(Short version: The David Boykin Expanse was good. Tradition-based post-bop with some occasional rap and the star presence of Jim Baker and Nicole Mitchell. If you’re in Chicago, go seek Boykin out.)
The Velvet Lounge is Fred Anderson’s club in Chicago, a neighborhood bar with cool blue walls and awesome, adventurous jazz five nights a week. Its former home was around the corner, just off East Cermak, in a run-down building; Anderson had to relocate, at considerable expense, as gentrification plans mowed that building down.
That was long before the recession. The hole from the demolition is still there, empty. But assuming the Lounge is doing OK financially, the forced move was been for the better.
The old place had character — and a multicolored floral wallpaper that screamed out like a colorblindness test — but the new location is clean and smart, without feeling out of place. Every time I’ve been there, someone’s sitting in the back with a styrofoam container from one of the nearby take-out food joints. The bartender is a blue-collar, eastern European type, very friendly and usually talking to one of the regulars in the corner. And 81-year-old Fred is still there some nights, sometimes even working the door himself.
I don’t get to Chicago often. When I do, I always try to work my schedule around a Velvet Lounge visit.
(I’d also used the Umbrella Music calendar to plan for a Elastic on Thursday night, to see Carrie Shull in what looks like an oboe-led improv quartet. I could have made the 11:00 set, I suppose, but the thought of going that far in a cab on a night like that was too much. Yes, I wussed out due to weather. It was severely stormy and, cliché or not, windy. Really, really windy.)
Friday night, I got off work in time to hit Jazz Record Mart, for better or worse — great store, tough on the pocketbook.
JRM happens to be a couple of blocks from Andy’s Jazz Club, and while I was leery of mainstream jazz in a touristy part of town, I also needed to eat, even if it meant a $10 cover. I gave it a shot.
The Moshier-Lebrun Group (quintet: sax, guitar, piano, bass, drums) wasn’t too bad. It’s what I call “contemporary jazz,” modern stuff descended from post-bebop modalism (Andrew Hill would be a good model) but with sugar, a velvet sheen that makes the music airy and, for most audiences, an easy eveningtime experience. Contemporary jazz can rock, and this group did, getting especially stormy during one guitar solo. And it does draw from worthy jazz masters like Hill and even Ornette Coleman. But it can lack grit, and its fire isn’t guttural. Still, not a bad way to spend a dinner hour.
From there, it was a quick bus ride to the South Side and the Velvet Lounge. (For the ride home, I would figure out that the Red Line is a faster, cozier trip.)
The David Boykin Expanse is a quintet led by Boykin on tenor sax and sometimes he adds rap or rap/singing. He’s got terrific MC skills, delivering supersonic rap packed with creative rhymes, and I think he even freestyled a band intro at the end of the second set.
The first piece, “Sunrise,” was a slow, reverent wail in late Coltrane mode. That would be unique in the set; from there, the band went into modern bop pieces with knotted, twisty themes that were mostly upbeat. Solos were usually taken in sequence — Boyken (tenor sax), Nicole Mitchell (flute), Jim Baker (piano), Josh Abrams (bass), drums.
Most of the songs stuck to a conventional format, with solos taking place over rhythm and harmony that pointed towards the heads but were really an improvised jam. One exception was “Omni Valley,” the closing piece, where the convoluted rhythm of the theme was retained during the solos. That was really nice, a different color.
A fill-in drummer named Avery was especially impressive with his solos. Instead of reaching directly for firepower, he’d often work in crisp, calculated off-rhythms, toying with ideas that keep the swing of the song going but divert freely from the flow (I think I heard a few cycles of 5-time in there).
(Didn’t catch Avery’s last name. Or rather, I didn’t pay enough attention because I figured I could look it up on the Velvet Lounge calendar — but it just says drummer “tba.” I lose.)
Not everything worked to perfection. Many of the solos seemed to end abruptly, although that could have been a function of me getting absorbed in the rhythm instruments, which sometimes happens. Baker, a great pianist, was having an off night. On one solo in the second set, he gave up early, his hands raising up as if to say, “What the-?” The solo was actually good, but I think he lost his train of thought, so to speak. He got a good-natured round of applause anyway.
Baker’s got a crucial role in this band, by the way; it’s in his solos that things get the most “out” and the most convoluted. Wouldn’t be the same without him.
The crowd was sparse, as often happens with venues (and music) off the beaten path. That’s a shame. I hope the Velvet Lounge is doing better on average and won’t die of neglect. On the plus side, it was good to find out I wasn’t the only audience member who didn’t already know someone from the band. One couple, in particular, was chatting up the musicians and buying CDs, which was nice to see.