Return of a Continental Drifter

Even within the Chicago music scene, where a healthy work ethic is expected, reedist and composer Scott Rosenberg had a reputation as a busy, busy guy. He moved to Chicago in August 1999, and by early 2001 he was improvising with local and visiting artists, putting on concerts in a Ukrainian Village coach house (dubbed the Brick House), and writing music for and organizing three distinct groups. The 25-piece Rosenberg Creative Orchestra, the five-member Skronktet, and the quartet Red all made impressive live debuts, drawing large crowds to clubs like the HotHouse and the Empty Bottle and generating positive press in this paper and the Sun-Times.

But just when it seemed that Rosenberg had established himself, he split. In the summer of 2001, he and his girlfriend at the time moved their possessions to New York City and embarked on a round-the-globe trip they’d planned nearly a year earlier. They spent about four months in Latin America, but the events of September 11 threw a wrench in the works. After a brief respite in New York, Rosenberg went alone to Europe, playing free-improv gigs in France, Poland, Italy, and England. To his surprise, the single biggest factor in whatever draw he had seemed to be his connection to Chicago. “[That was] the real card that wound up being played for me wherever I went, by whoever was promoting the show,” he says. “I went and stayed at people’s houses and their entire record collection was made up of Chicago bands. There’s a real fetish.”

When the tour ended Rosenberg used some of the money he’d saved for the trip to rent an apartment in Paris, where he spent the winter writing and playing occasional gigs. In April he moved back to New York for real. “In the final moment I had a hard time deciding not to move back to Chicago,” he says, “but I decided to try something different.”

Still, he felt as though he had unfinished business here. In Paris he had composed a set of music with Chicago players in mind, and this week he’s in town to present it for the first time. The Scott Rosenberg Chicago Big Band Project includes ten of the city’s most promising young players, including bassist Jason Ajemian, drummer Tim Daisy, reedist Aram Shelton, and trombonist Nick Broste.

Rosenberg says he conceived the project right after his Creative Orchestra gave its sole performance in March 2001. That project’s dense, shifting textures and emphasis on sound as sound acknowledged the influence of composers like Anthony Braxton, with whom Rosenberg had studied as an undergrad at Wesleyan, and Stockhausen. But the night after that concert, Rosenberg says, he lay awake until 4 AM thinking about doing something smaller that reflected his jazz influences more directly. This initial impulse was only reinforced by his experiences with contemporary European improvisers.

“It made me realize how much I value the American sensibility, both musically and extramusically,” he says. “I ran into this attitude over and over again in Europe of people trying consciously to eradicate what they identified as jazz or the influence of jazz from their playing and approach, as though it were something cancerous to be cut out. Before I went to Europe I think I even occasionally had similar aspirations. It started to seem driven by a misguided sense of purity, a kind of negative absolutism, and ultimately an intentionally created separation whose only goal was to serve some kind of strange nationalism or continentalism, and in its worst manifestation, racism.”

Rosenberg hasn’t decided to suddenly write swing charts, but I caught part of a rehearsal last week, and the influence of Chicago’s Afrocentric jazz pioneers–including Sun Ra and the groups affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians–on his new work was hard to miss. I’d never heard such explicitly jazzy voicings, propulsive counterpoint, or rhythmic soloing in his stuff before.

Though he doesn’t plan to stay much past Labor Day, Rosenberg hopes to maintain strong ties to Chicago. And a number of recordings made during his tenure here are just now seeing release. Earlier this year Cadence Jazz put out Red’s Owe, and Rosenberg’s own Barely Auditable imprint will soon release Six Synaptics, a trio recording with Michael Zerang and Kyle Bruckmann. Most impressively, next year the prestigious jazz and classical label New World Records will release a recording by the Creative Orchestra.

The Chicago Big Band Project will kick off Friday’s Chicago Jazz Festival activities with a free concert at the Cultural Center at 12:15 PM. The group will perform again at 8 PM on Sunday, September 1, at the Empty Bottle.


Last Thursday at the Prodigal Son, dancehall-influenced art rockers the Eternals introduced a new member–John Herndon of Tortoise and Isotope 217. Herndon played drums on three songs and keyboards or percussion when founding member Dan Fliegel was behind the kit. Fliegel’s leaving the band in anticipation of the birth of his second child in October, but Damon Locks says the band will probably play at least one more show with both drummers. The Eternals have a new five-song 12-inch, The Black Museum, on the local Aesthetics label; Fliegel plays on it and Herndon mixed some of the tracks. Another EP is due this year on the Philadelphia label Antifaz, and the band’s sophomore full-length is due in the spring on Aesthetics.

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