Extraordinary Popular Delusions

Mars Williams, Jim Baker, Brian Sandstrom, Steve Hunt

Liner notes from self titled CD by: John Litweiler

Chicago’s outside jazz scene, already intermittently famous ever since the AACM emerged four decades ago, just grows and grows in the 21st century. Lately among the most stunning Chicagoans are a quartet of veteran improvisers who get together every Tuesday at Hotti Biscotti, an old-fashioned tavern on Chicago’s northwest side. On those evenings, early, keyboardist Jim Baker, drummer Steve Hunt, saxophonist Mars Williams, and string player Brian Sandstrom simply begin to play -- no themes, rhythms, or harmonic structure. They may expand on a single musical topic, or they may move to several topics. The music’s momentum may speed or slow, its textures and dynamics may ebb or flow, its moods may rise, fall, expand, contract, however the players feel it. They end when there is no more to say, and move on to the next improvisation -- which may be on a similar topic, or a completely different one.

            Of course, since each man is a distinctive individual and a highly accomplished multi-instrumentalist, their discussions acquire form and include marvelous statements amidst the communal movement. Above all else, what makes this quartet so wonderful is the sensitivity of each individual and, amidst the tensions between them, a commitment to listen ever so closely to each other, to develop each other’s ideas, and to create wholes out of their disparate parts.

            The late, boundlessly creative Hal Russell provided this group’s background thread. In the late 1970s multi-saxophonist Mars Williams, a former protege of Roscoe Mitchell who had also studied with Anthony Braxton, heard Russell, in a concert, play a c-melody sax to his dog, in a failed attempt to encourage the dog to howl accompaniment. Finally he gave up, whereupon the dog began to howl. Soon thereafter Williams joined Russell’s combo, which Williams named the N-R-G Ensemble. In 1980, after Williams had moved to New York City, the young Hunt and Sandstrom took the dare and joined N-R-G, where they were not only baptized by fire into free jazz, they also became mature artists. Williams returned in 1988, and the three were still with Russell’s explosive quintet when he died in 1992. Meanwhile, Baker, who used to explore Herbie Nichols’ compositions in a trio, played in other groups with Hunt or led by Russell.

            All four were important figures while Chicago’s jazz underground burst into a volcano of new music during the 1990s and 2000s. Recordings tell part of the story.  Each of them played (and all are together, at least once) in projects with the dynamic saxman Ken Vandermark, and Baker especially is well-documented, including his own solo CD and duet disks with percussionists Damon Short and Michael Zerang. Sandstrom also became an important mainstream jazz figure as house bassist at the famous Green Mill nightclub for several years. And Williams, who was also a veteran of adventurous rock bands, formed a big, popular funk-hiphop-jazz band Liquid Soul, as well as XMarsX and Soul Sonic Circus, with acrobats, trapeze artists, and improvising musicians.

It was in early 2005, then, that Baker formed a trio with Sandstrom and Hunt to play at Hotti Biscotti. In the spring they added Williams, and since then they’ve usually worked as a quartet.

            These four musicians are devoted to assent: “Let’s play this music together,” in Wilbur Ware’s words. There are plenty of passages where one player takes the lead -- often Williams, but also Sandstrom or Baker -- and the others choose to accompany. More often, each of them seizes on each others’ ideas to develop alternate, but not contrary, movement. Or else all four agree to move together, as in long-toned atmospheric passages of pure group sound.

            Baker’s light touch at the piano is deceptive. He’s absorbed a world of modern piano, so as his lines move they subtly hint at bold bop, maverick melody, and Cecil-Taylor spatters of sound, among other things, so fancifully. Hear, too, the way he sustains and develops an idea in his flowing “’...that which, when you stop believing in it...’” solo after about 6:00. Often on this disk he keeps his synthesizer in the background, though it rumbles mightily from the depths of the ocean in the ensemble hurricane of “goat and adding machine ritual.” It was Baker who titled these improvisations, too.

Steve Hunt’s spontaneous responsiveness is especially uncanny. His immense freedom of movement makes him one of the wonders of the world’s drummers -- what great sensitivity for ensemble texture and for just exactly where to accent and what dynamics and what metal, skin, and wood sounds to sound. His technique is exceptional, and surely that’s one reason his gestures sound so natural and so necessary. Surprisingly, Hunt, who is also an outstanding soloist, doesn’t solo on this disk; in the ensemble he, probably more than anyone else, captures and sustains this music’s tensions.

            If you’ve only heard the fierce energy of Brian Sandstrom’s strings and Mars Williams’ saxophones, their playing here will be a surprise. There’s delicacy in Sandstrom’s responses and counterpoint during the piano-bass duets and in the brief bowed-bass feature “futile jester.” This album is especially good evidence of his care for shaping bass lines, developing motives into strong statements. Elsewhere his post-Mingus, post-Malachi Favors ferocity returns, and there are also the fascinating, distorted, sustained sounds of his torrential guitar in the most violent improvisations here.

Williams’ volatile sounds could easily make this quartet into another N-R-G band. Often the quartet’s movements seem to follow his lead, and he really does blast some marvelously riveting split-tone screams and rock honks, as well as passages of Roscoe Mitchell-like intensity. Much of the rest of the time he plays comparatively softly, or in polytonal melodies, or embedded within the ensemble. He too projects a strong sense of solo form -- in “feudal gestures,” hear his shapely tenor solo rising (at about 4:00) and returning (at about 7:40) into the brutal ensemble.

Even though “devil may care:...” is almost a free kind of sax-with-rhythm quartet structure, its elegiac momentum shows off some of the quartet’s best qualities -- hear, early in this piece, the finely rising and subsiding ensemble density. Often, as I’ve said, instrumental roles get twisted around as the four create together. In the pastoral settings of “’...that which’” and the somewhat busier “space on experiments in animals” there are the players’ variations of each other’s ideas, the switching of lead roles, the shared dynamics.  This is such closeness -- they’re almost breathing together.

Too, this quartet often works in an intense, high-energy mode, so several of these tracks are dark maelstroms of sound -- especially, hear the unearthly extremes of electric, tenor sax, and percussion in the first seven minutes of “goat and....” The ferocity of the darkness here and in “feudal gestures” is unique to this quartet; it’s a long way from these individuals’ intensely energetic exultation elsewhere. In reflection, in the heat of passion, and in their moods between, Baker’s, Hunt’s, Sandstrom’s, and Williams’ intensity of listening, feeling, and responding makes their quartet amazing.

John Litweiler