The DIY jazz heads behind the Umbrella Music collective have again pooled their efforts to bring a sixth year of this forward-looking festival, importing envelope-pushing improvisers from Europe and cross-pollinating them with homegrown talent, keeping the ad-hoc spirit that fills rosters year-round at Elastic, the Hideout and Hungry Brain. For fans of underground improv, it doesn’t get better than this, five days of brain-melting avant-bop bliss.
The collaborative European Jazz Meets Chicago summit takes over the Chicago Cultural Center for two days, with Dutch woodwind wizard Ab Baars at the top of the lineup on Wednesday. No stranger to Chicago, the relentlessly playful bandleader drafts a dynamite supporting cast, working here with trombonist Jeb Bishop, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Mike Reed. French pianist Sophia Domancich and Austrian trumpeter Franz Hautzinger are among other overseas guests flanked by local talent earlier in the day.
Young Lithuanian saxist Jan Maksimowicz opens day two with a bang, sharing the front line with one of Chicago’s most powerful reedists, David Boykin. The rhythm team of bassist Joshua Abrams and drummer Tim Daisy ensures this set’s a ripper. November 3’s menu also includes a solo turn from Sten Sandell, a stylistically omnivorous Swedish pianist whose boundless abstractions precede the chamber-jazz experiments of Thomas Heberer’s Clarino, the German trumpeter’s trio with clarinetist Joachim Badenhorst and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper.
The party moves to Elastic on November 4, putting the spotlight on saxist Tim Berne, whose unhinged improvisations take flight, prodded outward by onetime Chicagoan Devin Hoff on bass and Ches Smith, an inventive and in-demand drummer who’s bashed behind everyone from Marc Ribot to Mr. Bungle. Up first is British saxist John Butcher, delivering a solo set of searching soundscapes, splicing and dicing tones until he’s practically duetting with himself.
November 5 gets off to a lively start at the Hideout with Locksmith Isidore, bass clarinetist Jason Stein’s nuanced endeavor with bassist (and fellow Chicagoan) Jason Roebke and NYC drummer Mike Pride. What follows might well be the most anticipated set of the weekend: Philly fixture and tenor sax journeyman Odean Pope, whose trio joins forces with another Philadelphian, Marshall Allen. A multi-reed wonder, Allen’s been a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra for more than five decades, piloting the starship through the outer reaches of swing since 1995.
Relentlessly enthusiastic percussionist Matt Wilson kicks off November 6 at the Hungry Brain, a venue celebrating a decade of ahead-of-the-curve programming (thanks to some of the same folks steering this festival). Fitting, then, that the Mary Halvorson Quintet should cap the final day, marking the guitar heroine’s local debut as a leader with a band that’s been making waves at home in NYC as well as abroad. Her ranks include rising saxist Jon Irabagon and drummer Smith. A taste of the group’s forthcoming disc, Bending Bridges, is promised, and though avant-garde outfits like this offer few guarantees, Halvorson is sure to bend a few minds.