Perhaps it’s too obvious to focus on geography to preface a review of a jazz album, but the title of Fast Citizens’ new Delmark release begs at least a brief examination of its creators’ locales (alto saxophonist/clarinetist Aram Shelton in Oakland, Calif., the rest of the ensemble in Chicago). The current vitality of the Chicago avant-jazz scene rears its multihued, luminescent head in each composition on Two Cities, emphatically reflecting the diverse approaches and styles of each member of the sextet (tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Keefe Jackson, cornetist Josh Berman, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, bassist Anton Hatwich and percussionist Frank Rosaly). Arguably, primarily due to the efforts of players like these men, the Windy City has surpassed even NYC as the most vibrant jazz hub in the states.
Shelton’s present residence possesses its own colorful past (e.g., Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck, Pharoah Sanders, Dewey Redman, Sonny Simmons) but has recently reshaped itself with the influence of underground rock and experimental European movements. This remarkably wide-open embracement of various avant-garde subgenres informs the whole tone of Two Cities, without neglecting the rich tradition of swing and hard bop. Lonberg-Holm aptly demonstrates this old-new juxtaposition with his cello work, facilely maneuvering from Third Stream melodicism to alien electronic squelching, especially during his solo in Jackson’s “Easy.” The cellist’s own “VRC #9” peculiarly imbues the minimalism of Reich and Glass with vivacious brass caterwauling.
Frank Rosaly’s percussion shines throughout, fluently navigating between propulsive swing and textural spaciousness, utilizing a variety of sticks, drums, cymbals and rhythms. The brass attack of Shelton/Jackson/Berman also reveals astonishing breadth, significantly on the title track and on “In Cycles,” where they lace fractured phrases and extended techniques within seemingly straightforward postbop compositions. Fast Citizens certainly take it to outer space, but never at the expense of engaging melodies and empathic interplay.