Free-Improv Players Soar During Astral Spirits Showcase


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

(Photo: Ryan O’Connor)

A very different trio closed out the evening. Guitarist Tashi Dorji was born in Bhutan, and began playing punk rock when he moved to Asheville, North Carolina, for college, where he discovered free jazz on the Internet. He’s best known for pithy acoustic improvisations, but on this night he appeared with drummers Thom Nguyen and Tyler Damon.

While each drummer has recorded and toured previously with Dorji, they were new to each other, but there was nothing tentative about the way their playing melded into a wall of high-volume sound. Dorji alternately added to it with layers of harmonics and loops or chipped away at its surface with short, flinty phrases.

The second night opened with another local trio. Keyboardist Jim Baker, who is in his 60s, joined drummer Julian Kirshner and saxophonist Keefe Jackson, who are three decades younger, in a wide-ranging exploration of dynamics. When Baker played grand piano and Jackson accompanied him on tenor saxophone, the music came in a quick and continuous flow. When they switched to Arp synthesizer and sopranino, respectively, the music took on a more fragmentary quality, but the tonal consonance of high reeds and lacerating electronics ensured that the music never lacked for coherence.

They were followed by Chatoyant, a quartet from Detroit that shares one member with noise-rockers Wolf Eyes. The combo’s noodling seemed desultory in comparison with what came before and after, and it proved to be the festival’s low point.

But all longueurs were forgotten as Håker-Flaten and Damon returned to the stage to join saxophonist Dave Rempis and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz in a titanic first encounter. Each musician has plenty of brute force at his command, but they are all astute listeners as well, so that their improvising was as balanced as it was wild.

Håker-Flaten, Rempis and Adasiewicz have refined their duo chemistries in a host of bands over the years, so their rapport was not so much a surprise as an exhilarating confirmation of possibilities. Damon not only fit right in to this web of affiliations, but he projected a complementary density of attack and contrasting tones from his trap kit, which included extra cymbals laid on the drum skins. His performance was easily one of the festival’s high points.

The duo Hearts & Minds closed the weekend with a set that lived up to the band’s name. Neither electric keyboardist Paul Giallorenzo nor bass clarinetist Jason Stein is a stranger to rigorous free and composed settings, ranging from the former’s electroacoustic trio Breakway to the blend of muscular soloing and swinging cadences favored by the latter’s quartet. But in this combo they showed a healthy appreciation for the persuasiveness of sturdy grooves and memorably angular tunes.

Chad Taylor filled in for regular drummer Frank Rosaly, but he seemed right at home pouring whirlpool fills into the compositions’ empty spaces.

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