Quin Kirchner doesn’t look like your average jazz musician. With his long hair, often under a wide-brimmed hat, and hippy aesthetic, he easily could fit into a ‘60s photo of the Allman Brothers Band. That image serves him well in Wild Belle, an eclectic indie-pop band featured on the bi-coastal late night shows of Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien last year, a band that grew out of excellent Afrobeat collective NOMO.
Despite this higher-profile activity since moving back to Chicago from New Orleans amid the displacement brought on by Hurricane Katrina, drummer Kirchner has been integral to uncountable creative music ensembles in the Windy City, including Matt Ulery’s Pollinator, Dustin Laurenzi’s Snaketime, Greg Ward’s Fitted Shards and the Nick Mazzarella Quintet. However, it was only a matter of time before the enterprising 36 year old, who fits DJing into his busy gigging schedule, focused on his own project.
Jan. 26 at Chicago’s Hungry Brain marked the release of Kirchner’s ambitious double album, The Other Side of Time (Astral Spirits), an album that deploys a crack faction of local stalwarts: tenorist Nate Lepine, offset by bass clarinetist Jason Stein and trombonist and project engineer/mixer Nick Broste, and the bandleader and Ulery in the engine room.
The music began with the dirge-like “Ritual,” which also opens the vinyl twofer and bespeaks Kirchner’s absorption of AACM imperatives, made salient later with a tribute to “creative music patriarch and master” Kelan Phil Cohran. A cover of Cohran’s “Armageddon,” the album’s longest track, featured in the second set at the Hungry Brain, but the first closed with Sun Ra’s swinging “Brainville” and a beautifully poised, resonant reading of Charles Mingus’ “Self Portrait In Three Colors.”
Kirchner’s years of playing Afrobeat gave his mallets a bounce, perfectly matched by Ulery’s elastic rhythm. The doleful sound was enhanced by the low-end pairing of bass clarinet and arco bass. Stein has such a full, granular sound on his instrument, he comes off like a tenorist, and he and Lepine combine for the first time in this aggregation. The latter built his solo slowly—after the motoring Dolphy-esque attack of Stein—answering his own restlessly inquisitive lines, gathering momentum as Stein and Broste synched fat riffs, goading him on. At less frenetic intervals, the ominous rumble suggested John Coltrane’s somber “Alabama” or melodic shards from “I Love You Porgy.” An unhurried diatonic sequence, almost played as a round, ended the piece with gravitas.
In his writing, Kirchner relishes sparse, nicely harmonized horn lines under which he can impose a double-time feel, and he offered a panoply of supportive or cross beats, from reverberant toms to rapid rock-out bass kicks together with cantering or more aggressive Gatling-gun snare action.
Kirchner’s ballad “Wondrous Eyes” began with tympanic mallet-play, before the ensemble sighed and lowed, then swagger-tiptoed, Broste’s bone as counterweight. Some of these virtuoso soloists are apt to fill space, but Kirchner’s breezy tempo reined in any histrionics. And as usual, Ulery provided bendy, bamboo-like support.
Given the quantity of the music on the double album, the sets were admirably restrained to 45 minutes, the more estimable given that the second set welcomed trumpeter Russ Johnson, tenorist Laurenzi, pianist Rob Clearfield and altoist Mazarella to the mix. In one of the more remarkable spectacles I’ve witnessed at the Brain, the whole augmented band convened at the front of stage, soberly jangling tiny sleigh bells as a prelude to “Together We Can Explore The Furthest Beyond”—a gentle interstellar saga, which whiffed of “On A Clear Day.” The hymn-like theme featured clustery piano from Clearfield, gorgeous low notes only possible from bass clarinet and mellifluous flute from Lepine.
After the lovely Mingus closer (which followed his enigmatic “The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers”), Lepine, an under-rated, hugely capable musician, wryly remarked to me that the music was challenging because, “It’s like a big band gig; you have to play in tune.” Certainly the sonorous blending of the frontline is a highlight of this ensemble, effectively set into relief by an intuitive rhythm duo who astutely locate pockets in the compositions.
Kirchner sagely gauged the consumer zeitgeist by including a download code with the vinyl and skipped CD production. His wife, Lizzy, and kid sister, Thalia, worked a merch table in the sold-out house from start to finish.
“The energy in the room was amazing,” Kirchner later reflected. “It felt really nice having all these different family, friends and musicians coming together to support this release and my accomplishment. The second set was an especially amazing experience, getting all those great guys together on one stage. The adventurous creativity they brought to those tunes really elevated them to another level.”
Though Kirchner harbors nostalgia for the Hungry Brain—he first gigged at the unprepossessing venue a dozen years ago—it would be heartening to see this project, with its thinking-man’s-acid-improv vibe, promoted to the kind of stages commanded by Kamasi Washington’s West Coast posse. The music is at least as widescreen and trenchant, if not more so. DB