Friday, March 21, 2008

Casual Listening Concert - Mwata Bowden's Sound Spectrum

Casual Listening

Concert Review

Mwata Bowden Sound Spectrum, March 7, 2008 at Velvet Lounge, Chicago

It's been years since I've been to the Velvet Lounge. Their old spot on Indiana was a smokehouse - dark, warm, and thick with cigarettes. In their new space just east of Chinatown, the smoke is no longer an issue, and cool colors give the space an open feel, like a younger cousin to the now-defunct Hothouse.

The show is advertised for 9:30, and when I walk in, there are seven people in the place. Four of them are with the band. The crowd won't top twenty before I leave at the set break. For being the creative epicenter of Chicago's jazz scene, the Velvet Lounge still doesn't get the respect it deserves.

The band's in no hurry - I have the pleasure of eavesdropping on Bowden at the bar talking about the finer points of circular breathing. He dates himself remembering Coltrane's death as being just before he got into jazz, as well as recalling the Art Ensemble of Chicago's daily rehearsals during their early days. Bowden is now one of the elder statesmen of the avant garde Chicago jazz scene. He is chairman of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which includes the Art Ensemble and several more of the most dynamic Afrocentric jazz groups in Chicago today. The only organization in town that can arguably claim more top-shelf musical virtuosi than the AACM is the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

A substantial arsenal of instruments waits onstage. Near Bowden's perch is a rogues gallery of clarinets, saxophones, flutes, and didgeridoos as well as all manner of bells and rattles, Behind this are the larger instruments: a drum kit, an acoustic bass, and a cello. These are obviously jazz instruments - worn with scratches, dirt, and fading finishes. For a jazz musician, your instrument isn't a showpiece or a status symbol; it's a second skin.

The four musicians take the stage. The brief silence in the room is itself the opening movement of the piece. Bowden blows across a cane flute, playing an extended solo without actually fingering notes. He slides his fingers across the holes, altering the sound without changing the pitch. He caps the end of the flute with his hand, emitting a two-tone whistle. He is reminiscent of a Japanese shakuhachi master, for whom the focus isn't melody, but sculpting the quality of breath.

The rest of the band adds texture with bells and shakers, and gradually moves to the larger instruments. Michael Avery on drums and Junius Paul on bass provide rhythmic support, able to lock in a groove, but also knowing exactly how and when to unlock it. This music ebbs and flows like the tides, and requires musicians, not metronomes to set the pace. Cellist Tamika Reed is an expert addition to the group, able to switch between extending the rhythm section and giving a direct counterpoint to Bowden's flute work.

After thirty-five minutes, they pause to regroup. Bowden raises the didgeridoo, another monotone instrument, played with the freneticism you'd expect to hear from Ornette Coleman. What would have been a blinding tonal array on a saxophone is here only imagined, underscoring the energy of the performance within a narrow sonic expression. Reed plucks cello strings on both sides of the bridge, and tangles with Paul's bass to the point of sounding like a single instrument played by four hands.

Sound Spectrum's performance offers ready parallels to another quintessentially Chicago art form: improv theater. Two long-form pieces emerge from the void, performed by talented players whose genius lies primarily in listening. Good improvised art challenges us to listen as well - beyond the script, beyond the tune or the beat - to listen for the movement of the creative force itself.

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