Catalytic Sound Festival Brings New Combinations to Chicago’s Elastic Arts

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The final set of the fest was fronted by trumpeter Russ Johnson, shown here with bassist Ethan Philion.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

The third annual Catalytic Sound Festival (the second “in person” event, the first was virtual) was exponentially better attended than prior, though we vouch for the Chicago edition here, not concurrent events held in other U.S. and European cities (Asheville, North Carolina; Washington, D.C.; Holland; Vienna; New Haven, Connecticut; Norway; Hartford, Connecticut; and New York).

Catalytic Sound is an entrepreneurial cadre of 30 musicians seeking ways to sustain their creative endeavors with a for-profit, cooperative system, relying on revenue from a subscription series encompassing independent online streaming, monthly Artist Album releases, a quarterly journal, Option Talk podcasts in conjunction with Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio and international concerts curated by the collective.

The first three-set night at Chicago’s intimate Elastic Arts featured a fresh mash-up of trombonist Jeb Bishop (back in town after six years in Boston), young local firebrand Isaiah Collier, Norwegian drum dynamo Paal Nilssen-Love and D.C.-based bassist/activist Luke Stewart, followed by Sarah Clausen solo on reeds/synthesizer and Stewart’s (presumably sarcastically named) Exposure Quintet including catalyst Ken Vandermark in cahoots with fellow tough tenor Ed Wilkerson, Avreeayl Ra and Jim Baker.

DownBeat caught night two with Vandermark’s as-yet-unnamed new group featuring cellist Katinka Kleijn and up-and-comers Lilly Finnegan (drums), Nick Macri (bass) and Beth McDonald (tuba). The latter earned MVP stripes with meaty tone, clean articulation and all-around command of the unwieldy ax, at one point pumping low notes worthy of Bernard Herrmann’s score to Journey to the Center of the Earth. Aligned with cello, the tuba sound plus shifting meter of Vandermark’s “Reel to Reel” — alternating 6 to 5 at one point — conjured the influence of Henry Threadgill’s music but without quite the relentlessness of tension therein. The leader parlayed tenor, clarinet and baritone but seemed more invested in steering this unit than showboating.

The duo of spoken word/electronics mixmaster Damon Locks and Ben Hall on drums/ electronics followed, lowered houselights and hip breakbeats creating a dance club vibe, sans dancers. Connecting with Locks later, he remarked since his ear was near the P.A. speaker, he imagined the sonic presence was bolder, more akin to his forceful solo set from the previous year, but the sound of his tabletop gadgetry was contained so as not to overpower Hall’s percussion. The two men had never met before, but Locks had admired Hall’s gospel radio show, so when Vandermark suggested the spontaneous matchup he agreed to it and had gospel samples of his own at Elastic. Detroit-based Hall, a collaborator with such mavericks as Milford Graves, trumpet innovator Bill Dixon and guitarist Joe Morris, like Locks is a visual artist with sensitivity to sound color. Hall for the most part deployed a pastel palette of rumbling toms, mallet-play and congas to back Locks’ samples and effects, which were drawn from a mini synth, a pocket piano and a hand-wound mini turntable. Locks, a button with an image of Sidney Poitier emblazoning his vest, is a connoisseur of vintage TV and film and incorporated a sound clip of Fred Berry, actor/dancer in the ’70s show What’s Happening, climaxing with vocalizations through a Metta Audio Device: It was Kermit the Frog gargling atop oscillating synth pulsations and Hall’s dancing shekere. The off-the-cuff trippy mélange scored well with the capacity crowd, which included younger faces, and couldn’t have cut a more dramatic contrast with the next set.

Ballister are a long-running, all star trio featuring Nilssen-Love, festival MC Dave Rempis on saxophones and avant cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, as brilliant as he is zany. Rempis, who commands a somewhat ursine, diffident presence belied by his warm announcements and blowtorch playing, stepped out ferociously. With his clobbering urgency thence multifaceted approach, Nilssen-Love rolled with Rempis’ alternations between full-bore thrust, then Evan Parker-esque false-fingered squalls or extreme altissimo on alto, and perhaps only Lonberg-Holm could match these two on the ostensibly non-violent cello. In Lonberg-Holm’s feral hands the cello (avec pedals) is a scything, slashing, fascist-killing device. To hear the trio in action — a wildly expressionistic, highly virtuosic brew — check the epic “Fuck The Money Changers” or the utterly devastating “Old Worms” from Znachki Stilyag (Aerophonic), a live date from 2019 at the Dom Cultural Center in Moscow. As Rempis, one of the most road-tested souls on the improv scene, mentioned bleakly after the gig, his still current Russian visa isn’t much use these days.

The grandaddy of all road warriors opened the third night’s program at Elastic: Multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee, the youngest-at-heart free-jazzer at 83, the world yet did see. McPhee commenced his duo slot alongside frequent collaborator Nilssen-Love with spoken word, including his wry summation of the vicissitudes of life as a journeyman improvisor. Stirring as his defiant leitmotiv “Time for some new shit!” was, there was poignancy in his proclamation about the “wear and tear on the soul” endemic to his vocation, and the long tenor sax foray that followed, Nilssen-Love scraping rides with stick tips and chiming Chinese cymbals behind him, was McPhee at his most doleful and soulful. None of which prepared for the subsequent spectacle of Katinka Kleijn and Lia Kohl writhing about each others’ person like a couple of deranged sisters, in competition over one cello. Remarkably, despite the grappling and cavorting for possession, precise sounds were elicited with four hands on fingerboard and an untempered arco assault with four bows. Like a psychotic doctor, Kleijn, who also plays with the CSO, clamped contact mics on the body of the cello as if to check for heart irregularities during all the trauma and interference, or would (hilariously) wind back classical music tapes on a vintage Telex tape recorder as yoga-posed Kohl blipped knuckles against a tiny synth or schnoozed kazoo. At one point Kleijn made music by pulling Kohl’s miked hair and bowing on it.

The two, though legit practitioners of the instrument, have a history of cello abuse: They threw 30 of them into a swimming pool in 2019, putting in mind some of the Fluxus antics of cellist Charlotte Moorman in the ’60s. An audience member asked as Kohl left the stage, “Any other people in the world doing that before, two women playing one cello?” to which Kohl drolly responded, “We’ve never done that before, either!”

The final set of the festival was fronted by Wisconsin trumpeter Russ Johnson, a man whose bashfulness belies a storied resume (he was active in New York for decades) and matches instrumental chops with compositional acumen. This was a fulsome finale of five episodic pieces, including “The Long Branch” (dedicated to the late trumpeter Jamie Branch), concluding with “Dog Gone It” and, as an encore, the elasticated backbeats of “Skips.” The personnel, comprising drummer Tim Daisy, violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Ethan Philion, had recently recorded and were especially en pointe, though there was a decidedly roisterous connect between Daisy and Philion counterbalancing the tight frontline harmonies and intelligent heads. Feldman’s nimble but always deliberate fiddle succeeded in sounding trumpet-like at intervals, accessing alternate sonic pockets with textural contrast, be it pizzicato or slashing “doo-ink.” Johnson’s horn was often understated, his tunes for this group more than mere blowing vehicles; he didn’t shy from long tones and threw down some unapologetic blues.

Overall, the Catalytic Sound Festival was well attended, with sense of open-eared acceptance in the audience as well as onstage, despite the new faces. As Rempis emphasized, beyond funding structures for new works, Catalytic Sound’s larger aim is to foster community “using music as a means to do that.” DB




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