Jeb Bishop Assembles New Chamber Quartet on the Hop
Word on the creative music scene has it that trombone titan Jeb Bishop is relocating to his home state of North Carolina this June after spending more than 20 years based in Chicago. Alarmed at the news, this Windy City-based DownBeat contributor attended what might prove to be one of Bishop’s last concerts as a full-time resident in town.
Though Bishop has collaborated with just about every improviser of note in Chicago as a member of numerous groups besides his own—from Ted Sirota’s Rebel Souls to The Vandermark Five to The Engines, plus a raft of top European improvisers, both on their home turfs and at festivals here—he surprised at the Hungry Brain with yet another aggregation.
Tipped off to the concert by journalist Alexandre Pierrepoint, who marked it out as a “must see” on a brief visit from Paris (Bishop hadn’t even mentioned it on his own schedule), DownBeat arrived early to the regular Transmission Series Sunday-night session, run for the past dozen years by promoters/musicians Mike Reed and Josh Berman.
Bishop turned up casually dressed in shorts, but despite this being a purely improvised summit, there was nothing casual about the music. Accustomed to witnessing the trombonist in standing position, brandishing his slide like a flamethrower in power-improv contexts, tonight he was sitting in a chamber ensemble. It was a far cry from back in March when he played a bruising but melodic set in tribute to Fred Anderson at the Jazz Showcase (a rare appearance there for Bishop) with a supergroup including Ernest Dawkins, Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, Josh Abrams and Jeff Parker.
The lineup of the new group may also be unique: trombone, bassoon, cello and clarinet. How would the woody hues of James Falzone’s clarinet, Katherine Young’s bassoon and Tomeka Reid’s cello blend with brassy trombone? Thanks to Bishop’s deep listening and deployment of a battery of mutes (including a humble Tupperware container) that stemmed the bone’s ability to swamp the other instruments, the answer is: quite majestically.
During the first improvisation, which lasted 40 minutes, Young’s bassoon cut through with eerie piping sounds that recalled Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring or Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack to Journey To The Center Of The Earth (where the serpent solo was played by a bassoonist). Young used pedals to expand the reverb, her right hand dancing impressionistically over the airholes, eliciting buzzy noises like deep-sea whale calls, alternating with slap-tongue pecks on twin reeds. Falzone, unaided by attachments or plug-ins, superbly synched with Bishop, who dialed his synth/ring modulator to approximate the buzzy gargles of the clarinet. After a second long improvisation that became almost comedic such were the fascinating sounds elicited from Bishop’s trombone (the innovations of the late Paul Rutherford on his classic solo release The Discreet Harm Of The Bourgeoisie came to mind), the quartet wrapped up a successful debut performance that impressed the acutely attentive, well-informed Brain crowd.
Bishop had returned from back-to-back trips to the Netherlands (guesting with Cactus Truck) and Portugal (working with Rodrigo Amado and Motion Trio), not to mention an even more recent U.K. tour with Tony Bevan, John Edwards and Michael Zerang. He’d squeezed four dates around the United States in duo with drummer Tim Daisy in support of their disc Old Shoulders (Relay) prior to the hit at the Brain. It was actually the association with Daisy that instigated the new quartet, according to Bishop:
“James, Katherine and I performed in a Tim Daisy dance piece commission earlier this year, and we’d all talked about doing something, so I decided to organize it. I liked the idea of having it be a more ‘chamber’ instrumentation without drums, so the addition of cello seemed natural. Tomeka, Katherine and James are all musicians whose playing I like, so that was an easy call.”
Falzone, as busy as Bishop, with several projects in the works, didn’t need arm-twisting.
“I’ve been playing with Jeb in various circumstances, from the freely improvised to fully notated, since 2002,” wrote Falzone in an email after the show. “To my ears, he’s the perfect mix of an improviser who both listens and reacts, never afraid to push, never afraid to hold back, always careful to consider the greater whole. Our set at the Hungry Brain provides a perfect example; there were moments when Jeb pushed us into new territory, keeping the music flowing and searching, and moments when he waited in silence, allowing textures to develop that were best left to the other instruments.”
As a resident presence on the Chicago scene, Bishop is going to be sorely missed. He’s slipstreaming the demographics of his spouse, Jackie Cellini, who has taken a research job at UNC-Chapel Hill hospital.
Given Bishop’s relentless touring schedule, it shouldn’t make too much difference to Chicago audiences, however. He’s back with Ken Vandermark at Elastic in June, and at the Hideout in a quartet with Kent Kessler, Dave Rempis and Michael Zerang the following week. In August he’ll appear with drummer Frank Rosaly in Millennium Park, and in October with Vandermark at DePaul University in a project involving visual artist Richard Hull.
It’s possible the promising unit that had never fully convened before Sunday night, yet gelled so well in the moment, will be lost in the sea of varied activity of its constituent members. Doubtful, though.