Thrill Ride

By the late 80s reedist Edward Wilkerson Jr. had made a name for himself as a key member of Kahil El’Zabar’s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and Douglas Ewart’s Clarinet Choir. His tenor sax sound was muscular, soulful, and deep, with the warm vibrato of Coleman Hawkins and the pinched sobs of Archie Shepp. And his strengths as a composer were evident in frequent performances by his own groups–most notably Shadow Vignettes, a trio that has grown over the years into a 25-piece big band, and the octet 8 Bold Souls. Wilkerson’s writing melded the energy and edge of free jazz and the voicings and complexity of Duke Ellington with a startling ease.

But when Wilkerson decided it was time to preserve some of that music on wax, he found no takers. And though he was a second-generation member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians–a south-side organization founded in the 60s by experimentally minded players who couldn’t get gigs on the regular jazz circuit–he started his own label, Sessoms Records, with some reluctance. “People are always calling me an entrepreneur,” he says. “But I never had a desire to do that. I went to New York and I hit all the labels, I had lawyers presenting my stuff, I hit local labels, but I couldn’t get anyone to do it. That’s the only reason I put out my own records–because I couldn’t get anyone else to put them out.”

When the New York label Arabesque approached him in 1992 about putting out an 8 Bold Souls record, he figured his do-it-yourself days were over. Arabesque released the ensemble’s second album, Sideshow, in 1992 and their third, Ant Farm, in 1995, but a year and a half later, when Wilkerson started talking about a fourth release, “it took longer and longer for them to return my calls. After a while I got the idea.” He was steeling himself to start Sessoms up again when HotHouse owner Marguerite Horberg offered to introduce him to Bettina Richards, the proprietor of a local label he had never heard of: Thrill Jockey, whose diverse roster includes garage punk (Nerves), sophisticated pop (the Sea and Cake), alternative country (Freakwater), electronica (Mouse on Mars), and “post-rock” (Tortoise).

“I met with Marguerite and she kept telling me about this woman who had an alternative rock label and I was like, ‘Yeah, right,'” says Wilkerson with a laugh. But eventually he agreed to meet with Richards, who’d been a fan since the early 90s. They had lunch at Healthy Food, a Lithuanian restaurant not too far from Thrill Jockey’s Pilsen headquarters, and after another month and a half of discussion, they decided to work together. Last Option, the ironically titled new 8 Bold Souls album, comes out Tuesday. “I’ve never met anyone like Bettina,” says Wilkerson. “She’s unassuming and she’s really focused. There are dogs running around the office over there, but everyone works really hard all the time. She got more excited about it than I was. She called me every day about stuff, and I really liked that, to have someone that interested in what we’re doing.”

Wilkerson admits he was initially skeptical about Thrill Jockey’s ability to get records into jazz specialty stores, where 8 Bold Souls’ records have done best in the past. But he was impressed by Richards’s ambitious distribution network–the label uses dozens of outlets and tailors its strategy for each release–and came to see the deal as an opportunity to expand the group’s audience. Richards has an agreement with one major independent jazz distributor, but throughout the Souls’ 15-year history, a big segment of their audience has been young, and these days many of the music’s young fans are coming from the cutting edge of rock culture–a demographic that most jazz labels have had either little interest or little luck in cultivating. Jazz and jazz-related acts like the Chicago Underground Duo and Isotope 217 have done relatively well on Thrill Jockey so far, and between 8 Bold Souls’ drum-tight ensemble sound and the catchiness and elegance of their melodies, they have a pretty good chance at the same kind of success.

The recording process brought Wilkerson into contact with new personalities at every turn: Casey Rice recorded the album at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studios, and the CD-ROM portion of the new disc (which includes footage of the sessions and biographical information) was assembled with the help of the Poster Children’s Rose Marshack. Previous 8 Bold Souls albums have sounded disappointingly flat and processed to those familiar with the group’s inspired live shows, but for Last Option the players–who also include reedist Mwata Bowden, trumpeter Robert Griffin, trombonist Isaiah Jackson, tuba player Gerald Powell, bassist Harrison Bankhead, cellist Naomi Millender, and drummer Dushun Mosley–recorded live in one big room with no amplification on either the bass or the cello, and the individual lines are cast in high contrast for a more immediate feel.

Only Wilkerson, Bowden, and Powell earn their living through music, and 8 Bold Souls is clearly a labor of love–there have been only three personnel changes in its history. Wilkerson spends plenty of nights in the pit orchestra at the Drury Lane Dinner Theatre, gigging with the Mambo 911 Orchestra, or picking up the occasional job with the Temptations or Aretha Franklin, but he’s proud of his work ethic: “I enjoy playing in pit bands,” he says. “The arrangements are nice and I learn a lot from doing it. It’s just a whole other thing. Lester Bowie was really proud of his experience playing in the circus. He used to say, ‘Until you play for a high-wire act, you really can’t play trumpet.'” But Wilkerson is also eager to play out more frequently with 8 Bold Souls and the other groups he leads–including a new quartet with flutist Nikki Mitchell, which plays February 15 at HotHouse. The release party for Last Option is February 19 at HotHouse.

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