Imports Fill the Empty Bottle

Next year the Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music should add the word international to the name: in its brief history it has presented the local–and sometimes national–debuts of some of the most important and interesting players in Europe and Asia. In the first three years the lineups included musicians from Japan, Italy, Sweden, the Netherlands, England, Germany, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland; this year, Greece and France get thrown into the melting pot as clarinetist Floros Floridis and reedist Andre Jaume perform in Chicago for the first time.

Floridis is from the northern city of Thessaloniki, where Greek and Balkan cultures mingle freely–and where the clarinet plays a more prominent role in music than it does in western Europe. Floridis has also recorded rembetika (the guttural “Greek blues”) and lightning-fast Macedonian brass-band music, and brings a rough-hewn microtonality and thick, sensuous tone to collaborations with his northern counterparts. On Pyrichia (released on his own Ano Kato label in 1991), with German bassist Peter Kowald and Greek lyrist Ilias Papadopoulos, he plays with muscular authority and acrobatic flexibility; he can uncork a choked, raspy blurt one minute and unspool a long, elegant line the next. Floridis will be joined by Kowald and German percussionist Günter “Baby” Sommer (see Critic’s Choice) on Friday night, and on Saturday afternoon he’ll play in an all-reed trio with Jaume and Ken Vandermark at the Cultural Center.

Jaume, who’s based in Marseilles, is perhaps best known to American audiences as a collaborator of Joe McPhee. He played on the McPhee classics Oleo and Topology, but one of his finest recordings with the multi-instrumentalist was 1992’s Impressions of Jimmy Giuffre (CELP), an homage to the reedist who introduced small-group collective improvisation and an emphasis on pure sound to jazz several years before Ornette Coleman made his first record–and who continued to set new standards for the music, especially in his early-60s chamber-jazz trio with Paul Bley and Steve Swallow. Jaume began a longtime association with Giuffre in 1986, studying with him in Boston, and two years later they recorded a beautiful series of duets, Momentum, Willisau 1988 (re-leased by Hatology in 1997). Jaume, playing clarinet and tenor saxophone, will perform a solo tribute to Giuffre on Saturday night at the Bottle.

Brotzmann’s Nipples

It’s been a busy spring for Empty Bottle jazz promoter John Corbett–in addition to planning the Jazz and Improvised Music Festival, he recently released four discs on his Unheard Music Series label, which is manufactured and distributed by Atavistic Records. The most anticipated of the batch is Nipples, a vicious and extremely rare 1969 recording by German saxophonist Peter Brötzmann. The title track is a legendary riot in which six titans of improvised music–including Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, Fred Van Hove, and Han Bennink–battle it out, but the real gem is “Tell a Green Man,” a quartet piece beautifully recorded by legendary Krautrock engineer Conny Plank and featuring an exhilaratingly kinetic extended dialogue between Bennink and bassist Buschi Niebergall.

The other releases are pretty exciting too: The Milwaukee Tapes Vol. 1 is a previously unreleased 1980 live recording of saxophonist (and Velvet Lounge proprietor) Fred Anderson; while it’s always a treat to hear his burly tenor and trademark serpentine licks, the bonus here is the presence of his infrequently recorded sidekick, trumpeter Billy Brimfield. On Nation Time, recorded live in 1970, Joe McPhee rips through a hard-driving, electrified mix of funk, blues, and free jazz on tenor sax and trumpet. And Waves From Albert Ayler is an obscure 1975 recording by Sweden’s Mount Everest Trio; the cover, on which the players look like prog rockers gone to seed, belies the Ayler-esque intensity and Ornette Coleman-esque lyricism of the recording. The liner notes were written by Mats Gustafsson, who claims them as a big influence.

Where They Were Coming From

The Drag City label has also engaged in a bit of musical archaeology recently, reissuing Our Solar System and Sing No Evil–two rare Half Japanese albums originally released by the tiny Iridescence label in 1984. Together they capture brothers David and Jad Fair’s transformation from spirited but disorganized noiseniks to spirited and loosely competent rockers. Most of the songs on Our Solar System were written by David and reflect a tortured obsession with women that borders on misogyny; Jad wrote most of Sing No Evil, which is the more romantic and tuneful of the two.

Drag City has also just published a remarkable collection of writings by guitarist John Fahey called How Bluegrass Music Destroyed My Life. The pieces don’t always adhere to an overarching theme, but weaving hallucinatory fiction with what seems to be autobiography, Fahey often takes aim at the hypocrisy and dishonesty of “normal” behavior. Among other things, he attacks the 60s folk-blues revival as a balm for white-middle-class guilt, reminisces about punching Italian film director Michelangelo Antonioni, and recounts a charming and hilarious conversation with Roosevelt Sykes in which the great bluesman shares his dignified method of keeping the upper hand in potentially humiliating situations. It’s difficult to follow Fahey’s train of thought at times, but his energy, imagination, and odd wisdom make the book hard to put down.

Using the Old Noodle

Jam nation faves Medeski Martin & Wood have gone back to their original configuration–the acoustic piano trio–on the new Tonic (Blue Note) and on the U.S. tour that brings them to the Park West on Saturday night. But while the instrumentation and the choice of tunes by Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, and John Coltrane would seem to herald a return to more straightforward jazz, the execution should still delight the patchouli-scented masses. On both originals and standards, the composed parts serve as little more than a launchpad for directionless grooves. I’ll be the first to admire these guys’ musical ESP, but all too often they use it to say the same thing simultaneously rather than to anticipate and augment one another’s moves.


Proving that there’s still a healthy wall between advertising and editorial over at the Sun-Times, the May 4 City Living supplement–“a weekly guide to the urban lifestyle” published by the ad department–lists Lounge Ax as one of the city’s “hotspots.”