Arts Issue 2017 | Music

The Blessing of A Permanent Change

Bottle Tree dazzles the Stony Island Arts Bank

Michael Handler / Courtesy of Stony Island Arts Bank

Nobody said out loud that night, on February 23, that it was the last night of A.M. Frison’s residency at the Stony Island Arts Bank.

Frison—nom de plume Coultrain—was performing a concert with his group Bottle Tree, with Tomasso Moretti on drums, Ben Lamar Gay on electric future keyboard cornet, production, and Frison both singing and songwriting. It was the culmination of a residency that lasted over a year, during which Frison performed as Coultrain in every possible permutation every Thursday at 68th and Stony Island, singing with any number of musicians over beats from his past albums, or just as often drumming, DJing, or singing instead over a trio of young girls in matching outfits keeping time. Coultrain might read short stories and drink something out of a bag or sing poems while drinking nothing at all, but every week he’d perform with an energy that had something to it—an expansion of all time and space.

The residency is over now, but on that Thursday night something was born anew. Some sixty people went in the basement of the Arts Bank, a dusty spectacle with a gaping vault door. Behind the band setup, the file drawers of a bank, the keeping spaces of secrets and jewels, lay askance on the floor. The bank was built in 1923 and had closed by the 1980s, according to the website of the Rebuild Foundation, community artist Theaster Gates’s nonprofit arm for, among other things, neighborhood space-making. Since 2015, the Bank has been Rebuild’s “hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center,” and thanks to artists like Coultrain, performance space.

Frison has a slew of Coultrain solo albums, including standout project Side Effex of Make Believe, but Bottle Tree is his chance at collaboration. Ben Lamar Gay is the producer of the album and an esteemed musician on his own right. Tommaso is an Italian drummer with a feather touch. You forget he’s playing until the beats whisper themselves back into your attention—I’ve never heard anything like it. The concert that Thursday felt hypnotically short. They played a few songs off their new album, a futuristic, uncategorizable series of songs to think about, and probably make love to. Anything Coultrain touches feels like a prophecy, a vision of a world beyond, a feeling of oneness glimpsed.

In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein wrote, in the voice of Alice B.Toklas, that “I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius and each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken, and I may say in each case it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them.”

It’s hard not to think of that quote watching Bottle Tree perform.

Bottle Tree is prayerful and reverential, and their album is a refreshing cluster of complex, lyrical, intricate bangers—soul bangers? The vibe, which was possibly even more present at their show at the Empty Bottle in July 2016 than in the Arts Bank basement, is that of a storefront preacher.

“I’ve never been here, it’s so cool,” said a friend about the Bank that night. “But it’s so far south—how do you get here?”

As if in cryptic response, Frison croons “hiding in plain sight was the world behind the world” on the second track of the record, “Another Other.”

The songs on Bottle Tree’s upcoming record remind me of Afrofuturists like Shabazz Palaces and Sun Ra—musicians that show you a trail to somewhere, that ineffable space of consciousness that dazzles. Sun Ra was ostensibly from outer space (and wrote poetry and prose to that effect). Shabazz Palaces’s Ishmael Butler (formerly of Digable Planets) goes by “Palaceer Lazaro” for the project, walked snakes on golden chains in press photos, raps about freedom, and weaves dreamworlds somewhere between the ancient past and the far-off future. Prison could reach these conceptual heights —he writes densely weird yet soulfully romantic lyrics, uses hooks from Sun Ra’s 1970 “The Night of the Purple Moon,” and his record label producer describes him on International Anthem (in an extreme understatement) as “an unusual dude.”

“Open Salamander,” the standout at the Arts Bank basement concert and the fourth track on the forthcoming album, scans as vaguely futurist film noir that you can grind to. The song feels driven by the shape of the words rather than the meaning of the words: “I’ll do anything you say, cause your mouth shoots out cosmic rays/you move like salamander.” I don’t know anyone except A.M. Frison who would use the word salamander and make it feel romantic. It’s the way he writes the word and his dedication to describing love, or at least using love as a metaphoric tool, that can’t help but come across as uniquely sincere. Frison’s voice is a huge component of this project. Like the best possible offspring of Stevie Wonder and Al Green, it reads as, at various different points, the smoothest, the sweetest, the truest.

“Every time I hear your name, I wonder, what are you wearing?” sings Frison on track seven, “What are you wearing?” A lascivious romanticism seems to be part of Frison’s writing persona, complemented by the dance moves of one who could summon the dead and the fashion sensibilities of a time-inconstant traveler taking a walk on a dirt road.

Bottle Tree is, at risk of overstatement, an instant classic, a glimpse into the beyond, and a group we should be very proud to call Chicago’s very own. Now that Frison’s residency at the Arts Bank has ended, rumor has it he is returning to his hometown of St. Louis to work through a Pulitzer fellowship for writing, but others yet say he wants to return to Chicago to continue on Bottle Tree. It’s hard not to hope for the latter: we should be so lucky as to have these artists working together in Chicago in the future.

“You’ve been cursed with the blessing of a permanent change,” sang Frison at one point. Look out—the first single premiered on Afropunk three weeks ago, and the album’s scheduled to drop on April 21.

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Thoughts on “The Blessing of A Permanent Change”

  1. Thank you, Leah Menzer…I missed this monumental event but, thanks to your insightful commentary and my past exposure to Coultrain–well, it sounds like he did it again.

    Coultrain does his thang consistently and always with a new twist that is mezzzmerrrzing.

    Love it

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