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The fifth annual Chicago Jazz String Summit took place at various venues in Chicago between May 2-5. The brainchild of self-effacing, yet proactive cellist Tomeka Reid, the festival has yet to achieve attention commensurate with its quality of programming. Incredibly, Reid, in the spirit of the AACM’s “start your own thing”, mostly funds the event herself, taking care of artists’ fees, lodging and transportation. “The CJSS was a direct response to the Summit concerts the Jazz Institute of Chicago were having for the typical ‘jazz’ instruments (trumpet, drums, piano, sax) – there was not a summit for the string players,” commented Reid. “The first one was held in 2013. I took an hiatus in 2014 and 2015 due to my own tour schedule and lack of time to raise funds, but I started back in 2016. The event focuses on violin, viola and cello players who are leaders and compose original music. I aim to create community, so we learn each other’s work, build new audiences and encourage string players to improvise more.”

The in-demand Reid is involved in countless projects herself: a few days after the festival she was invited by Joe Morris to join an all-star group with himself, Evan Parker and Ned Rothenberg at Real Art Ways in Connecticut; prior to that she convened her large Reid Stringtet at her alma mater, the University of Maryland, performing music inspired by her mother’s visual art, and also performed at Knoxville’s hip Big Ears Festival with Artifacts, a collective with drummer Mike Reed and flautist Nicole Mitchell; (she was at London’s Cafe OTO with Mitchell and pianist Alexander Hawkins in April). Unlike many curators who give themselves a gig, Reid did not perform until the final night of CJSS at the Hungry Brain, when three combo sets were pulled from a hat. 

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“I ask that each of the leaders stay for the duration of the Summit, if they are able, and on the last day we have a jam session. I also have all of the sets recorded. One group even released their recording.” No doubt this leads to significant additional expense for Reid but palpably promoted a bonding vibe over the four-day festival which took place at the Arts Club, Constellation, Elastic Arts and the Brain. Genius of sabotage Tristan Honsinger (pictured above) was eager to play for the first time with fellow eccentric Fred Lonberg-Holm in a spontaneous aggregation that opened the jam night and included Vancouver-based violinist Joshua Zubot. Lonberg-Holm laid down rock power, pedal-driven cello distortion with Stirrup – his trio with bassist Nick Macri (pictured below with Lonberg-Holm) and drummer Charles Rumback – for the first set but seemed respectively acquiescent to the unpredictable Honsinger, who gesticulated spasmodically like Popeye with Tourette’s, blurting satirical politicised half-pronouncements when least expected. When Honsinger played at Constellation with In the Sea, bandmates Zubot and bassist Nicolas Caloia had to adapt to the maverick cellist plucking scraps of collaged manuscript from an unruly pile, jump-cutting to a new piece at whim.

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Honsinger feigns dilettantism and stomps feet wildly to his own muse, but archly brings that muse to heel. In sharp contrast the beautifully poised chamber music of fellow cello legend Akua Dixon followed, revisiting arrangements from an eponymous 2014 album with a festival-fresh cadre of collaborators, including violist Leslie DeShazor and violinists Zara Zaharieva and Eddy Kwon. During this recital Dixon demonstrated her prowess as a section mate, drawing on considerable experience in the pit at the Apollo and playing for a plethora of celebrated Broadway productions. Kwon’s exquisite high-register forays on Piazzolla’s ‘Libertango’ and then ‘Besame Mucho’ were a highlight, later bested, by all accounts, during a solo set at Elastic. I was suitably berated by Reid for missing that set, but did catch debonair Grammy nominee Sara Caswell’s impressively tight quartet with guitarist Jesse Lewis, bassist Ike Sturm and Jared Schonig. In front of Damon Locks’ evocative logo artwork for the CJSS, Caswell appropriately re-harmonised ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ (the image has silhouetted birds emerging from a cello scroll into the Chicago cityscape), continuing with the obscure Jobim piece ‘O Que Tinha de Ser’ and Egberto Gismonti’s playfully antiphonal ‘7 Anéis’. 

Due to the limited sustain of their instruments (when unplugged), string players are wonderful to watch as they maintain momentum with dramatic arm movement and are frequently masters of counterpoint, buoying each other with perhaps greater precision and attentiveness than your average jazz axe wielder. Such was amply on display at this ambitious, valuable event, which warrants broader support.

Michael Jackson 

from News