Live Review: Red Bull Music Presents Round Robin in Chicago

Roscoe Mitchell, Jeff Parker, and Makaya McCraven were among 16 musicians who participated in an unusual chain performance

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Roscoe Mitchell at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)

Apparently, it was a total coincidence that Red Bull Music scheduled its Chicago “round robin” improvisation during the Chicago Jazz Festival. Perhaps also by coincidence, none of the 16 musicians participating at Thalia Hall on Aug. 30 were headliners at the festival in Millennium Park—although each of them, capped by the legendary saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, was prominent enough in Chicago to combine into a murderer’s row in the opulent South Side theater. Then again, that kind of serendipity is at the heart of jazz. Who’s to complain?

Though the event was called a “round robin” improvisation, it didn’t adhere to the traditional round-robin definition, where every participant interacts with or competes against every other. It was more like an improv chain. One musician took the stage alone, improvising solo for five minutes, at which point a second musician joined in to make an improvised duet for another five minutes. At that point, the first musician exited at the same time that a third musician entered to join the second, and so on. The program at Thalia Hall included a list of the participants, but not the order in which they would appear.

As it turned out, the opener was also the hardest to appreciate. Vocalist Haley Fohr began in a low, operatic voice that quickly ratcheted up into a ululating yodel: somewhere between Yoko Ono and Ligeti’s Requiem. However, when Ben LaMar Gay arrived with his twangy diddley bow and a rhythmic vocal, Fohr suddenly had a context in which to make sense. She then became an otherworldly accompaniment, using effects pedals to sound like a distant tornado or air-raid siren that added subtle urgency to Gay’s already frantic strumming and vocal ejaculations.

Ben LaMar Gay with diddley bow at Thalia Hall, Chicago, August 30, 2018
Ben LaMar Gay with diddley bow at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)

Fohr was replaced by a violist, Matchess, who bowed solemnly (and used a reel-to-reel tape machine to loop herself as accompaniment) while Gay first thrummed his instrument with mallets, then shook a small set of bells. Gay, in turn, was relieved by guitarist Jeff Parker. After beginning in a cloud of distortion and reverb, he settled into a fairly straightforward give-and-take dialogue with Matchess until she stepped out and operatic vocalist/theremin player Lisa E. Harris stepped in.

The Harris/Parker duet was a contender for high point of the whole evening: She, cycling her approach between classical soprano and Cassandra Wilson-like earthiness, made a haunting contrast to the droning washes and controlled feedback that Parker emitted. She then laid down a short, suitably eerie theremin melody before using it, too, to accompany her voice in a beautiful spontaneous orchestration.

Jaime Fennelly (left) and Lisa E. Harris at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018
Jaime Fennelly (left) and Lisa E. Harris (with theremin) at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)

Keyboardist Jaime Fennelly followed Parker, bringing in a groove-centric synthesizer line that was less pretty but equally intriguing—it inspired Harris to bend over her theremin and use her swaying head to conjure its tones. Enter next the cello of Katinka Kleijn, whose groans mutated into dolphin-like whinnies, then dead-set bowing, while Fennelly turned to making abrasive sci-fi sounds on his synth. Bassist Matthew Lux replaced Fennelly with a helicopter-like rumble on his electric bass that sounded, in conjunction with Kleijn, like a backwards tape. Kleijn’s exit coincided with percussionist Jovia Armstrong’s entrance; she played cajón and cymbals, moving with Lux into a chill, sly funk rhythm: another high point.

Armstrong’s groove turned more kinetic to match spoken-word artist Kevin Coval’s cadence, as the latter intoned a rhyme about “the tamale man.” Armstrong then stepped aside for vocalist Akenya, who faced off with Coval—mere inches from him—in a gorgeous wordless improv as he improvised off flashcards, then tossed them away. Akenya began playing chords on a Fender Rhodes just before Coval’s replacement by drummer Makaya McCraven, which did make for a real, if constantly shifting, hip-hop beat.

Akenya (left) and Kevin Coval at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018
Akenya (left) and Kevin Coval (with flashcard) at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)

Then came saxophonist Matana Roberts, whose appearance brought a huge ovation from the crowd and a fiery duet with McCraven. It was less a dialogue than a deeply attuned harmony, nearly telepathic in the two players’ ability to anticipate each other—she with long, vibrato-filled notes like a snake charmer, he with rolls and fills that always found the same accents that Roberts hit.

McCraven was followed by The Twilite Tone, a laptop-electronics artist who first played a male-voice monologue, then inserted a bassline that Roberts moved into rhythmic and harmonic position with, never altering her phrasing or tone. Into her place came clarinetist Angel Bat Dawid, going into visible paroxysms against the thuds that Tone laid down behind her. At two points she stopped playing just to dance, then didn’t miss a beat when Tone laughingly switched to playback of America’s “A Horse with No Name.”

The Twilite Tone (left) and Matana Roberts at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018
The Twilite Tone (left) and Matana Roberts at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)

Finally came Roscoe Mitchell, who didn’t wait his turn before joining Tone and Dawid on a small soprano sax—sounding like a squeaky wheel in their machine. When Tone left the stage, Mitchell and Dawid communicated in earnest; the clarinet was searchingly melodic, the soprano speechlike and rambling. Then suddenly there was Mitchell, alone at the edge of the stage in suit and tie with his back to the audience. He let loose a stream of circular-breathed notes, too fast and crowded to be melody per se, and too irregular to be rhythmic (though they had their own flow).

When he was done, Mitchell got a standing ovation, then invited everyone back to the stage. He conducted: first Armstrong, then Lux, then Coval, then Matchess—and soon everyone had a few seconds to make a final contribution. It was a spectacular end to a stunning evening of music.

Roscoe Mitchell (bottom center, with back to camera) assembles all the musicians participating in the Red Bull Music Round Robin at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018
Roscoe Mitchell (bottom center, with back to camera) assembles all the musicians participating in the Red Bull Music Round Robin at Thalia Hall, Chicago, Aug. 30, 2018 (photo: © Zoe Rain/Red Bull Content Pool)