By Robert Rodi
I’m just a hair late to the party when it comes to “No Hotel,” the new album by Chicago’s own neo-vaudeville barnstormers, The Claudettes; but the album (which came out in September) is definitely one you should be spinning, streaming or otherwise ingesting whole. It’s the work of just three players—pianist Johnny Iguana, drummer Michael Caskey and (intermittently) vocalist Yana—but there’s enough energy going on to power your average Third World airport.
The opener, “Big Easy Women,” is full of a barreling, hyper-saloon piano banging, with a bridge that playfully evokes silent-movie peril. But it’s the second cut—“California, Here I Come”—that really makes you sit up and take notice. The Claudettes knock the hoary old Al Jolson tune into a minor key, transforming it into a wittily downbeat comment on the cruelty that so often accompanies the go-west-young-man dream. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicagoan Nick Mazzarella plays alto sax with the kind of virile swagger that yanks you back through the decades to when this kind of strident, unsentimental sound split the whole goddamn twentieth century clean in two. It’s still surprisingly subversive to modern ears—which is why a lot of people run from this kind of fearlessly improvised jazz; it’s not safe—it’s here to challenge, not comfort. And on its new record, “Ultraviolet,” that’s exactly what Mazzarella’s trio does. The tunes were originally composed for a residency at the late, lamented Curio lounge in 2012, and they form a breathtaking free-jazz suite. All the titles relate to scientific inquiry—from the modern (“Neutron Star”) to the archaic (“Abacus and Astrolabe,” “Luminous Dials”), and from wave theory (the title cut) to paleontology (“Archaeopteryx,” “Fossil”). It’s a pretty clear indication that what these guys are about is straight-up investigation—of rhythm, of tone, of harmony—and that silos like classification aren’t going to get in their way. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago’s Mick Jenkins put on quite a show on a recent Friday night, but he didn’t rap a single verse. Instead, the Music Room at Soho House hosted a listening party with Jenkins and St. Louis painter Hayveyah McGowan, where they described the creative process behind Jenkins’ newest project, “Wave[s]” (release date August 21). With guidance from Fake Shore Drive’s Andrew Barber, Jenkins and McGowan delineated how their collaboration originated.
After spending a year and a half on his previous release,“The Water[s],” Jenkins didn’t feel like the concept project got enough traction from the public—despite its critical acclaim. So he put together this newest project more as a collection of compositions than a record with an “end-to-end” theme, and did so in a matter of months. But he still wanted a consistent artistic through-line, and Jenkins commissioned McGowan to create a large-scale painting inspired by each of the tracks, all of which were on exhibit at Soho House. Read the rest of this entry »
By Corey Hall
Envision the Aqua Tower, 225 North Columbus Drive, on its side in black and white. This image could be in motion but is actually frozen in time with a watery, wave-like feel, as created through photographer Scott Hesse’s lens. This image—complete with color and complementary crop by a graphic designer–is the cover art for Hesse’s trio’s new album, “The Stillness of Motion,” whose CD release party is on August 14 at Constellation.
Hesse, a Chicago-based jazz guitarist who has performed with Greg Ward, Dee Alexander and Ernest Dawkins, among many others, believes that recording music is similar to documenting life through photography. “This music is very fluid and always changing, but when you capture it on a recording, it freezes moments in time, like what happens in a picture,” says Hesse, who is joined on the album by bassist Clark Sommers and drummer Makaya McCraven. “You can definitely hear the movement and evolutions taking place… but it’s never going to be that way again.” Read the rest of this entry »
By Robert Rodi
There are few musicians more fondly remembered in Chicago than tenor sax giant Von Freeman, who died in 2012. So when Freeman’s son, Chico, also a sax man, and brother George, a celebrated guitarist, came together to record for the first time, it was hard to avoid invoking Von’s memory… especially since they chose to call the album “All In the Family.” (Titling one of the cuts “Vonski” didn’t help, either.) But beyond the nod to their late relative’s legacy, the two surviving Freemans manage to make the music entirely their own. Comprising all-original compositions (with the exception of the haunting standard “Angel Eyes,” plus a smattering of very short improvised pieces that serve almost as amuse-bouches between the more substantial tunes), “All In the Family” plays like an intergenerational conversation between George’s burnished, impeccable guitar and Chico’s deft and energetic sax. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago singer-songwriter Lili K. first galvanized me with the debut single off her new album, “Ruby.” The tune—“Tommy”—is such a polished, pitch-perfect soul ballad, I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it had come out in the seventies. “I got a man, he’s as sweet as pecan pie,” the singer croons seductively at the outset, against a backdrop of sultry trumpets; and by the bridge (which will get in your brain so deep major surgery may be required to remove it), she’s enlisted a trio of backup singers to help declaim the super-fineness of her guy (“Tommy / You’re like a book of poetry / Tommy / Your words alone excite me / Tommy / Don’t you ever let go of me”). It wasn’t till I saw the video that I got Lili K.’s utterly modern playfulness. Read the rest of this entry »
Chicago continued its dominance over new music last week as Preston Oshita, better known to the world as Towkio of the SaveMoney hip-hop collective, unveiled his highly anticipated “.Wav Theory” project to the world. Part of the group that brought us Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper, Towkio here steps out with a talented, genre-bending release that comes packed with local intonations while looking optimistically outward, as the world opens up for the young artist. Formerly know locally as Tokyo Shawn, Towkio has always been the outlying presence in a collective that boasts some diagonal personalities. A former quarterback at Lane Tech High School, he’s been a leader for a new school of fashion-forward rhymesayers who have paced the Chicago scene. “.Wav Theory” is his magnum opus—at least to this point in his career. Read the rest of this entry »
By Robert Rodi
Haley Fohr is very young—just twenty-five—but she sounds like some ancient oracle. Her rich, resonant female baritone has a lower range that rumbles ominously, like plate tectonics, and an upper that’s so dizzyingly perched, it can induce vertigo. On pure vocal fireworks alone, the new album by her brainchild, Circuit des Yeux, is a galvanizing listen; but it’s got much more than that going for it. Less a collection of songs than a trek across her sonic headspace, “In Plain Speech” is a remarkable document of a budding composer’s development. And lest that come off as condescending, let me just add that she’s already leagues ahead of many singer-songwriters twice her age. Read the rest of this entry »
By Robert Rodi
It’s hard to imagine it now, but a mere fifty years ago there were very few singer-songwriters beyond the folk milieu. Bob Dylan was still a relatively new phenomenon, and he not only owned the genre, he pretty much was the genre. These days, of course, you can’t swing a dead cat without thwacking half a dozen guitar-slinging bards (while Dylan, go figure, is covering Sinatra). On any given night, in clubs and pubs across America, countless brave-hearted balladeers climb atop stools and compete for the attention of the congenitally inattentive. And people say stand-up comedy is rough; try breaking through the noise of a bar in full clamor when you’re warbling about your last big breakup.
But, here’s the thing: a lot of these troubadours are pretty freaking fine. And in Chicago, I’m happy to report, we’ve got more than our fair share of them. A pair of recent releases prove my point: they’re both melodically original and lyrically ingenious, yet each one is a standout original.
Little Dave Merriman has long been a fixture on the scene, chiefly as a guitarist and vocalist for The Arrivals. “Odd Bird” is his first solo album—and when I say solo, I’m being almost entirely literal. He not only wrote all the tunes, he plays nearly every instrument as well. And these aren’t breathy, spare arrangements either; they’re full-throttle rock-band material—the better to support Merriman’s raggedly bravura, another-whiskey-will-kill-me-but-so-what vocals. Read the rest of this entry »
“The Stillness of Motion” opens with a guitar laying down a groove while a bassist takes the melody line. This is the reverse of how it’s usually done, and it’s a testament to Scott Hesse’s generosity and sense of ensemble. He’s one of Chicago’s most highly regarded guitarists, and yet in the first measures of his new record he gives the spotlight to a fellow player. Not that Clark Sommers, the player in question, requires charity; when Hesse steps back into the forefront, Sommers has no trouble maintaining his share of the musical dialogue. Ditto drummer Makaya McCraven, who manages to establish an intriguing voice of his own throughout the proceedings, especially on “Yardbird Sketch,” where he provides a percussive landscape as broad as a lawn, over which Hesse wanders searchingly, occasionally somersaulting into dreamily descending chords. Read the rest of this entry »