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Jazz Fest after-sessions light up with violinist Brock and guitarist Halvorson

The former Chicagoan Zach Brock takes a bow throughout the weekend.
The former Chicagoan Zach Brock takes a bow throughout the weekend.
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Like most such events, the Chicago Jazz Festival – the 33rd edition of which runs today through Sunday – quickly becomes something of a “jazz convention.”

Musicians from around the country arrive a day before their Festival gigs or stay a day later, renewing old ties, appearing as special guests, hanging out during Festival sets; many of them also show up around town, after the Festival closes down each evening, for scheduled as well as impromptu performances in the city’s clubs.

And sometimes, one of those musicians turns the weekend into a homecoming tour.

Case in point: the inventive and accomplished violinist Zach Brock, who in 2006 moved from Chicago to New York. With a couple of Jazz Festival gigs on his schedule, Brock has added a couple more to keep himself busy over the weekend.

He starts tonight with a last-minute booking at Katerina’s (1920 W. Irving Park), where he’ll lead a quintet filled mostly with old friends and musical associates: guitarist John McLean, pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Larry Kohut, and drummer Jon Deitmeyer. The billing promises to include material from Brock’s recently released disc The Magic Number.

(Those of you who haven’t been paying attention in the last few years should know – this is one powerful lineup. The lyrically feisty McLean continues to impress even jaded listeners in every context in which he appears, whether leading his own innovative combos or contributing to the bands of Grazyna Auguscik, Patricia Barber, Kurt Elling, and a half-dozen others. On keys, Clearfield has grown in leaps and bounds over the last two years to become one of the city’s most enjoyably unpredictable players. And the seasoned rhythm section can smoothly support Brock’s own fingerboard fireworks.)

New York has been good to Brock. Since his move, he has played with artists as diverse as the proto-bop vocalist Bob Dorough; the Mahavishnu Project, which re-creates the music of fusion guru John McLaughlin; a couple of gypsy jazz bands; and a latter-day fusion outfit called Snarky Puppy.

For all that, the violinist remains a member in good standing of Loom – the sort of “alt-jazz” quintet led by bassist Matt Ulery – and he’ll be on stage when that band performs twice this weekend. Loom plays three sets at the Green Mill (4802 N. Broadway) on Friday night, and gets a Festival showcase Sunday afternoon at 2:20 on the Jackson stage.

In addition, Brock will hit in Grant Park on Saturday night with trumpeter Orbert Davis, the Festival’s Artist-in-Residence (and Brock’s mentor), as part of Davis’s Chicago Jazz Philharmonic Chamber Ensemble. And the likelihood exists that Brock will also take a guest spin when Davis’s quintet plays the Jackson stage on Sunday afternoon.

Brock returns to Chicago on the crest of some heady reviews for The Magic Number (on his own Secret Fort label). Despite the sparseness of the band – a trio with only bass and drums, and occasional vocal texturing – the album offers a surprisingly rich stew that blends Brock’s expertise in jazz, indie-rock, and folk.

The Magic Number gets better with each hearing, which speaks as much to the focused intensity of Brock’s concept as it does to his command of the violin. And that command deserves plenty of notice: Brock combines a ferocious technique with spot-on intonation and an innate sense of the instrument’s dramatic capabilities.

There are good reasons the violin plays so large a role in so many of the world’s musical traditions, starting with the vocality of its timbre and the humanness of its inflection, and ranging from its transcendent held notes to the prick of its pizzicato. Many jazz violinists have mastered some of these capabilities, but only a handful have shown a command of them all – let alone the ability to swing convincingly on the instrument. Brock has all that, and more: his solos have direction and spirit, and they open a window to an ordered but creative musical intelligence.

A few other violinists can match Brock’s technique, and in recent years, some of them have attained significant accolades for their improvising – including a couple who can’t solo their way out of a paper bag. Accept no substitutions: Zach Brock is the pre-eminent improvising violinist of his generation, and tonight’s pop-up gig (at Katerina’s) gives you the chance to experience that in close quarters.

Tonight offers another opportunity to hear Festival artists cutting loose, at Elastic (another quite intimate performance space – so figure to arrive early for a seat). The twin bill draws heavily on the musicians who have traveled in from New York to take part in the prolific Chicago drummer Mike Reed’s latest project: the Myth/Science Assembly, which makes its world premier Sunday night in Grant Park.

(For this project, Reed has availed himself of the extensive Sun Ra archives at Chicago’s enterprising Experimental Sound Studio. This trove comprises more than 700 hours worth of recorded materials – most of them unreleased – from the imaginative and fantastical bandleader and composer, who spent the early years of his career in Chicago. Using only one such recording, an hour-long rehearsal tape from 1961, Reed and his collaborator Jason Adasiewicz have constructed new pieces that reconsider Sun Ra’s achievement and influence.)

Reed has gathered a startling array of musicians from New York’s jazz vanguard to join a core of their Chicago peers in debuting this music. Those artists will also populate the two quartets playing tonight at Elastic (2830 N. Milwaukee).

The first band, set for 10 PM, combines Chicagoans Jason Adasiewicz (vibes), Tomeka Reid (cello), and Nick Butcher (electronics) with New Yorker Taylor Ho Bynum (cornet). In the second set, New Yorkers Tomas Fujiwara on drums and guitarist Mary Halvorson – among the most lionized young musicians of the decade – meet up with Chicago bassist Josh Abrams and saxist Greg Ward, the Chicagoan who left for New York two years ago but still appears frequently in his home town.

To those who have followed the careers of these artists, the groupings outlined above are resplendent with possibilities -- particularly when you factor Halvorson's playing, with its shadows of noise and anarchy, into the mix. And for those who haven’t heard them, I highly recommend the chance to acquaint yourself with these musicians – either tonight at Elastic or Sunday night at the Hungry Brain (2319 W. Belmont), where most of the same artists will again perform two sets, but in slightly different configurations.

As I’ve mentioned before, you can always sleep Monday.


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