at the Hungry Brain, September 8-10

When the Hungry Brain hosts jazz on Sunday nights, the music onstage sometimes competes with the conversation in the crowd. If there had been any such struggle in the small bar as Design Flaw performed earlier this month, bassist Brian Dibblee’s soft new trio would have easily lost. Design Flaw exercised restraint in pursuit of a chamberlike intimacy: drummer Frank Rosaly’s feather-stroke accents tiptoed around Dibblee’s melodic repetitions, which seem to strive for Charlie Haden’s eloquent simplicity, and Jon Doyle coaxed the leader’s spartan melodies from his clarinet with a delicacy perturbed only occasionally by bluster. Here was something different in an improvised music scene enamored of power and volume–but you had to listen closely.

Design Flaw’s performance was part of the second annual three-day Phrenology Fest, an unofficial progress report on the improvised music scene’s newest talent. This year, the stakes had been raised. Many players who laid the foundations for the current scene and attracted outside attention now rarely perform locally. Reedist Ken Vandermark and drummer Hamid Drake spend far more time on the road than in town. Chicago Underground cornetist Rob Mazurek followed his wife to Brazil, while that group’s drummer, Chad Taylor, moved to New York–also the new home of young-gun saxophonist Scott Rosenberg. The void made the fest put-up-or-shut-up time for Chicago’s younger players.

The Hungry Brain’s Sunday night series, organized by cornetist Josh Berman and drummer Mike Reed, has been the key incubator for these new improv hatchlings since January 2001. While the Empty Bottle’s Wednesday night jazz series, a definite influence on the organizers, presents both national and international performers, the Hungry Brain almost exclusively showcases Chicagoans. This has allowed regulars to watch a new local style develop–these younger players generally have more formal musical training than their predecessors and tend to prefer structured tunes. At the moment, outfits like Design Flaw still stumble–at their Phrenology performance, Dibblee’s compositions remained too static and harmonically limited. But it’s still refreshing to watch something so gentle and composed emerge from a community reliant on freewheeling improvisation.

The lineup included not only youngish Hungry Brain regulars but several scene vets as well–trombonist Jeb Bishop and guitarist Jeff Parker, and, representing the AACM, a trio led by the excellent flutist Nicole Mitchell. The inclusion of experienced performers inadvertently underlined the shortcomings of some younger players: as drummer Tim Mulvenna’s prodding and bassist Kent Kessler’s deep, woody lines supported Bishop’s warm free bop, the trio’s improvisations revealed a fluid connection to Bishop’s themes, a cogency the younger groups rarely matched.

This balance between forethought and spontaneity eluded Keefe Jackson’s Project Project, for instance. In the saxophonist’s compositions discordant slabs of horn tones slowly shift pitch. Unfortunately, that’s all they do, and they do it at great length. The leader’s torpid writing thwarted the efforts of reedists Aram Shelton and Todd Munik, cornetist Berman, and trombonist Nick Broste to introduce rhythmic variation and melodic interplay. Jackson attempted to enliven the endless string of solos by orchestrating two- and three-horn interjections, but these drab long tones sapped more energy than they provided. After an uninterrupted hour playing two pieces Jackson asked, “How’re we doing on time?” At first I thought he was joking, but he really wanted to play more. Thankfully, his time was up.

Technical shortcomings hindered the set by the Jason Ajemian Trio, with guitarist Parker and drummer Tim Daisy. On a tender reading of the Billy Strayhorn ballad “Isfahan,” bassist Ajemian struggled with both his intonation and the melody, ultimately resorting to a series of rhythmically displaced chord strums that cheated listeners of the tune’s full splendor. On another, more open-ended piece, he spent five minutes coaxing unconventional sounds from his instrument, rubbing and slapping its body with his hands and thwacking its strings with a wooden stick as if the bass were a hammer dulcimer. Throughout both this set and his performance in Jackson’s group, Ajemian’s efforts were impressive but unfocused.

The two most promising newbies of the lot were reedist Shelton and drummer Daisy. Though not without missteps of its own, Shelton’s Grey Ghost melded free improvisation and electronic music. Drummer and keyboardist Jonathan Crawford, a competent if unremarkable player, alternated between springy drum kit clatter and warmly undulating Moog ostinatos while Kent Lambert manipulated video imagery. Sometimes Shelton altered his tart, Ornette-ish alto saxophone lines with computer effects; sometimes he accompanied sax riffs saved on his hard drive. Most of the time, however, Shelton’s laptop generated static, squelches, and other abstract sounds that he used as improvisational springboards. The computer was a tool, not a crutch.

Daisy is one of the most active drummers in town–playing with the Vandermark 5, Triage, and Shelton’s trio Dragons 1976, among others. He was also one of the most active drummers at the festival, performing in three different groups. He injected rhythmic life into Jackson’s otherwise leaden tunes, showed off his stylistic versatility in Ajemian’s trio, and lent both color and propulsion to an excellent free improvisation set with alto saxophonist Dave Rempis, bassist Jason Roebke, and pianist and ARP maestro Jim Baker.

The most promising aspect of Phrenology was its energy, both in the audience and onstage. The bar was full and the crowd was attentive despite no advertising and no advance press. But the organizers don’t lack organization. Not long after launching the series, Reed, Berman, and Dibblee registered the Emerging Improvisers Organization as a formal nonprofit in a bid to qualify for grants. Reed sold advertising space in the festival program, providing a minimum guarantee for each group. Phrenology may not have exhibited a crop of fully realized new talent, but it certainly displayed the mixture of infrastructure and enthusiasm required to produce it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.