Graded on a Curve: The 3.5.7 Ensemble, Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples

The jazz history of Chicago is vast; a full understanding requires a long shelf of books, some still to be written, and a glorious library of recordings, an unspecified number as yet unperformed. A recent development in the narrative of Chi-Town jazz is The 3.5.7 Ensemble, a size-shifting unit employing composition as a launching pad for expressiveness rooted in swinging Modernity and loaded with ecstatic but precise flights of freedom. Their latest is the often terrific Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples; it’s available now on 2LP, CD, and digital through their Milk Factory Productions label.

If there is a municipality currently kicking aside the spurious notion of jazz as a moribund entity it’s the Windy City. Naturally a massive amount of improvising is taking place in NYC as other locales remain sturdy outposts hosting pockets of jazz-inclined players with much to say, but Chicago, having fostered studies in sublime collectivity reaching back to transplanted New Orleanians King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong, continues to shine bright via long-nurtured avenues of cooperation, support, and constructive discourse.

It’s also the hometown of pianist Andrew Hill, the site of Herman Blount’s exquisite transformation into Sun Ra, and the home of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a significant percentage of jazz’s worthy motion having sprung from the AACM’s cradle including the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the less celebrated but indispensable group Air, and the voluminous and priceless discography of instrumentalist-composer Anthony Braxton.

Furthermore, a fair amount of Chicago’s ensuing jazz progressions were mentored or sponsored by AACM alumni. Such is the case with The 3.5.7 Ensemble, as the fledgling outfit was given a monthly gig at the Velvet Lounge, the club of the late and very great tenor man Fred Anderson. But while steeped in Chi-jazz essence the majority of the 3.5.7’s members immigrated from someplace else.

In March of 2005 New Mexico native Nick Anaya drove up to Chicago with his saxophone, a few necessities and the purpose of playing and documenting creative music. In due time he crossed paths with the bass of migrated Virginian Chris Dammann and the two began to work it out. When Nashville-bred pianist Dylan Andrew entered the framework the 3.5.7 was born, though the name wasn’t applied until later.

An early excursion is documented on the CD Ikebana (Trio), the music deriving from a 2008 live set on WNUR, the commercial-free radio station of Northwestern University. Consisting of short folk influenced pieces by Dammann and longer ones by Anaya, it’s a fine plunge into small group interplay establishing the Ensemble’s template of melody and structure as a platform from which to delve into Fire Music-descended maneuvers.

Anaya’s horn is certainly out of the school of Coltrane but with a refreshing lack of adulatory baggage or outright mimicry. Ikebana (Trio) instead occasionally reminds these ears of fellow Chicago saxophonist Ken Vandermark’s triangular unit Free Music Ensemble, though the 3.5.7 is more overtly tied to tradition.

Comprised completely of Anaya compositions, Run is the 2010 debut of the ensemble, adding James Davis on trumpet and flugelhorn and Toby Summerfield on guitar. Like the trio outing, Run opens with “Call it Saturday,” this rendition longer by five minutes, the album also holding expanded interpretations of Ikebana (Trio), “New Mexico” and “Plateau,” the latter presented in two parts.

Davis’ bold but logical expression lends Run an advanced post-bop feel accentuated by the clean tones of Summerfield, his guitar adding some surprisingly dirty riffing as well. The sum of the record minus “Call it Saturday” is designated as “The Run Suite,” and the complete disc strikes a welcome balance of complex lyricism and a confident flow of free-avant ideas.

Like the trio performance, Ephemeral Series Volume 1 was recorded live on WNUR. Largely maintaining the lineup from Run, guitarist Tim Stine steps in for Summerfield as Richard Zili enters on clarinet. The most immediately observable difference is one of length, with two of the five selections breaking 15 minutes and a third exceeding 13. This results in an overall weightier experience as the travels from inside to outside and back become increasingly adroit.

Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples adds Jim Baker’s piano to the lineup and guest Mabel Kwan’s prepared keyboard to its opener. Based on a Zimbabwean folk tune, “Dangurangu” sees Kwan’s axe standing in for the African mbira (i.e. thumb piano), though the piece is far from an exercise in approximation.

To the contrary, it’s a basis for exploration. With rhythmic parameters established, the trumpet and clarinet present an attractive melodic passage as Anaya’s tenor roars into the picture to deliver a bout of rough, bluesy swagger; just as quickly he steps back and exits, the music retuning to its rhythmic beginnings. As a double LP Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples is clearly a lengthy endeavor, but “Dangurangu” is representative of a 14 track sequence tending toward concision, only two cuts topping ten minutes.

“Red Green and Blue” alternates simmering ecstatic momentum with Mingus-esque richness, a contemplative solo by Baker, and a worthwhile segment of isolated rumination on bass, an unsurprising twist as the writing belongs to Dammann. One of three from the bassist, he’s joined compositionally here by Anaya, Stine, and Baker; additionally, there are two improvisations credited to the entire ensemble and a borrowing from the book of Fred Anderson.

This may seem a major break from the Anaya-dominated (in writing, anyway) Run, but bear in mind a half decade has elapsed since the debut, three of those years spent formulating this set (maybe not so long as everyone involved has other projects). Stine’s “Ode to 2” emits a tangible post-bop flavor, though considering the non-trad nature of the execution it could be sensibly likened to the magnetic idiosyncrasy of Dolphy’s Out to Lunch. And the author gets his moments; landing nearer to the jazz fret board norm than Summerfield, it’s still doubtful he’ll be confused for later George Benson.

In a sense the standout figure during “Ode to 2” is Dammann walking a mighty line throughout. His “CDTW1” opens side two, the piece spanning back to Ikebana (Trio); once again Dammann is boldly bowing, his tune a nifty spotlight for the horn section recalling the folky simplicity of Ayler as the bright-hued prettiness brings to mind the sweeter moments in the oeuvre of Marion Brown.

Anaya’s “Before Days Light” reinforces 3.5.7’s advanced inside zone and contrasts rather sharply with the enveloping sonic pool of “Whistle screams, a sigh, steam,” one of the two entries improvised by the whole. Its counterpart is side three’s “Dance, sing, paint, write,” which ranges from accessible to meditative to probing to flat-out manic in less than two minutes.

As the needle traverses groove Mingus’ impact becomes progressively more discernible, particularly in the reflective boppishness of the head to Anaya’s “Insatiable Machine.” The track also sports Stine’s fleet runs, Dammann and Andrews in swell interaction, and the saxophonist working himself into a superb lather.

The second record begins with “Wandering,” the group instilling splendid collectivity to one of Anderson’s core works (it appears on at least three of his albums). After “Dance, sing, paint, write” side three corrals two more from Anaya, “Hope” exuding melodic vibrancy (especially in Davis’ trumpet) appropriate to its title and “Stand Fast” brandishing an emphatic yet smartly constructed chart (it’d be a doozy in the hands of a heavyweight orchestra) interspersed with wicked solos from Baker, Anaya, and Andrews. It concludes in brief Ellingtonian mode.

The pianist’s “Gravity, resolve, persistence” opens side four, differing from the rest of Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples in offering Baker alone, his playing suitably robust to cultivate a desire to hear More Questions Than Answers, his 2005 solo LP for Delmark (Baker’s contributions to Bill Dixon with Exploding Star Orchestra and numerous Vandermark projects had already landed on this writer’s radar).

Led by Stine’s unexpectedly gnawing amplifier residue the severest swings between relative calm and eruptions of skronking mayhem constitute Anaya’s “Shrouded in Clouds,” elevated expansiveness reminiscent of Coltrane’s Om and early Pharaoh Sanders coming later. Dammann’s “Garuda” saves the most deftly Mingus-like aspects and some of the very best playing for the finale.

Over 80 minutes of music is an undeniably massive sum to absorb; one could offhandedly suggest edits for Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples, but after time spent it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where. The few down spots don’t dominate any of tracks so it’s wise to accept the expanse and embrace the LP format as being nicely attuned to incremental listening, all the while keeping an eye peeled for further developments from Milk Factory Productions and The 3.5.7 Ensemble.


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