Music

Singing Chords

Café Logan’s jazz series delivers another surprise

Siena Fite (based on a photo by Burrell Sunrise)

The last time I went to Café Logan to see the Third Tuesday Jazz Series, a saxophonist played two altos simultaneously. This time, on my way to see the first vocalist ever to perform in the Jazz Series since it opened five years ago, with one of the biggest crowds Café Logan has ever seen, I expected something even more surprising. As it turned out, I wouldn’t be disappointed.

It was the second Jazz Series performance of the year, and the café—on the first floor of the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts—was packed. Arriving five or ten minutes early wasn’t enough for this show, which was otherwise casual, free and relaxed. Every seat in the house was taken, and as the minutes ticked down to showtime, you’d a need a crowbar to get anybody out of theirs.

In the corner were the guests of honor: a lean trio of vocals, guitar, and bass. The vocalist was Dee, a member of the influential Black music collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (better known as the AACM). On guitar was John McLean, who had arranged of most of the songs on the setlist, and seemed to have brought five or six guitars. On bass was Patrick Mulcahy, standing in last-minute for somebody who’d been in a car accident the night before. (No injury.)

It only took the few minutes before the show began for the atmosphere to sink into the skin. The whole café was shades of blue: electric-blue lights on the amplifiers, dyed-blue jeans, dark blue walls, light blue ceiling. Instead of a stage, the band had set up in a corner of the room, in front of the windows. Lights dangled over the band; one made a hat for Mulcahy’s bass. It had been dark already for a few hours, and through the windows were a few parked cars, hundreds of leafless trees, and the warm, yellow lights of the hospital across the Midway.

The trio opened the show on a nostalgic note, with a jazz arrangement of “Yesterday” by The Beatles, and Ella Fitzgerald’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” Eyes wandered to the black-and-white photos of musical greats on the wall of the café, a new installation—Aretha Franklin, Howlin’ Wolf, Memphis Slim, and Ma Rainey II were looking on. Things were slow and a little romantic. Electric guitar notes hung in the air. A couple waltzed cheek-to-cheek beside the printer. Married people took their spouses by the arm.

But Alexander, acting as the MC for the show, didn’t stay nostalgic or downbeat for long. She’s a radio DJ for WFMT, and like most radio DJs, she has a snappy, cheerful, and teasing sense of humor. Sizing up the room and leaning jauntily on the mic stand, she asked: “How many people here have been in love?” A few claps. She leaned harder on the mic.  

“How many people here are in love?” A few more, and a few happy laughs.

“How many people here wish they were in love?” At this the audience burst into applause, and Alexander glided into the next tune, the jazz standard “Comes Love.”

A few minutes later, still in a mood for laughs, she glanced over at McLean and Mulcahy, and remarked to the audience: “You know, I just realized… I’m with my Irish brothers tonight.”

McLean replied, speaking into the mic: “Who you calling Irish?”

As it turned out, Alexander and McLean’s fooling around didn’t stop with the conversation. Instead, their sense of humor fed into a virtuosic performance. During the next song, McLean started to improvise, picking notes, which Dee copied with her voice. In no time fast, their back-and-forth grew lengthy and complicated. McLean kept upping the ante, but eventually, realizing that there wasn’t anything he could pick that Alexander couldn’t sing, he gave her one last challenge: he started to strum. Between laughs, Dee protested that she couldn’t sing chords.

It might have ended at that, but later in the night, near the end of the second set, Alexander returned to the challenge. She and McLean started to go back and forth again, but this time, it was serious. She sounded like an instrument, whispering small vocalizations that exploded in the air, and as she started to speed up, the line between discrete notes quivered and disappeared. Suddenly, there it was: Dee Alexander was singing chords.

It was just past 10pm when the second set came to an end. As the people made their way out of the café, I spoke briefly with Alexander and McLean. I asked Alexander how it felt to be the first vocalist at the café in five years. She looked tickled, “Actually,” she said, “I’ve been here before!” As it turns out, Alexander has performed at the café before, outside of the Jazz Series. “But it feels great to be here. I can just feel the love,” and then, sounding more like a member of the audience than a performer said, “I had a great time, as always.”

McLean, apologizing for the fantastic show that the band had performed, managed to make it sound even more impressive. “We assembled it pretty haphazardly—we’re just getting started,” he said. “But at least Dee can sing anything.” Amen to that.

The next Third Fridays jazz performance at will be by trumpet player Quentin Coaxum on February 19 at 7:30pm. Free. Café Logan at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center for the Arts, 915 E. 60th St. arts.uchicago.edu

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Kyle Oleksiuk is a staff writer for the Weekly and student at the University of Chicago. He last wrote about Ravi Coltrane at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival.

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