International Artists Bring Gusts of Ingenuity to Windy City

By Michael Jackson, published on Nov. 29, 2016 in Downbeat

Though Chicago is a landlocked cultural oasis and despite the xenophobia of current times, the city is still a much-anticipated destination for artists from farther afield.

For Frenchman Alexandre Pierrepont, Chicago is an American treasure, and he’s been bringing musicians from Europe to collaborate with Chicago improvisers for five years now. A debonair, pipe smoking Parisian, Pierrepont brought the latest of 15 incarnations of his cross-cultural project The Bridge to the Windy City on one of his twice-annual visits this November.

The Bridge fearlessly yokes creative French artists with U.S. counterparts often in unexpected, innovative configurations. Customarily, Pierrepont juggles a rash of concerts for two groups in alternative venues around the city over a couple of weeks, but this year he focused on the sextet Vent Fort, possibly his most unpredictable assemblage to date.

The group, featuring mercurial flautist Magic Malik and compatriot Frenchmen Frédéric B. Briet on bass and Guillaume Orti on saxophones, teamed with Chicago-forged, Boston-based Jeb Bishop on trombone and Tyshawn Sorey on drums for a dynamic post-election set at photographer Doug Fogelson’s loft space.

Delayed by downtown traffic caused by anti-Trump demonstrations, Sorey quickly made up for lost time, rattling out loud, demonstrative beats as soon as his kit was assembled.

On the group’s eponymous recording—captured at the Sons d’hiver festival in Paris in 2015—spoken-word artist Khari B (absent at Fogelson’s but aboard a few days later at Constellation), exhorts to “Start a riot” after the group establishes an intriguing, interlocking mantra.

It’s an uncompromising album of collective openness extrapolated from compositional fragments and soulful incantation (Malik yodels like a muezzin crossed with Bobby McFerrin on “Mistrau”).

The performance at Fogelson’s on Nov. 9 was an entirely different story. The tension and disorientation subsequent to ballots tallied that morning created a sense of shifting paradigms that fed into the music.

“The concerts were so different, each time,” recalled the indefatigable Pierrepont, “At [Hyde Park’s] Logan Center with Khari B and special guest Sam Pluta on electronics, it was very abstract, very experimental. At Constellation, it was more about musical theater, nearly Dadaist at some points.”

It was at the latter location that Sorey blew spasmodic, ferry whistle blasts on bass trombone as he and Bishop perambulated about the room, while both Orti and Malik chattered into mics like tower of Babel occupants speaking in tongues.

Earlier Malik dropped two radios to the floor in a radical gesture, and at the Fogelson session he jammed after the main set with beatboxer Yuri Lane, switching out flute for nose-blown bird whistle.

Orti blew soprano saxophone directly onto the head of a side drum for a unique effect, while Sorey crushed and crackled a water bottle he successively drank from to alter that sound. It seemed anything might happen.

“At Doug’s,” commented Pierrepont, “they were fueled by rage and fire after Trump’s election … using funky beats as the weapons of Peace Warriors!”

A week later another superbly creative unit convened at Constellation, lead by Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist/composer Quinsin Nachoff. The brainy Canadian’s playing was a revelation. Parsing shimmers of Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Mark Turner, he constructed an amalgam of classical counterpoint and rugged expressionistic improv in cahoots with virtuoso alto saxophonist David Binney, genial pianist Matt Mitchell and cool-as-a-cucumber drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Thorny structures are featured prominently on the group’s album Flux, which was released on Binney’s Mythology imprint three years after its recording in Brooklyn in 2012.

“Complementary Opposites” balanced offbeat antiphony and porous tempo shifts with audacious, rangy unison passages. Each instrument occupied different rhythmic cracks in the music, egged on by Mitchell, who see-sawed between high and low ends of the piano. At the tail end of a loquacious, legato solo from the leader, Wollesen kicked into a scripted reggae groove.

Untempered background textures emerged from well-groomed ensemble scoring. “Tilted” began with a rapid, cartwheeling 6/4 line, initially stated at the piano, and afterward echoed by the front line. After more cascading contrapuntal lines and brief breaks into a fresh, open feel, the time congealed into a molasses-from-spoon viscocity.

As if to counterbalance the density of his compositions, Nachoff changed tack for the second set, taking a backseat to Binney, who performed a cappella on a measured extrapolation from John Cage’s “Suite For Toy Piano” while still espousing Cage’s sonic multiplicity.

This diverse sonic quality ranged through gamelan and Balkan influences—the latter second nature to Binney, who has made frequent trips to Serbia.

Wollesen and Mitchell had fun trading asymmetrical phrases in the first set, the drummer deploying stick-end cymbal scrapes and wetted finger snare smears; it offered respite after hearing the remarkable Mitchell restricted to acoustic piano rather than the raft of vintage keyboards he utilizes on Flux.

Nachoff’s compositions (he’s written for Toca Loca, Peter Knight’s 5+2 Brass, the Penderecki and Cecilia string quartets and the Toronto and Greg Runions jazz orchestras) are a heady brew, but this edgy and alert ensemble can readily chew whatever they’re offered to bite.

A totally different aesthetic reigned at the Hungry Brain a couple of days later with the sublime connections of New York-based singer Sara Serpa and guitarist André Matos, two musicians who hail from Lisbon, Portugal.

Matos had visited Chicago before, with saxophonist Greg Osby at the Green Mill, but it was Serpa’s debut, a low-key CD release for All The Dreams (Sunnyside), which followed the duo’s Primavera on Osby’s Inner Circle label.

After guesting with opening duo Sun Speak (guitarist Matt Gold and drummer Nate Friedman), the graceful Serpa commenced her own set with Matos sans fanfare. Prior shows at the venue were regularly initiated by programmers Mike Reed or Josh Berman demanding audience quiet, but Serpa and Matos simply began in the middle of the barroom chatter.

Their crystalline simpatico almost immediately silenced the room. A husband-and-wife team with a wealth of playing experience, they performed in rapt concentration, Matos striving to keep astute harmony on the move as Serpa zeroed in with pinpoint pitch at apposite intervals, occasionally hovering on unusual, unresolved midrange notes.

Matos’ guitar has something of the mellower lilt of Pat Metheny or the restraint of Bill Frisell, even Ry Cooder, but his echoey settings, sometimes using loops or helicopter pedal, conjured their own sense of place.

He bathed the first two songs—“Espelho” and “Night” (the latter a poem from William Blake’s Songs of Innoncence)—in reverb so that Serpa’s angelic, succinct voice could glide through a resonant soundscape.

Describing the content of All The Dreams (the title derived from Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa), Serpa said, “We felt this music was making us dream and disconnect somehow from the reality of the outside world—that seemed to be a positive feeling.”

As the two floated within such enigmatic balms as Serpa’s “A La Montagne,” Matos’ “Estado De Graca” and a setting of Pessao’s “Nada,” the spell of their conception was cast. Toward the end of a 50-minute set, Serpa kicked off the ostinato scat for “Primavera” between which Matos tuck-pointed driving offbeat lines.

The looped, strangely mechanical “Primavera” made a strong statement, and the duo manipulated aspects further on All The Dreams, reprising the opening track “Calma” by playing it in reverse to close the album. That effect is somewhat Bjork-like, and Serpa’s otherworldliness recalls Chicago-based vocalist Grazyna Auguscik.

Intimate, attentive audiences in each venue, together with microcosms of intense creativity—emanating from Vent Fort, Nachoff’s group and Serpa/Matos—provided inclusive shelter from the storms of bigotry and conflict in the maelstrom of American politics.

International flavors from Europe and Canada ameliorated the gloomier vibrations in Chicago at a much-needed moment.