Reid Forges New Connections at Chicago Jazz String Summit


Edmar Castaneda performs at the eighth-annual Chicago Jazz String Summit.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

Cellist Tomeka Reid is wildly playful and a ball of energy in person but sober and serious in performance. Her self-effacing public persona was evident in a break on the first night of the eighth-annual Chicago Jazz String Summit at Constellation, when she announced proceedings from the audience, without a mic, in the dark. (She bounded on stage and did a better job the second night.) Anyone who has been attending her underappreciated festival the past eight years, however, knows that Reid is a superb curator and connector.

The CJSS, held May 13–14, also includes an online educational component, with free virtual workshops hosted by the city’s Experimental Sound Studio, plus video tributes to past performers and honorees.

Jetting in to Chicago from her yearlong artistic residency for the Moers Festival in Germany, Reid didn’t give herself a gig at her own festival (as artistic directors who are pro musicians often do), but corralled six stunning sets showcasing artists seldom seen in the Midwest, plus an up-and-coming local aggregation, too.

Venezuelan viola player Leonor Falcon and her husband-guitarist Juanma Trujillo, both originally from Caracas, kicked off proceedings with a many splendored duo. The headscarfed profile and red lips of Falcon somewhat echoed Jan Vermeer’s canvas “Girl With A Pearl Earring” as she swayed back and forth with her instrument, eliciting the gamut of sounds, often triggered by her thick-tread boots stomping on a rack of effects pedals. Trujillo’s guitar was diversely supportive, offering clucky counterpoint under slashing viola bow, country-fried one minute, dark and grungy the next. Hints of the influences of both Bill Frisell and John Scofield bubbled up, but otherwise Trujillo’s approach defies categories. His attentiveness and spontaneity suddenly would sync in unison with Falcon as they intermittently resorted to manuscript in front of them. “Expanding Universe” took us to the cosmos with the ominous droning of effects-laden, dynamically dwindling viola and insistent, thumb driven guitar, but was followed with a lilting piece that mixed, rather improbably, choppy West African rhythms with Hot Club flavors. A release of the duo is in the works; meantime seek out Peach And Tomato (a duo with violinist Sana Nagano) and Tujillo’s rangy quartet outing Impetu (both on Falcon Gumba).

Violinist and Juilliard faculty member Curtis Stewart followed with the über passionate and virtuosic outpourings from his multilayered video/music/verse/electronic solo projects “Of Power,” “Of Color(s) (Gone)” and, principally, “Of Love,” elements partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter campaign and an “ode and celebration of the power of my mother, one of my deepest and yet most elusive inspirations.”

Stewart is the offspring of Greek violinist Elektra Kurtis and tuba great Bob Stewart. As they did, he has grappled with reconciling the classical and jazz camps. Though his set drew from Brahms and Purcell (the latter’s lament from Dido and Aeneas) as well as notated music (he also sang in support of his interpretation of Brahms Violin Sonata #1), it was abundantly clear that Stewart is capable of practically anything on his instrument. He throws his whole body and soul into a performance. A highlight was a poignant rendition of his mother’s favorite Greek folk song, “Thalassaki Mou.”

Capping the festival’s first night (three-and-a-half hours of music) was the rare aggregation of cellist Jake Charkey and tabla master Mir Naqibal Islam — rare in that the cello is not normally associated with Hindustani music, although at moments the instrument shimmered like a sitar. The duo’s set began (and ended) with traditional body movement from Kathak dancer Veronica Simas de Souza, who made an invocation to Lord Shiva after a lengthy warmup session from strings and drums (the set’s requisite tanpura drone, incidentally, was provided by an app on Charkey’s iPad). No dabbler in North Indian forms, Charkey splits time between New York and Mumbai and has contributed to a number of Bollywood soundtracks. Classical forms from another hemisphere, the jazz pedant might argue, but metric extemporization has always been part-and-parcel of the subcontinent’s indigenous music and a draw for more rhythmically adventurous jazzers. A drut ektaal (fast 12-beat cycle) with an interesting title (“Rama Nama Parama Dhamma”) mixed with several teentals (16 beat ragas), but the surprise in the set was a raga revamp of Doc Watson’s “As I Went Down In The River To Pray,” inspired by Charkey’s viewing of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Saturday night was better attended and began, as the previous night, with a beguiling violinist. Despite her disarming, somewhat eccentric manner, Zara Zaharieva, from Bulgaria, wife of her quartet’s electric bassist, Joshua Ramos, is a forceful performer with a clear talent for improvisation, notated recital and original composition. Drummer Kyle Swann and guitarist Edhiño Gerber rounded out the group, the latter a distinctly jazzy foil for the eclectic Zaharieva, with hints of Pats, Metheny and Martino, in his style. The leader lists martial arts and sky-diving on her résumé and is clearly engaged with the world, evident in her varied musical conceits. The playful opener “Musika Schmuzika” was chased up by an also playful, but moving, tribute to her departed dog: “Song For Bradley.” Early on, a virtuosic face-off between Ramos’ growly, funky electric bass and Swan’s kick-heavy drums was salient. “Toca Mas Cumbia” revealed Zaharieva’s enthusiasm for Latin rhythms; before “In The Forest,” she spoke about her imagination having a tendency to run riot. During a heavy theory lesson with trumpeter Victor Garcia, she recalled, her mind wandered, conjuring chess-playing woodland creatures, what she referred to as “cartoons in her head.” There seemed no end in sight for Zaharieva’s ideas, but she kept her set relatively concise, which was appreciated, given the multi-bill. Spoken-word artist Justus (Joseph Sanders) joined the quartet toward the end of the set with some high-energy holy rolling.

Next up were two seasoned veterans, both alumni of the Sun Ra Arkestra: drummer Avreeayl Ra and cellist Kash Killion, who convened for the first time in five years to spontaneously collaborate. A shamanic rapport immediately congealed with Ra alternating spartan, skeletal mallet beats with unheralded, almighty thwacks, as Killion parlayed interstellar cello-processed scrapings, arco melismas and vocal pronouncements such as “I flew to a star, I didn’t know how far!” Both men spoke of the lineage of their sonic quests, and the authenticity of their spiritual enquiry was unimpeachable, Killion hoping he had inspired the audience “beyond comfort.” “Echoes Of Africa” was particular evocative, with chants, meditative flute, even quasi throat-singing from Ra, which called from another continent. Killion eked what sounds he could from a necklace whistle as Ra’s hi-hat snapped and his twin cowbells tolled.

Killion is a cello specialist but has explored many instruments and brings his diverse interests to bear. Ultimately he resorted to sarangi, a bowed, stubby necked stringed instrument popular in Punjabi and Rajasthani folk music. Though the sounds he elicited through cello seemed boundless, the sarangi, which Killion has studied with the renowned Ali Akbar Khan and other Indian masters, while still mesmerizing, was more limited in tonal variation.

Though known for brittle shimmer despite its size, the harp, at the hands of Edmar Castaneda, is an entirely different story. The Colombian genius connects his bass strings to an amp to add heft and contrapuntal groove to his blistering and sublime assault on the 34 strings at his disposal, each of which he can clutch in a flash, with supreme accuracy despite an acrobatic attack. Castaneda assailed Astor Piazzolla’s “Libertango” with the impassioned zeal of the most fiery flamenco guitarist and left jaws agape with “For Jaco,” his outrageously funky and harmonically adventurous tribute to bassist Jaco Pastorius, one of his first jazz crushes.

Castaneda is one of a handful of musicians who have that meta-mastery of their axe of choice: truly transcendent, not just technically, but in terms of the triumphant human spirit they inspire. After the show Zaharieva, a virtuoso in her own right, exclaimed, “I’m speechless,” and that hit the bullseye: an incredible climax to an already lofty summit. DB

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December 2022
Kenny Barron
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