Free-Improv Players Soar During Astral Spirits Showcase

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Keefe Jackson plays a sopranino saxophone at the Astral Spirits Showcase in Chicago on July 23.

(Photo: Ryan O’Connor)

Improvisation is a problem-solving strategy, and the music business has plenty of problems right now. While free-improv may not be the solution to the current challenges of the jazz industry—which include shrinking audiences, vanishing financing and the spurning of the compact disc format by both mainstream purchasers and collectors—it nonetheless points to ways to stay active and engaged.

Musician Nathan Cross of Austin, Texas, is the proprietor of Astral Spirits, a label that has taken some cues from underground rock and noise labels. The imprint eschews compact discs in favor of limited edition cassettes and, more recently, vinyl LPs. Its diverse catalog includes underground rock, soundtrack music and noise, as well as free-jazz by the likes of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and multi-instrumentalist Joe McPhee.

On July 23–24, Cross staged his first label showcase outside the Lone Star state over two weekend nights at the Hungry Brain on Chicago’s North Side. (Cross was in the city temporarily after working as a tech at the city’s Pitchfork Music Fest.) The bill skewed heavily, but not exclusively, toward free-jazz and total improvisation, and it brought together a cross-generational slate of Chicagoans and a diverse array of out-of-state improvisers.

The Tim Stine Trio, a local ensemble, opened the evening’s programming on July 23 with a set of subtly swinging originals. Stine is a reserved player and a generous leader, quite willing to remove the tart sound of his amplified acoustic guitar from the mix in order to highlight the interplay between drummer Adam Vida and acoustic bassist Anton Hatwich.

Percussionist Ben Bennett’s Astral Spirits release is called Trap, but a conventional trap set is one thing he did not play during his totally improvised solo set. Sitting cross-legged on the stage, he utilized sing bowls, a frame drum and a can covered with membranes, which he activated with his breath as well as his limbs. Some of the most striking moments came when he didn’t make any sounds at all, but suggested them by silently touching his instruments. At other points, the independent action of his arms, lips and legs upon his instruments made enough sound for an entire ensemble.

The trio of saxophonist Nick Mazzarella, bassist Ingebrigt Håker-Flaten and drummer Avreeayl Ra has only played three times, but the recording of its first concert, captured on the album Azimuth, is one of the most spiritually affecting recordings the label has released thus far.

The trio dug just as deep in this set, which kept rising to thunderous crescendos propelled by Ra’s forceful drumming. Håker-Flaten, a Norwegian who currently lives in Texas, contributed dancing lines that kept the music grounded while at the same proposing a multitude of directions for Mazzarella. The saxophonist switched between his familiar alto and a 90 year-old Conn soprano. On the former, his playing was intricate and muscular; on the latter, he played long, solemn tones that threaded through Ra’s ceremonial cadences.

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July 2021
Julian Lage
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