A Catalytic New Festival


Violinist Mark Feldman, a new Chicago transplant, performs with drummer Tim Daisy.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Reed player Ken Vandermark’s face said it all. He was delighted to have played in front of an appreciative audience and relieved that the three-day festival he helped engineer went without a glitch. That festival was the first in-person Catalytic Sound Festival that took place in Chicago in October. Catalytic Sound is a collective started in 2015 by Vandermark and other like-minded artists. Its purpose has been to create a new economic model meant to empower musicians and encourage them to work together, to take matters in their own hands and generate more sustainable revenues.

The launch of a new festival is most ambitious in these still uncertain times and Elastic, the venue, hosted the Windy City portion of the event that spanned several weeks and involved eight cities around the world. All three nights featured a balanced program that included well-established ensembles, solo performances and new meetings. The festival also served as a reminder that improvised music encompasses an impressive range of practices and styles — case-in-point being Damon Locks’ solo set on electronics that started as a tribute to the Velvet Underground before inducing a festive mood, and finally inviting Vandermark to a friendly joust.

Opening the festivities was the trio of Vandermark, violinist Macie Stewart and percussionist claire rousay, who first played together at the Experimental Sound Studio gala in August 2019. Rousay brought her usual minimalist kit made up of a floor tom, a snare drum and various found objects including aluminum cans and plastic bags. Her choreographic moves behind the set added a potent visual aspect to the performance. Stewart and Vandermark, when not using extended techniques, provided some inspired melodic lines, the latter adding a wide range of colors on his clarinet, bass clarinet and tenor saxophone. The true communal nature of the trio’s work came through as the musicians took turns to suggest new directions. Often a trouble maker, rousay used her belt or her necklace to scraping and rustling effect and made the best of mishaps when her tom fell over. The three musicians showed that chaos and beauty could coexist — or that chaos could be born out of beauty and vice versa.

Dave Rempis stated that the presence of Joe McPhee — a frequent Chicago guest — signaled a return to normalcy. However, his first collaboration with pianist/organist Olivia Block was quite unusual for the saxophonist who, just a couple of weeks short of his 82nd birthday, proved once more that he was ready to take on any challenge. Starting on the piano with dreamy single notes, Block was joined by McPhee who produced long, sustained notes from his now distinctive white and orange plastic alto saxophone before their interaction gained in complexity and density. When Block switched to the organ, the pair decided to aim for contrast. McPhee screamed and wailed in response to the keyboardist’s stretched dark chords or throbbing ambient waves.

Buthanese guitarist Tashi Dorji, who had delivered blistering textures during his set with the trio Kuzu featuring saxophonist Dave Rempis and drummer Tyler Damon, created somewhat of a surprise when he appeared with an amplified acoustic guitar for his solo show. It would be too reductive to assimilate his performance to a demented John Fahey, but the guitarist did offer a dystopian vision of Americana. During three captivating peregrinations, he seemed particularly interested in exploring the question of time, locking rhythmic patterns, their repetitiveness being pushed to the limit. His delivery was often fragmented and disjointed in an alternatively thoughtful and aggressive manner. Most importantly, Dorji dazzled with boundless effects created through the detuning of his guitar to twangy effect, intricate fingerings and a generous serving of polyphonics.

Having left New York earlier this year, violinist Mark Feldman is a significant new Chicago transplant. He debuted at Elastic with a solo concert, but this time he was joined by drummer Tim Daisy for a spirited performance. At his most whimsical, Daisy can build a frenzy of percussion instruments. He adroitly used his ride cymbal to spur his partner and provide momentum. When in call-and-response mode, the violinist displayed some relentless inquisitiveness. Both musicians undoubtedly delivered one of the most uplifting performances of the festival, Feldman delving into dance territory often betraying klezmer roots, whose jauntiness kept popping up. A highlight occurred when the violinist got into a high-pitched serenade while Daisy provided a minimalist backdrop with an assortment of cymbals and gongs. Feldman resorted for the first and only time to pizzicato when the duo brought their collaborative effort to a stark close. DB

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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