Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Keefe Jackson: The Future Of Chicago?

Keefe Jackson (sax)

Keefe Jackson, a native of Arkansas, is slowing becoming a major force in the ever-evolving Chicago Free Jazz scene. A combination of complex and complete compositions and bold well-rounded playing is making a lot of people outside of Chicago stand up and take notice.

As discussed here at JazzWrap many a time, the Chicago Jazz scene is a breeding ground for some of the most solid, hard framed improvisational jazz coming out of the U.S. Yes, many New Yorkers would argue this point but I'm moving forward with my statement.

Keefe Jackson was already a well toned musician by the time he arrived in Chicago in 2001. But his association and contributions to such local groups as Chicago Luzern Exchange, Lucky 7s, Fast Citizens and the Josh Berman Quintet really established his credibility within the scene. In a town where Ken Vandermark looms large, it probably is extremely hard to break out from the presence. Keefe Jackson is doing just that. Not by following the same avant garde path as Vandermark but creating a rich base of post bop sensibility filled with forward-thinking lyricism.

While I do recommend any of the albums by the above mentioned groups (definitely Josh Berman and Lucky 7s), I want to really focus on the three albums Keefe Jackson has made as leader. These all show a progression to imploding convention of free jazz and resurrecting it in a cohesive exploration of free ideas. Ideas which many listeners will find challenging but highly rewarding.

Ready Everybody (Delmark; 2006) is a fantastic debut as leader by Jackson. The album is actually under the title, Keefe Jackson's Fast Citizens (named after the collective which the musicians belong to). The opening number "Ready Everybody" travels some similar territory as Atlantic era Ornette Coleman or Charles Mingus but with a very playful nature wrapped by some illuminating song structure and phrasing from Jackson.

"Signs" is haunting piece with some fabulous distortion work from Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and additional brilliance by both Josh Berman (trumpet) and Anton Hatwich (bass). Frank Rosaly, whose omnipresent drum work can be found on many Chicago jazz albums is superb here as well as the rest of this session. "Saying Yes" is a number where Jackson, Berman and Aram Shelton (alto sax) have some seriously delicious interplay that is both rhythmic as well as inventive.

While Fast Citizens documents a collective that has become a truly cohesive force on the music scene; it also shines light on creative writing of Jackson. This idea is moved forward on Jackson's second release as leader, Just Like This (Delmark; 2007). Just Like This is a massive 12 piece brass/woodwind ensemble that takes starts in foundation on themes of Ellington, Armstrong and other large swing ensembles and injects them with a large dose of Chicago improvisation.

The group includes such Chicago luminaries as Jeb Bishop (trombone), James Falzone (clarinet), Dave Rempis (alto sax) and more. A beautiful exchange expression and melodies moves throughout Just Like This, giving the listener a real sense of depth and freedom by this group Jackson has constructed.

"Dragon Fly", a funky, avant garde yet mid-tempo opener fills the airwaves with its complex arrangements and chord changes but shows a real sense of unity amongst the many players. There's a lot going on here but you are captivated by the varying passages and performances. The title track, "Just Like This" is another mid-tempo gem filled with hard hitting moments of colour by Jackson and clarinet/cornet section (including Berman again in this session).

A real standout here is "Wind Up Toy" written by drummer Frank Rosaly is a tempo shifting ride that feels like elements of crime jazz, swing and avant garde put through the mixer and coming out as an exquisite sundae delight. Just Like This may have Ellingtonian touches but also paints a Jackson Pollack-esque picture with Jimmy Giuffre and Ornette Coleman type brushes.

In 2010, Keefe Jackson returned with the magnificent Seeing You See (Clean Feed Records). Here Jackson pairs things down to a quartet featuring regular collaborators Noritaka Tanaka (drums), Jason Roebke (bass) and Jeb Bishop (trombone). Jackson and Bishop play point/counterpoint throughout Seeing You See with beautiful results. "If You Were" is a great example of their scintillating stylistic duel. This is aided by the subtle rhythms of Roebke and crisping (Billy Higgins-like) timing of Tanaka.

With the previous two albums exploring various themes and influences, Seeing You See approaches things from a slightly straight-forward free form of ideas and utilization of space. For me it's like listening to Giuffre's Free Fall. This is especially evident on "How-A-Low" a downtempo blues where the quartet maneuvers with gentle grace and beauty.

"Seeing You See" is rich with space and tonal structures that get bent in different directions by Roebke during a solo midway through the piece. The proceedings get jumping (slightly) with "Turns To Everything" where the group becomes one force of sound-in-rhythm with ripping chord changes and patterns that better experienced on headphones. "Word Made Flesh" a fierce composition which Frank Rosaly and Jackson have done as a duo previously, sounds even more venomous as a quartet.

"Close" silently takes you through a final journey a spacious undertones. This is led by Roebke's delicate bass lines and some wonderful and haunting movement from Bishop and Jackson (on bass clarinet) combined. Seeing You See really shows how Keefee Jackson has grown as a musician and more importantly a leader and composer.

Listening to the progression not just over these three records but over the course of the last decade in various groups encapsulates how significance Keefe Jackson has had on the Chicago scene. Among the new breed of Chicago improvisers, Keefe Jackson is becoming as prominent and as important as Ken Vandermark was a decade earlier. Keefe Jackson is a talent that everyone needs to start following if you haven't already. Start with the Delmark releases and then move forward to Seeing You See.

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