One of the less publicized effects of Hurricane Katrina was that it washed bassist, composer, and conductor Matt Golombisky onto the shores of Chicago. In New Orleans, Golombisky had played in as many as a dozen bands at a time; here he’s not only kept up a similar pace but also runs a record label and organizes an annual festival, both of which bear the name Ears and Eyes.
In both incarnations Ears and Eyes is manageably small and smartly eccentric. The label’s roster consists mostly of bands that include Golombisky and his friends and acquaintances, from here and New Orleans, and many of the CD packages have a handcrafted look—several are made from cardboard and fastened with small strips of Velcro. The festival’s musical lineup—four acts Friday, nine Saturday, and eight Sunday—likewise consists mostly of artists on the label. (The fest earns the “eyes” part of its name by including eight slots for short films, as well as live projections and displays of visual art.) Most of the musicians are north-side Chicagoans and play what you might call alt-jazz—they borrow, in varying degrees, from sources outside the traditional postbop canon, specifically the now established avant-jazz community that coalesced here around Ken Vandermark in the 90s and the instrumental post-rock aesthetic spearheaded by Tortoise.
Of all the bands to which Golombisky contributes, the Tomorrow Music Orchestra (which plays Saturday at around 7:15 PM) best showcases him as both performer and instigator. The band started large but still reasonably sized in 2006, then quickly grew into the 18-piece behemoth that recorded last year’s invigorating Neon Jesus Garage. That’s about as big as your average jazz orchestra, but few other bands of that size have ever had such damnably weird instrumentation: the lineup on that disc includes bass, drums, guitar, oboe, two vibraphones, two alto saxophones (but no tenor), two flutists (not doubling on anything), a small brass choir (trumpet, trombone, and French horn), and a misshapen string quartet with two cellos and only one violin. Since the Neon Jesus Garage sessions, Golombisky has expanded the TMO by a third, adding another oboist, a second French horn player, a bass clarinetist, and an accordionist, among other players.
But for all its size it’s a remarkably refined behemoth, even in its wildest moments. The TMO still doesn’t have more than two players on the same instrument, in contrast to the four- and five-seat brass and reed sections of a typical jazz big band, and this gives the music a bracing translucency. In his thoughtfully crafted written passages, Golombisky employs this large palette with unusual care, mixing the colors sparingly and with a painterly attention to shadow and light, but individual voices carry through even during full-group improvisations. Though the TMO can get loud and hairy, both tonally and rhythmically dense, its chamber-orchestra voicings and healthy complement of strings set it apart from similarly large groups like the AACM Large Ensemble and Kahil El’Zabar’s Orchestra Infinity, where a murky wall of sound often predominates.
Two of the TMO’s star soloists—the husband-and-wife team of trumpeter James Davis and saxist Caroline Davis—work together and separately in several other bands on the Ears and Eyes label, and one of them, the James Davis Quintet, recently released what may well be the imprint’s most fully realized album. (Unfortunately the JDQ won’t play at this weekend’s fest.) Angles of Refraction has become my favorite disc of the past couple months, standing up to repeated listenings with a program divided evenly between up-tempo postbop and jazz flavored with balladic Americana. The Davises are a formidable pair: On alto, Caroline improvises with a balance of passion and polish that younger horn players often lack, sometimes using a rococo touch to curl around her husband’s trumpet lines. And James’s playing—with its pure tone, measured melodies, and judicious use of both notes and space—reminds me of the fresh breath Chet Baker blew through bebop in the early 50s.
James’s best tunes—the album-opening hymn “Cotton,” the gently loping anthem “Plastic Piano”—share the simple (but not simplistic) tunefulness that Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny have used to such great advantage. They have a wide-open prairie sensibility, and the melodies forswear the vertiginous leaps and bounds endemic to bebop, early avant-garde jazz, and today’s free-improv energy music, instead tracing gently rolling arcs—shapes further softened by the use of electric piano in the rhythm section.
On the Fender Rhodes, in fact, Sean McCluskey threatens to steal the show. To an extent he stands out because, as the only plugged-in member of the quintet, he gets to play “mad genius” a bit. He has a lithe attack that buoys his chewy chords, and his solos bubble with originality—but for all his inventiveness, his playing consistently reaffirms core jazz values like ear-catching technique and narrative propulsion.
The Davises, who moved here from Texas five years ago, met Golombisky shortly after he arrived in 2005, and out of their mutual respect sprang several bands, including Zing!, a quintet fronted by the Davises that’s radically different from the JDQ. On its debut disc, Magnetic Flux (released this summer), Golombisky hits the ground dancing: the opening track, “Boo Boo Bah Bah,” jumps to his electric-bass countermelody, doubled by guitarist Dave Miller. Miller and the Davises are also credited with “effects” and Golombisky with “likable noise,” which gives you some idea of the band’s sonic profile. The only completely unplugged member is drummer Quin Kirchner, but his beats turn out to be electrifying enough on their own.
The rhythm players dominate Zing!, with Kirchner’s tough rock-jazz drumming and Miller’s protean guitar sound driving the discussion. What distinguishes the challenging and captivating music on Magnetic Flux, though, is the role played by the horns. Their nuanced, predominantly acoustic interplay creates a provocative tension with the rhythm section—much of what the Davises are doing would sound normal in a conventional jazz band, but juxtaposed against the blunt instrument of the Zing! back line it becomes something slightly strange. James’s trumpet retains its purity—he uses effects very sparingly—and that makes it a voice in the wilderness. Caroline’s alto feeds off the prevailing vibe, getting wilder and woolier than in any of her other bands—she throws in guttural split tones here, high-flying atonality there, and some marvelously effective digital loops for good measure.
Zing! plays the Ears and Eyes Festival at 4 PM Sunday, and later that night Dave Miller’s group Algernon goes on. Miller, one of those polymaths who can’t seem to find enough bands to fill his time, has built this unusual quintet into a sleek roadster, using Katie Wiegman’s vibraphone to lighten and brighten the sound of the two-stroke jazz-rock engine—Miller and Nick Fryer, both on guitar—that powers the band. Miller draws from jazz and rock (prog, psych, and post-) but also aspires to a kind of latter-day chamber music: tautly composed lines and detailed, surprisingly delicate arrangements butt up against raucous free improvisation and splashy electronics. On Familiar Espionage, Algernon’s forthcoming second album, the tunes (with titles like “Eraserhead” and “(Don’t Press the) Red Button”) have a definite post-rock feel, but Miller pushes them into jazzier territory—all the while avoiding anything that sounds like a traditional jazz solo.
Between Zing! and Algernon, stick around for Matt Ulery’s Loom. The set doubles as a CD-release party for the young bassist’s new self-released disc, Music Box Ballerina, a polished and impressive debut that seems inspired by the contemporary downtown New York jazz scene. Ulery’s compositions sit on a continuum that has the Henry Threadgill Sextett on one end and trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s groups (especially Sex Mob) on the other, but they also make occasional nods to the music of Steve Reich. The sextet is arguably the most jazz-centric of the bands I’ve mentioned, with tightly phrased ensemble playing and standout soloists Thad Franklin on trumpet and Tim Haldeman on tenor—indeed, if it weren’t for violinist Zach Brock (and pianist Rob Clearfield’s occasional accordion excursions), it would look a lot like a standard jazz quintet. (Vocalist Grazyna Auguscik, in whose band Ulery regularly plays, also makes an appearance.) Music Box Ballerina—and all the other albums I’ve reviewed here—point with conviction to a new generation of Chicago jazz innovators, and to a new direction for the ever-changing mainstream.
For more information or late-breaking schedule updates, visit earsandeyesfestival.com.v
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