Thursday, April 16, 2009

A Tribute to My Old Band

Here's a little something I wrote about the X-Tet a while back. I was entirely ready to leave the band when it came time for me to do so, but I will always have fond memories of time spent in that old Fulton Recital Hall.

Much like higher education itself in this country, jazz higher education programs around the United States are certainly not created equal. In Chicago, an aspiring jazz musician is lucky to be able to choose from the noteworthy jazz studies programs of DePaul, Roosevelt, Northwestern, Columbia, and Northern Illinois Universities. Outside of these examples in Chicagoland, one’s list of options grows thin of finding a university jazz ensemble ripe with highly creative and artistically mature musicians.

That is what is so unique about The University of Chicago’s Jazz X-Tet large group jazz ensemble (“X” symbolizing the unknown variable of mathematics, referencing that the ensemble’s size is subject to change). The group played its most recent concert last Thursday, June 5th, 2008 in Fulton Recital Hall on the campus of The U. of C. This third and final concert of the school year featured guest artist Jeff Parker of Tortoise on guitar. Though the University does feature a music department unsurprisingly renown in many academic circles as one of the top places to study musicology or music theory, the school does not actually feature a music performance major (they do offer a music major with emphasis on theory and musicology), and certainly not a jazz studies major.

Nonetheless, the Jazz X-Tet in concert is a beaming example of artistic large ensemble cooperation mixed with large doses of individual creative freedom. At the helm is director Mwata Bowden, a legend in Chicago known for his lifetime of contribution to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). With the X-Tet, Bowden follows his own personal avant garde rubric on jazz direction by dissecting each piece to its core elements and allowing practically limitless freedom for his musicians to creatively improvise in extended free sections, often going beyond appropriate key signature or even the commonplace way of making sound out of one’s instrument. With collective improvisation that can begin with one soloist and often expand to include the entire band, it may seem that Bowden has completely lost control. However, like the conductor of a highly disciplined symphony, Bowden instead masterfully orchestrates the band to an intense climax, then back down into the piece. This is perhaps more a testament to the student musicians in the X-Tet, who, as young as they may be as mostly college students (some are graduate students), display a deep artistic maturity in understanding Bowden’s avant garde creative wishes.

The concert on Thursday featured the X-Tet weave through familiar jazz standards like Gingerbread Boy and Ellington’s Stray-Horn, both by somewhat esoteric jazz legend Jimmy Heath, coupled with two contemporary compositions from the modern jazz scene, the mellow yet cerebral Blue After Two, by New York based trombonist and band leader John Fedchock, and Count Bubba, a ubiquitous heal-stomper by composer and band leader Gordon Goodwin which served as the heavy handed finale to the evening. Without a doubt, each piece carried the signature creative stamp given by Bowden and the band with sectional and ensemble improvisation, and an “anything goes” artistic vision that constantly challenges the audience, making it utterly impossible to imagine what could possibly come next in the hour and a half show of rich, live music.

And not to be outdone, guest artist Jeff Parker, the Chicago-based experimental guitarist of post-rock group Tortoise, contributed his rich knowledge of diminished jazz chords as well as his willingness to explore the avant garde with use of pedals and effects on his feature tune, Ellington’s Stray-horn. Parker’s superior technical knowledge of the guitar as well as familiarity with experimental music allowed him to not just feel at home within the X-Tet’s musical philosophy, but star. His musical spotlight was unsurprisingly one of the top highlights of the evening.

Parker’s star may have shined brightest, but it was not untested by tremendous X-Tet student soloists Donnie Bungum on tenor saxophone and Ben Neuman on piano, each a junior in the college, majoring in chemistry and philosophy, respectively. Bungum’s tone and technical prowess with the saxophone is practically uncanny for someone not found deep in the jazz studies department of one of the nation’s leading musical institutions of higher learning. Meanwhile, Neuman’s skill of quick tempo bop-like rhythms on the piano could not also go unnoticed by even the most casual observer.

For all those willing to travel down to Hyde Park for a Thursday evening concert (The X-Tet’s next show will not be until Fall of 2008, check The U. of C.’s music department website for details:, you will be reminded that jazz is not dead among today’s young people, but alive and well, continuing to occupy its necessary place within the artistic consciousness of America’s new generations.

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