TOWNIE: Mike Reed’s exploration of 1954-’60 Chicago has the vitality of now.
Listen to drummer Mike Reed's current album by his band People, Places & Things and you might think they're the hottest young avant-ensemble around. And they sort of are. Reed, 36, is vice-chairman of Chicago's venerable AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians). And his regular cohort of saxophonists Greg Ward and Tom Haldeman and bassist Jeb Bishop — all roughly the same generation — is the core of the band. But the other "youngsters" on the disc are 75-year-old trombonist Julian Priester, 79-year-old trumpeter and saxophonist Ira Sullivan, and 81-year-old trumpeter Art Hoyle.
The album, Stories & Negotiations, is the finale of a trilogy on 482 Music celebrating Chicago jazz — specifically, the kind of progressive hard bop that was flourishing between roughly 1954 and 1960. This is a period when the music was on the cusp of the avant-garde. It produced the Blue Note classic Blowing In from Chicago, with saxophonists Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, when Gilmore was also working with Priester and Hoyle in the band of another Chicago resident, Sun Ra.
"It was a pretty important place," Reed tells me on the phone from his home town. "Sonny Rollins talks about visiting Chicago and staying at the YMCA, and Booker Little was there, and all these other people. Coltrane would come and practice with John Gilmore." It was also the proto-AACM period, when Muhal Richard Abrams, Jodie Christian, and Malachi Favors were all on the club circuit.
Reed's trilogy is a canny mix of originals and covers of tunes by Chicagoans like Ra, Priester, and John Neely (whose "Status Quo" is the lead track on Blowing In from Chicago). On the first two CDs (Proliferation and About Us), Reed stuck to his quartet (who play the Lily Pad this Friday). But for Stories & Negotiations, he felt it was time to bring in some of the people who created the music in the first place and are still around. So here's Priester playing his "Urnack" along with Hoyle, with whom he played it on the 1960 Sun Ra album Angels & Demons at Play.
Part of what's beautiful about this music is its stripped-down directness. The tunes are often bluesy, sharp, and bopping in arrangements that mix backing choruses with the textural variety of various group subdivisions. "I didn't want just solo, solo, solo," says Reed. It's also refreshing in this era of metric complexity to hear a band driving hard over 4/4 swing with walking bass. The band play these rhythms with a flexibility and a spirit that never flag. With no piano or other chording instrument, the music retains a harmonic ambiguity and spareness. At times over the course of these three albums, you can hear wailing counterpoint and slamming tambourine that recall Charles Mingus in one of his holiness church modes.
"Stories and negotiations" refers to the sessions and their prelude — Reed trying to negotiate the participation of musicians whom he hardly knew or who, apart from Hoyle, no longer lived in town. What's more, though Priester and Hoyle had experience playing with Sun Ra and in a variety of styles, Sullivan — a brilliant improviser — had had a far more mainstream career. But before long, the two generations relaxed with each other and the music, and the stories started to jell.