Isabel Ochoa Gold

Still Fresh

People, Places & Things reinvent a legacy

Isabel Ochoa Gold
Isabel Ochoa Gold

If the idea came to you—that is, if you had in your head a bunch of obscure records from Chicago’s early, hard-bopping days, and wanted somehow to crank them through a twenty-first century free-jazz machine, so as to shock the life out of them and breathe new, freaky life into its place—do you think, after all that, it would be worth the effort?

Similarly, if you took an old 1957 composition by the arcane John Jenkins, cut out two bars of the melody, looped them at triple-speed, then bore a hole into the audience’s skull for a few minutes with a pair of high-powered modernist saxophone-drills, then receded comfortably into sweet, nearly straight-ahead bop, would it hurt in a good way?

Also, who ever heard of Madman Jones?

The answers to these questions are: yes, yes, and Mike Reed.

Five years ago, Reed and his quartet released their first album, Proliferation, under the moniker People, Places & Things. The project then, as it sort of is today, was to call out the little-known artists who burned short and bright in 1950s Chicago—singular talents who helped to make the city a hub of experimental music and laid the groundwork for later groups like the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

As the album’s title suggests, the aim was continuity in part, innovation in part: both drummer and composer, Reed built new sounds off the work of artists that few aside from musicians and critics were familiar with, like saxophonists John Jenkins (a prolific side-man and composer who all but vanished from the scene in the early sixties), Tommy “Madman” Jones (who played Chicago nightclubs for decades but has largely escaped lasting fame), and Frank Strozier (a Tennessean whose involvement in the Chicago avant-garde propelled him to a solo career in New York). The band has released four albums in the meantime, tinkering with the balance between inventive covers and original compositions. Their latest, “Clean on the Corner,” in 2012, featured six “new” pieces compared to the three on “Proliferation.”

I met Reed last Thursday at his Logan Square venue, Constellation, where People, Places & Things were performing ahead of their Saturday performance in the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. Before greeting me, he had to set down a tall, ceramic pot on a table by the front door. The pot was full of gumbo.

I asked him about the project, which might conceivably be described as paying homage to old Chicago. Did he think he was recreating anything?

“No.”

“Not at all?”

“No, not ‘not at all’,” he said, sighing.

Later I would read a somewhat irritable post from three years ago on Reed’s blog, in which he asks why so many journalists repeatedly pose the one obvious question: why 1950s Chicago? “My first thought,” he writes, “is just to say ‘read the fucking liner notes!’” He goes on: “Of course, I’m not that crass, and do my best to explain…again.”

And he did, again: “You hope that some of those things live on through the experiences and the people, but you can’t recreate it. It’s gotta be whatever it is.”

“I mean, you can listen to it,” he added later, “and it’s obvious that we’re not recreating.”

Which is true. As you read up on the secret world that gave Reed his source material, you realize just how stupid it is to talk vaguely about a single “Chicago sound,” and what it actually means for a jazz piece to be reinterpreted by later musicians. More than a few of the artists who inform Reed carry a reputation among jazz-heads for being practically impossible to imitate, let alone recreate.

Strozier was one of them; on one 1959 track by the MJT+3 quintet, an Oscar Brown, Jr. composition called “Sleepy,” he comes in bending and snapping with the classical precision and blues fixation of a latter-day Sidney Bechet, fresh out of the Memphis swelter. The People, Places version is different. It takes a couple of minutes before you catch anything recognizable; in the meantime, you get to hear saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman try to out-spook each other, descending from the ethers like a slow fog.

Ward and Haldeman have gotten marks for their on-stage rapport, but you really need to see them live to get the full effect. The band’s Saturday set at the jazz festival featured a treatment of South Sider David Boykin’s “Big and Fine,” a slow, bluesy number that at first seems like a vehicle for Haldeman’s tenor, until Ward starts trailing in, his face as puckered as Haldeman’s is stoic, and suddenly you have fat, wet honks talking to flurries of old New Orleans, and there it is: fifty years of musical continuity. It’s a triumph, about as cool to watch as the band’s bassist, Jason Roebke, scatting to himself during a solo.

The other renditions are no less vexing. Take Tommy “Madman” Jones: lounge lizard extraordinaire and darling of the Chicago Defender and half the jazz clubs in south Chicago. A man of expansive taste, Jones left behind a range of recordings that show off his hard-bop credentials, an ear for danceable hits, and a kinky musical mind. In 1958, he released (on his own record label, Mad, which he opened out of a Hyde Park location the year before) “Snake Charmer,” a piece of exotica that put him in front of the mic with an all-rhythm band, shrieking, “Snakes! Snakkeeessss! Creeping! Crawling! SLITHERING! SLIIIDINNNG!” in between snatches of hisses and laughter that call to mind Ken Page’s “Oogie-Boogie” from “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Jones (who died in 1993) never really stopped producing, and in 1961 he put out a ballad called “F.A.” that exists nowhere on the Internet. Reed found it (or someone brought it to him), and he pitched it to his band, who sculpted it into the sweetest number on their debut record. Given how different Reed’s covers can be from their source material, it’s impossible to conclude what the original tune sounded like just from hearing his version. Still, when Jones lent his horn to straight-ahead jazz, as he does on a treatment of “Autumn Leaves,” the result could be surprising: a tone just clean enough to call refined, but without wiping away that nasty, barwalking sound. It’s no wonder that the band was able to tease “F.A.” into a real modernist work—a duet between Ward and Haldeman, who build their modal improvisations over a skeleton of plodding baselines and Reed’s soft brushwork. Jones, who returned home from Europe a few months before his death, and ailing from several years of hard-gigging, gave one telephone interview as a penultimate act. “You are the second person to show some interest in my work,” he told the reporter, allegedly between huffs on an oxygen mask. “And what is it, thirty or so years later? I had just given up completely.” But twenty years on, that sound remains fresh.

I asked Reed if the band’s recent work on more new music marks a departure from the original, quasi-historical project. He said things are ongoing.

“It’s important to keep those stories and people,” he said. “If you don’t know that stuff, then you’re kind of worthless, because you’re not really telling a good story when you get up there and play.”

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