazz American bandleader who performed on the continent in the teens, to tell a story about a French musician who asked to attend one of Europe’s band rehearsals. Europe had given him sheet music, but when the Frenchman’s group tried to play it, it sounded little like what he’d heard Europe’s group do earlier. Europe relays the French player’s frustration: “He was right, the jazz effects were missing. I took an instrument and showed him how it could be done, and he told me that his own musicians felt sure that my band had used special instruments.”

Badaroux provides background information about the 15 tunes on the album, all of which are played with infectious buoyancy and precision. The group includes fantastic Swedish trumpeter Emil Strandberg and French drummer Antonin Gerbal—both better know for avant-garde tendencies than neoswing expertise, though they kill it from start to finish. Below you can hear the Umlaut Big Band’s version of the Duke Ellington tune “Hyde Park,” which is actually his song “Every Tub” given a new name at a London session for Decca during a 1933 tour of Europe.

On Saturday Dusty Groove Records (1120 N. Ashland) celebrates its 20th anniversary with a block party from noon till 5 PM, though rather than taking up a whole block it’s just on Haddon between Ashland and the alley behind the shop. Dusty Groove’s uniqueness is well-established at this point—it’s a great place to find jazz, international music, vintage hip-hop, soul, disco, and soundtracks, among other nonmainstream stuff. Owner Rick Wojcik is a deft retailer with a meticulous sense of how to make the most of his store’s physical capacity.

The party includes giveaways and complimentary refreshments, as well as a few particularly appealing attractions. Corbett vs. Dempsey, the art gallery two floors above the record store, hosts a free live performance by the Meridian Trio (saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, bassist Matt Ulery, and drummer Jeremy Cunningham) at 2 PM. The gallery also presents a one-day exhibition of work by Plastic Crimewave, aka Steve Krakow—a rare opportunity to view the original art for the popular Secret History of Chicago Music strips that run regularly in the Reader.

Even more intriguing is the Jazz in the Alley reunion. This DJ contest revives a beloved institution from the 60s and 70s: On Sunday afternoons in the alley behind 50th and St. Lawrence, African-American jazz DJs would go head-to-head, and their performances were judged not just on the music they played but also on the quality of their sound systems, which they had to lug to the spot each week. Their battles were a kind of response to the famous cutting contests that jazz saxophonists would engage in at jam sessions, where they’d try to outdo one another with the ferocity, imagination, and spontaneity of their improvisations. For Saturday’s reunion, Dusty Groove has recruited three old-school DJs who battled at Jazz in the Alley decades ago: Big O, Lil Mike, and Sly Fox. Another veteran DJ, Al Carter-Bey, will emcee the event and serve as a judge. All events are free.

Today’s playlist:

Grassella Oliphant, The Grass Is Greener (Atlantic, Japan)
Luzerner Sinfonieorchester, Wolfgang Rihm: Symphonie “Nähe Fern” (Harmonia Mundi)
Seaven Teares, Power Ballads (Northern Spy)
Arnold Dreyblatt, Resonant Relations (Cantaloupe)
The Pentangle, Basket of Light (Castle)