The lineup for this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival included, for the first time, an entry from the Jazz Record Art Collective (JRAC) interdisciplinary series. This Chicago series, directed by Chris Anderson, enlists musicians to interpret classic jazz albums while a visual artist creates a work onstage. Saxophonist Dave Rempis’ quintet performed in the Claudia Cassidy Theater in the Chicago Cultural Center on Aug. 31, playing through Jackie McLean’s dense record Action, matching the original instrumentation. Painter Arthur Wright accompanied them, capturing the electricity between the five musicians.
Right from the first few frantic seconds of alto sax and trumpet in the opener (the title track), it was clear that the quintet would be playing arrangements that were quite similar to those on the album, highlighting the sometimes vivacious, sometimes solemn, but always alluring writing from McLean and trumpeter Charles Tolliver.
With Rempis on alto, Russ Johnson on trumpet, Jason Adasiewicz on vibraphone, Jason Roebke on bass and Mike Reed on drums, the quintet featured four of the strongest and most stellar improvisers of Chicago. (Johnson resides in Wisconsin, but plays at the same level as his Windy City bandmates). The solos were powerful and expressive throughout the program, and the unbridled spirit of their voices was prevalent in the freer segments, resulting in animated, distinct rendition of Action.
Rempis was a powerhouse, wailing and emulating McLean’s idiosyncratic piercing tone, while still maintaining his own voice. Each musician nodded to the original player’s approach, and the similarities between Bobby Hutcherson’s tone and Adasiewicz’s became more apparent as the program continued. More than merely adding textures, Adasiewicz occasionally took charge of a tune.
Johnson’s clear, breezy tone was the perfect foil for Rempis, whether he was playing a main theme or engaged in a dialogue of solos with the leader. Rempis performed with a blazing tone, and Johnson cooled things down with his tone, providing satisfying tension and interplay.
The music wasn’t the only aspect that made this performance a unique experience though. As usual for a JRAC show, the leader of the group talked between songs, sharing his or her ties to the album and the artist being saluted. But Rempis went much deeper, showing clips from the documentary film Jackie McLean On Mars and giving a detailed account of his own history with the iconic saxophonist’s music.
Prior to a buoyant version of “I Hear A Rhapsody” (the only standard on Action) Rempis delivered a detailed mini-lecture on organized crime and heroin, and how that affected the jazz scene—and how it affected McLean personally.
By the end of the show, audience members had a strong sense of Rempis’ connection to McLean and his music. Hearing the story of such a talented musician and educator presented alongside potent interpretations resulted in a profound experience. While the lineup of the Chicago Jazz Festival as a whole was superb, the addition of a JRAC show made it even more memorable. DB