Wednesday, August 11, 2010
While the rest of us waste our lives watching CSI reruns on Spike, Aram Shelton is producing music with the crazed urgency of condemned man. He is an incredibly busy musician, sloughing off albums like skin cells. In that sense he's pedestrian as far as go musicians related to the Chicago scene. I hesitate to use the word scene because it reads poorly, but you know wherefrom I come. Shelton's based in Oakland now, but his associations with Chicago's well-populated improvised music scene are strong, just as Rob Mazurek's move to Brazil only made him busier in Illinois. I profiled Shelton a few years back on the now-defunct Now's the Time radio program, inspired by the debut of the trio dubbed Dragons 1976 (On Cortez, Locust Music, 2003). That was a fantastic record – it still sounds great to me – and once I started digging into the saxophonist's body of work I found a wealth of strong releases. I suppose that in the interim – the long, fallow years that followed – I've let lapse my claim to knowledge of Shelton's doings. Then Delmark sent me the second Fast Citizens record, and my interest was re-sparked.
So I'm glued to three Shelton-scented releases these days, though two of them are old news. That's the problem with this music: you can't ever catch up. There aren't enough hours and/or dollars. But you pick your spots, and the three I've chosen of late are these:
Dragons 1976, Winter Break (Singlespeed, 2006)
The trio is Shelton, Jason Ajemian on bass and Tim Daisy on drums, and the air, the expansiveness that marked On Cortez makes this record highly listenable as well. There's a feel to this unit – maybe it's timelessness, or a timeliness from another time – that suggests uncountable hours of study at the feet of dead men with long-silent horns. In and amongst all that air, that space, there's also a bite to Shelton's saxophone. Cool requires that even the smoothest quip contains a barb; sophistication is measured by the ability to disguise the point.
Fast Citizens, Two Cities (Delmark, 2009)
A sextet with a rotating leader's chair, the Fast Citizens have released only two albums but logged countless stage hours, if their playing is any indication. The cities alluded to are Chicago and Oakland, Shelton's base, since it was his turn to hold the speaking stick. You get the sense, though, that any one of these players could lead the ensemble to the Canaan of improvisational perfection. This band is tight. The compositions are good, and the improvising even better. Even if the chair only makes one full rotation, that leaves four more releases; at their established rate of an album every four years I'll be enjoying this band until my youngest graduates high school.
Aram Shelton Quartet, These Times (Singlespeed, 2010)
In which he adds clarinet to his repertoire. The quartet is like a juicy, marbled slab carved from the ham of the Fast Citizens. In musical terms, it kind of lands equidistant from Dragons and the Citizens, containing the fire and the space of both. The form and the formlessness. The great thing about this music is its ability to address needs: sometimes I want mathematical precision, other days I want something that swings. This group's got me covered.
Photo via aramshelton.com