June 9th 2008

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Tentet/Sonore- November/December 2007

Arrived back in Chicago after more than two months of concerts in Europe (a week of solo performances in New York for the “Musician” film screenings; then the Free Fall, Ab Baars Trio, and Sonore tours, then the work on the Resonance project), and it was probably time for some kind of break but there wasn’t time. I got home on November 21st. Paal Nilssen-Love arrived on the 26th to help sequence and master the Fire Room album. On the 28th the Tentet began a week of 10th anniversary celebration concerts in Chicago, which were made possible thanks to the assistance of the Museum of Contemporary Art, the only venue in North America where it was financially viable to perform with the ensemble in 2007 (after much effort was made to locate some kind of arts support for the group to tour in the United States, the group came up empty handed; once again, economic and artistic survival would have to be found in Europe).

Paal and I finished the Fire Room album with Bob Weston at Chicago Mastering Service. The album, called “Broken Music,” would be released in March of 2008 on Atavistic; it presents cutting edge improvisation by a trio that includes electronics expert Lasse Marhaug, which blurs distinctions between rhythm, noise, and melody. We were barely done with that project before the first small group concerts began, but there was still a chance to visit Peter Brötzmann’s art exhibition at the Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery before it closed on December 1st. What a collection of paintings and objects! I believe that anyone who is a fan of Peter’s music should and would be interested in his visual art; there is a clear parallel between the two. The beautiful catalog for the show, packed with tons of great photos of the material, might still be available- contact the gallery at www.corbettvsdempsey.com.

Concert number one of the 10th anniversary took place at the Hideout on Wednesday, November 28th, a double header that opened with Peter Brötzmann and Fred Lonberg-Holm in a duo, followed by the cd release performance by the Thing and myself for our recording, “Immediate Sound” (on Smalltown Superjazz). The album we recorded at the Hideout’s 1st anniversary celebration in April 2007 proved to be no fluke, the set we played was super-charged with energy from note one. I feel extremely lucky to be able to do these gigs with Mats Gustafsson, Paal Nilssen-Love, and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten, and I’m already looking forward to the scattered gigs that are going to happen throughout 2008: Vancouver in June, Kongsberg in July, Tokyo in September- incredible!

The last gig for a busy November took place the following night at Elastic, a quartet with myself, Per-Åke Holmlander, Jeb Bishop, and Paal; and a trio with Peter Brötzmann, Paal and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten- more good music, and the last set of small group performances before the full Tentet would play at the MCA on December 1st. The ensemble made it to the MCA load in on time, dragging along all the equipment necessary for one of our performances- two drum sets, amps and the bass and cello, a slew of horns: tuba, saxophones, clarinets, trombones- despite a late evening the night before where we celebrated Jeb Bishop’s marriage to Jaki Cellini, AND the major snowstorm that hit the city the day of our gig- bad Chicago winter luck. (You can plan ahead for more than a year but there are some things you simply can’t control.) Luckily, we had an incredible amount of help with our sound set up from Denis Oshea, who made at least those technical logistics at the MCA a piece of cake.

A number of things made this concert a special one in the group’s long history: it officially recognized the decade that the Tentet had been in existence (with most of its original members [Peter Brötzmann, Jeb Bishop, Mats Gustafsson, Kent Kessler, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Joe McPhee, myself, Michael Zerang] still sharing the stage) in the city where it all began; Jeb Bishop and Johannes Bauer would be performing together with the band for the first time on this side of the Atlantic; I’d be able to use all my horns, which hadn’t been possible since the last North American tour in 2004; and the concert would be recorded by Amos Scattergood and filmed by Paula Froehle for possible use as the group’s first concert film. With all this added to the “usual” performance issues, I was concerned that so many expectations might pressurize the situation, pushing musicians to overplay or try too hard in order to force the music to be “extraordinary” on such a special day. As usual, I should not have been worried- this was a collection of totally committed and disciplined artists who were ready to play.

The current complete lineup of eleven musicians (the Chicago Tentet is continues to be more a name than a number) took the stage after some pretty insane last minute lunacy with guest lists, merchandise, the sound check, meeting people… The only thing that gave me the chance to focus on the real reason I was there- to work together with the band and perform a concert of the best music we could play that night- was the small collection of Peter’s artwork that was on display in the MCA’s foyer (with help from the Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery). Some moments to look and think, and then to head backstage to join the group; from Germany: Peter Brötzmann and Johannes Bauer; from Poughkeepsie: Joe McPhee; from Sweden: Mats Gustafsson and Per-Åke Holmlander; from Norway: Paal Nilssen-Love; and from Chicago: Jeb Bishop, Kent Kessler, Fred Lonberg-Holm, myself, and Michael Zerang- quite an assembly of contemporary improvising musicians. Despite the heavy snow, the concert hall was sold out. The ensemble responded by performing one seventy-minute suite, the longest single piece we’d ever played together. The music was totally cohesive, and something marvelous in its construction. The fact that eleven musicians could completely improvise such long form material was somehow incredible yet, through everyone’s collective effort, it was possible. To have this music and performance documented both on tape (thank you Amos Scattergood) and on film (thank you Paula Froehle) for future release was tremendous and fortuitous. The MCA gig was a beautiful way to celebrate the ten years of creative work the band has shared and the audience’s response was imperative- an encore must be played! The musicians walked back to the stage and Peter spoke eloquently of the importance the listeners have for us, and the place that the music has in our chaotic and problematic world. This spirit permeated all the music that night in Chicago.

A real celebration of the accomplishments of the evening would have to wait. First we had to load everything out of the museum, not an easy task with all the security policies, hallways, and elevators. The band thought it had removed all the equipment, but as the second to last car was being sent away we realized that Per-Åke’s tuba had been left on stage. How it’s possible to miss an instrument that size I don’t know, but somehow in the chaos of clearing the stage it was possible. This necessitated having to get another I.D. badge and freight elevator pass, only to find out that someone had left the elevator door open on a different floor, which meant Per-Åke and I couldn’t use the damn thing. Plan B meant asking for help:

+We need to get back to the stage, can you tell us the easiest way to get there?

-Use the freight elevator.

+We tried but it won’t come because someone left the door open on another floor.

-You need to give it a minute. Here let me show you……………………………… Seems like someone left the door open on another floor.

+Yes. So how do we get to the stage?

-Well the easiest way is to go through the security doors, follow the hallways through two sets of fire doors, then take the elevator up to the 3rd floor, take a left down the hallway, when you get to the first set of doors take a right, this corridor goes a ways, when you get as far as you can go take a right, you’ll find a set of stairs, go down a flight and open the door, take a left and when you get to the elevator take it down to the first floor, take a left and your first right, the door at the end of the hallway will lead you to a set of stairs that will bring you to the stage, if that door’s locked you’ll need to go back to the elevator and take it to the basement, take a right and your first left and you’ll find the backstage hallways, one of the doors down there should probably still be open.

+Right.

Per-Åke and I went through the security doors, followed the hallway through two sets of fire doors, then got into the elevator and hit the 3rd floor button. Nothing happened.

+Goddamnit!

Per-Åke suggested the basement button. I hit it. The elevator quickly dropped one floor and the doors opened- we were suddenly standing backstage. Sitting directly before us, alone and waiting calmly for us to arrive, was the tuba.

We got home along snowy streets and had a party with whoever was awake enough to celebrate, which meant pretty much everyone in the band and their friends. As usual, Ellen took care of everything social with real panache. Even exhausted it felt very, very good to have those moments together with everyone. December 1st, 2007 goes down as a great night. Now forward into the second decade for the band!

The next morning Paal and I needed to teach a workshop at the Experimental Sound Studio. Thankfully this was just up the road from where we went to sleep at dawn. Lou Mallozzi had organized a series of three improvisation classes (Mats Gustafsson/Michael Zerang, and Per-Åke/Fred Lonberg-Holm also taught one) at ESS, and these courses helped provide essential funds to the Tentet budget, aiding the group to come to Chicago. Somehow Paal and I made it to the workshop on time, and after drinking about a gallon of coffee we were able to play and discuss music with the half dozen or so participants.

Later in the day, Paal and I met up with Nate McBride for some dinner at his place, then we all headed to the Hungry Brain to catch the third concert of small group sessions by the Tentet members. We walked in moments after the “trombone choir” had begun: Johannes, Jeb, Joe on Clifford Thornton’s valve trombone, and Per-Åke playing the cembasso. This subset of the Tentet brass section had come together several times during last year of performances by the ensemble, so organizing a circumstance that focused on this instrumentation made a lot of sense. The music they played was electrifying and fantastic, completely unique in its sonority and style. Though it was a Sunday night, the Brain was packed to the rafters and I was told that it was one of the biggest audiences the series had ever had. Nate, Paal, and I were buy lamisil tablets online packed all the way to the back of the club at the end of the bar, but even from so far away it was clear how great the music was. To follow such a strong set? A sextet with Peter, Jeb, Michael, Kent, and a couple of the younger musicians in town- Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Tim Daisy- all packed onto a cramped stage and equally burning.

The next stretch of small group shows continued this amazingly quality of music:

-Tuesday the 4th at Elastic: a drum duo with Paal and Michael; and a first time quartet featuring Fred, Johannes, Kent, and Per-Åke. The only disappointment was a smaller turnout due to more wretched Chicago weather.

-Wednesday the 5th at the Hideout: Sonore (Peter, Mats, me) and the Survival Unit III (Joe, Fred, Michael). Though both ensembles have worked extensively in Europe, neither plays often enough Stateside. And I know that when I stand on stage with Sonore I always feel inspired because I’ll be able to steal enough ideas to keep me sounding fresh for weeks.

-Thursday the 6th at Elastic: the duo of Peter and Michael, a return to the format of their outstanding recording, “Live In Beirut,” released on Al Maslakh Records in 2005; and the Peter performing in another duo, this time with Joe McPhee. For me, this set with the two elder statesmen of the Tentet was, along with the full ensemble’s performance at the MCA, the highlight of the ten days of Chicago activity by the band. The music was so straightforward, intense and relaxed; somehow I felt like I was hearing a conversation in sound that would remain creatively permanent. It was some of the best music I had heard in my life.

-Friday the 7th at the Hideout: the 10th anniversary of the Chicago Tentet ended with understandable intensity. First up, the trio that released, “The Fat Is Gone,” on Smalltown Superjazz: Peter, Mats, and Paal. Somehow, after a blistering hour of music with that lineup, Peter was able to dig into another energy reserve and lay forth an incendiary set with Joe McPhee, Kent Kessler, and Michael Zerang- surely one of the best quartets working in improvised music today and easily proving the fact that night in Chicago.

That was it, the Chicago days with the Tentet went by faster than could be imagined. Despite the crazy work and logistics, the music, players, audiences, organizers (many thanks to Dave Rempis of Elastic, Josh Berman and Mike Reed of the Hungry Brain, Peter Taub of the MCA, and Lou Mallozzi of ESS) created a constant atmosphere of creativity and excitement: 15 sets of incredible music during eight nights. Now to see what the next decade will bring… One important bit of music that occurred during that ten day stretch that almost no one heard at the time was a duo recording organized by Mitch Cocanig, and engineered by Amos Scattergood at the “studio” in Nate McBride’s house with Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and Joe McPhee. Of particular note (for me) was the fact that Joe used my tenor saxophone. Back in 1982, when I was seventeen, my father played me a copy of McPhee’s album, “Tenor,” that he had just received in the mail. In a very real sense, that was the starting point for the path that I’ve traveling for the last twenty-six years. The fact that Joe was using my horn on one of his recordings two and a half decades later felt like a beautiful circle had been drawn, all because of music.

Saturday the 8th, a day to rest. Sunday I got onto a plane to fly to Copenhagen with Peter in order to play a week’s worth of concerts in Sweden with Sonore. Mats picked us up after we arrived and, based on the look of exhaustion on his face, the 24 hours he’d had to be home before we showed up wasn’t quite enough to recuperate from the Chicago days and nights… We spent Monday hanging out at his new home in Skåne, a beautiful old farmhouse placed in a landscape pulled straight out of an Ingmar Bergman film. On the morning of the 11th we packed Mats’ car and he drove (as he’d do for the next five days) the seven hours to Västerås for our first concert on the tour- one set starting at 7pm on the Nya Perspektiv series. Despite our hat trick of jet lag we played some good music for the typically small, but enthusiastic, crowd. It was a nice way to start the trip. The next day’s drive was much easier, less than two hours, and we got into Stockholm early enough to have some time to walk around town before sound check. Peter and I decided to head to the Moderna Museet, where we hoped to catch a Robert Capa exhibition, but the show had closed the week before we arrived. So, instead, we had a nice espresso and looked at some other great artwork, not a bad way to spend an afternoon off. While Peter went back to the hotel to get some rest, I tried to find a fantastic bookstore that had been located by the Kulturhuset since I had first started visiting Stockholm more than a dozen years ago. The shop was gone- another sign of the times. But, on a positive note, in one of the exhibition spaces at the Kulturhuset was a Nobuyoshi Araki retrospective. I had never been that interested in his photographs but figured, since I still had some hours to fill before meeting the other guys at the club, I might as well take a look at the collection. I am very glad I did. I was dead wrong in my original impressions of his work- the variety of photographs extended well beyond his notorious erotic images of women, the range of pictures, both in content and method, were enormous- everything from shots of disappearing Tokyo (echoes of the Atget exhibition I had seen in Berlin when out performing with Sonore in November) to photo-journalistic street images, from color Polaroids to large format black and whites. As someone who struggles against the limitations placed against me by certain critics about the diversity in my music, the irony that I had made a similar judgment against Araki without first really examining his work was not lost on me.

Sonore’s concert at Fasching on the evening of the 12th was a real surprise. I expected the music to be strong but there was also a large and listening crowd. Based on my previous experiences at the club this was something unusual. In fact, it was the first time that Mats had played there in years because he had become so frustrated with the venue’s policies and treatment of musicians. Now, under a different management, things seem to be looking up. A number of friends and musicians made it out- Fredrik Ljungkvist, Magnus Broo, Per-Åke Holmlander- something that always means a lot when on tour. Mats had another long drive to Malmö, seven plus hours, we basically got in town in time for some dinner and a browse through a record store before heading to the venue to set up to play. The space, called Jeriko, is pretty large, potentially seating more than two hundred people. The last time I played there was on at a festival in a duo with Paal Nilssen-Love, also on the bill was Atomic, and the place was packed, but tonight? I wondered how many people we’d get on a Thursday. Things turned out exceptionally well. Not only was the place full, it was full of young people listening with curiosity and enthusiasm for the two sets we played. The program director was smart. By using support funds to help pay for our fees and expenses, he was able to make the admission fee for students very cheap, so they came in droves, willing to take a gamble on music they didn’t know. This was a great example of how to use funding to expand the audience, and it was based on trying to understand how to generate listeners for challenging music without dumbing anything down except the price; a really fantastic night.

The drive to Göteborg wasn’t too bad, so with the extra time the three of us headed to the art museum. The exhibitions turned out to be a major letdown after what I saw in Stockholm but man, what a bookstore! Perhaps the best collections of photography monographs I’ve ever seen in one place; hard to get out of there and impossible to do so without dropping a bundle of cash. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the day, and the final gig of the trip, turned out to be pretty brutal. The folks running the music at Nefertiti are great, working as musicians and label directors themselves, and they made sure all the details were super organized. But you can’t predict the way certain members of an audience will act, or why idiots would pay good money to come to a concert by a non-commercial group like Sonore and then talk through the music while having dinner… Likewise, it’s impossible to predict when you’re going to get hit with an inability to find something worthwhile to say with the music. Even when playing alongside musicians who are as creative and inspiring as Peter and Mats there are times when nothing seems to work, and on that Friday I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark for both sets. By the end of the concert I felt like I had been punched in the mouth and the head all night; not the greatest way to end two and a half weeks of work with two friends and collaborators. For me, the best part of the evening took place backstage, during a long discussion about the current state of the music, what’s happening now and where things may be going. Talking with Peter and Mats about the responsibility of creative work- always choosing challenge over compromise, searching for what you don’t know instead of coasting on what you think you understand- can be intimidating, but it always affirms that the struggle is worth the effort, no matter how the results are understood. Whether on stage, back stage, in a car, at an airport, on a train, at a sound check, having a cup of coffee, or drinking a beer, I know that I am always learning when working with musicians like this. It’s irreplaceable.

The next morning came early; we had to get Peter to the train station for a long trip home. Back at Mats’ place I spent the afternoon taking photos in the amazing Nordic winter light that comes right before dark. Then some dinner, some scotch, a midnight nap, an early train to the Copenhagen airport, and a flight back to Chicago. Time for some sleep, for me the Brötzmann period of 2007 had come to an end.

-Ken Vandermark, Chicago, 6/09/08.