Aram Shelton’s Fast Citizens

Two Cities
Delmark DE 590

Jason Adasiewicz’ Rolldown


Cuneiform Rune 292

Organizing many bands with shifting, but similar, local personnel seems to be a factor uniting the newest generation of Chicago improvisers, with earlier jazz folk from territory towns like Chicago and Detroit. Unlike places such as New York, Los Angeles and Toronto where every player seems to be from somewhere else and may soon be heading elsewhere, Windy City folk have an overriding sense of place – even if they eventually move on.

Take these fine quintet and sextet CDs. Each shares three musicians in common – drummer Frank Rosaly, cornetist Josh Berman and reedist Aram Shelton. Cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm on Two Cities also works with Varmint’s bassist Jason Roebke in his own trio; while bassist Anton Hatwich from Two Cities was in a band led by saxophonist Dave Rempis with Rosaly; vibist Jason Adasiewicz has worked in bands led by multi-reedist Ken Vandermark, who also employs Lonberg Holm; and Hatwich, Adasiewicz and Jackson are also featured on Berman’s own CD, Old Idea (Delmark DE 588). And the interconnections go on and on.

The power of this mutual respect among peers is evident in both CDs. Adasiewicz initially composed most of the tunes for Rolldown while living in Madison, Wisc. and working on a vegetable farm [!]; while Shelton has actually relocated to Oakland, Calif. – the other city of the two cities title. Fast Citizens, founded in 2002, usually function as Jackson’s working band in Chicago and has recorded under the tenor man’s name as well. Despite these similar separations, both ensembles function as if the members practice collectively every day.

On Two Cities’ nine tracks, for instance, whether Shelton, Jackson, Lonberg-Holm or Hatwich composes the line, sonic cohesion is the same, as is the equally powerful solos and section work. Shelton’s title track for instance, is initially built on call-and-response hocketing from the unison horns and tough rat-tat-tats and press rolls from the drummer. But soon the piece opens up with extended flutter tonguing from the alto saxophonist, sul ponticello bass work and squeaking and slinky cello runs. When Jackson takes over the lead, he adds irregular vibrato and locked tongue stops as Berman smears grace notes. Finally Rosaly’s hand drumming is cushioned by a speedy recap of the head. Experimenting coupled with respect for the tradition is reflected in the tracks by Jackson, the band’s other main composer. On “Easy”, the final track, he boldly snorts the thematic line as his tone thins to expose split tones and altissimo runs. Meanwhile the cello picks and plinks frailing timbres and the bassist walks solidly atop press rolls from the drums.

In between that, two of Shelton’s tunes, “In Cycles” and “the Twenty-Seven” are particularly noteworthy. On the later, Lonberg-Holm’s legato smoothness is contrasted with chirping split tones from the composer on alto and rubato peeps from Berman., alternating between slurred grainy textures and translucent blasts. Before the cornetist wraps up the piece with metallic scaling and cat-like yowls, sul ponticello cello lines sweep across the sound picture then turn to a strumming undertow as the horns vamp and peck. “In Cycles” moves in broken phrases that nevertheless refer back the reverberating exposition. As the bassist decisively pops his strings, Shelton stutters clarinet trills on top of massed horn lines that gradually modulate from andante to allegro. Leaving enough space to outline Hatwich’s and Rosaly’s rhythmic thumps, the conclusion showcases the combined brass and reeds and make each pass more staccato and aleatoric until the wrap-up.

If space is what is exhibited here, than Adasiewicz’ upfront vibraphone resonance supplies that factor to Varmint. With one fewer horn and only one stringed instrument, the quintet still manages to showcase interludes of pure airiness. Although the solos may be linked to various Blue Note sessions by vibist Bobby Hutcherson, reedist Eric Dolphy and pianist Andrew Hill – whose “The Griots” is the only cover on either CD – the architecture of many tracks also reflects the West Coast horns and vibes experiments of stylists like Emil Richards, Teddy Charles and Victor Feldman.

The most obvious link is on “Punchbug”, a chamber-like tune featuring Shelton’s clarinet slurps and squeaks moving chromatically in time with slowly turning vibrations from the vibraphone motor. As the reed man inches ahead with coloratura trilling, the rhythm section starts and stops behind him as Berman’s adds crackling triplet and plunger whinnies. Although almost pulse-less, the tune still retains legato coloration remaining linear as the cornet and clarinet lines parallel.

Airy and rococo, “Hide” gains its distinctiveness from the stacking of instrumental textures. Here Shelton’s repeated phrases that slip from high to low pitches are matched in contrapuntal accord by Berrman’s buzzing trills and rubato slurs. Meanwhile Adasiewicz’ staccato slaps and patting ring peals parallel to the others’ tonal extensions. The recapped head after the turnaround confirms the piece’s melodic traditionalism.

More spiky and polyphonic are pieces such as the title track and “Green Grass”. Spacious rebounds from the vibes on the later track stack up against unison chromatic horn riffs as Roebke walks and Rosaly raps the sides of his drums. Then Shelton lets loose with side-slipping chromaticism as his multi-mallets ring contrapuntally. As for “Varmint”, although straightforwardly tonic in his approach, the cornetist also flutters broken octave lines that bond with high-pitched swoops from the altoist plus strokes and bounces from the vibraphonist. Ruffs and clanks from the drums eventually match Adasiewicz’ double- and triple-stopping patterns, leading to a satisfying finale.

With an impressive wide dynamic range in both their composing and performing capabilities, a newer generation of Chicago craftsmen prove with CDs such as these that there’s still plenty of musical inventiveness in the Windy City.

And most players don’t have to move to properly express it.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Cities: 1. Two Cities 2. Big News 3. Western Promenade 4. VRC#9 5. In Cycles 6. I am Here, You are There 7. the Twenty-Seven 8.Wontkins 9. Easy

Personnel: Cities: Josh Berman (cornet); Aram Shelton (alto saxophone and clarinet); Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello); Anton Hatwich (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums)

Track Listing: Varmint: 1. Green Grass 2. Varmint 3. Dagger 4. Hide 5. I Hope She is Awake 6. Punchbug 7. The Griots

Personnel: Varmint: Josh Berman (cornet); Aram Shelton (alto saxophone and clarinet); Jason Adasiewicz (vibraphone); Jason Roebke (bass) and Frank Rosaly (drums)