Coming to America

Germany’s long been considered one of the most nurturing environments for avant-garde music, but according to one of that milieu’s leading lights, pianist and composer Georg Gräwe, there are simply better places to be right now. That’s why, a few weeks ago, he sublet his apartment 40 miles outside Cologne and moved to Andersonville.

Gräwe says he likes the work ethic in Chicago, where musicians perform on a regular basis, usually with insignificant financial remuneration, in order to improve and grow. “In Europe I’d go through periods of up to three months where I wouldn’t play at all, and this is something that drives me mad,” he says. “The system in Germany is such that you have to keep your price up, and if you don’t, concert organizers will lose respect for you. You get better-paying gigs, but not enough of them.”

It’s hard to believe this guy could experience such droughts: In addition to his solo work, the 40-year-old Gräwe leads a trio with Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and New York percussionist Gerry Hemingway, a quintet, and a chamber group; a recording of one of his less active arrangements, a duo with Anthony Braxton, is due out next month on Chicago’s Okka Disk label. He’s currently composing a cello concerto on commission from a university orchestra in Amsterdam. And Gräwe runs his own record label, Random Acoustics, which in four years has released nearly 20 CDs whose uncompromising nature reflects that of his own work.

Gräwe refuses to acknowledge the boundaries between jazz, classical, and improvised music, and notes happily that Chicago is flush with musicians who see things the same way. He’s quickly taking advantage of that fact: a new quartet with longtime Cologne collaborator Frank Gratkowski on reeds and the Chicago rhythm section of percussionist Hamid Drake and bassist Kent Kessler will make its debut next month at the Empty Bottle’s first International Festival of Jazz and then tour Europe in the fall. Gräwe plans to form a large ensemble in which he’ll share writing duties with Ken Vandermark, and he also hopes to work with fellow recent transplants cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and reedist Guillermo Gregorio.


On a related note: Lonberg-Holm plays around town quite often in a variety of improvisational contexts, but he rarely performs his own composed music. So this Wednesday’s gig at the Empty Bottle with his tune-based trio In Zenith, featuring percussionist Michael Zerang and bassist-trombonist Jeb Bishop, would be something to witness in and of itself: the cellist writes tight, melodic pieces for the group that nonetheless allow for expansive, trippy solos. But even better, the trio will be joined by saxophonist Michael Attias, a member of Lonberg-Holm’s klezmer-style group from New York, Peep; some of Attias’s songs are on the program as well. On Saturday Attias, Lonberg-Holm, Zerang, and pianist Jim Baker will improvise a few sets at the Lunar Cabaret.

Urge Overkill–a band we all reasonably left for dead after the dismal failure of its last album, Exit the Dragon; drummer Blackie Onassis’s run-in with the law; the departure of founding member Eddie “King” Roeser, who played the hard guitar parts; and a parting of ways with Geffen–will give its first Chicago performance since late 1995 this Tuesday at the Park West. Blackie and front man Nash Kato, along with new guitarist Nils St. Cyr, have reportedly been writing new material for a record on the Sony-distributed 550 Music; no word on whether they’ve gotten a new shtick. Their label mates Verbow, a local outfit led by singer-guitarist Jason Narducy and cellist Alison Chesley (formerly known as Jason & Alison and as Skinny), open the show; Verbow’s long-touted Bob Mould-produced album, Chronicles, is due in June.

Friday evening at the Broadway location of Reckless Records, Royal Trux guitarist and mumbler Neil Hagerty will read from his forthcoming book, Victory Chimp, the first title from the new, uh, literary imprint of Royal Trux’s former record label, Drag City. The label wasn’t releasing advance proofs at press time, but supposedly it’s the “Burroughsian” tale of a primate superhero. According to a Drag City press release Hagerty will also “discuss the Trux’s current strategies” and “field questions about the recent media assault on the band.” This laff riot kicks off at 6 with performances by local poet Joel Felix and singer-songwriter Edith Frost; there’s no cover charge.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Georg Grawe by Nathan Mandell.