Mike Reed And The Phenomenon Of Rugged Beauty

Mike Reed. i

Mike Reed's publicity photograph makes it abundantly clear that Chicago is cold. courtesy of the artist hide caption

itoggle caption courtesy of the artist
Mike Reed.

Mike Reed's publicity photograph makes it abundantly clear that Chicago is cold.

courtesy of the artist

Chicago-based drummer Mike Reed** has a new album out with his People, Places & Things quartet. It's called About Us, and it's a doozy.

The first PPT album, 2008's Proliferation, mostly reconfigured gems written by Chicago jazz musicians in the mid-late '50s, many of them snatched from the brink of ultimate obscurity (Tommy "Madman" Jones?). About Us is full of originals, though. It features top-shelf Chicago guest artists like David Boykin, Jeb Bishop and Jeff Parker, regular bassist Jason Roebke and the bad-meaning-good front line of Tim Haldeman and Greg Ward (tenor and alto saxes, respectively). Because there's no chordal instrument, the rhythmic flow swings rough and unfettered, and the saxophonists weave in and out of each others' solos with thrilling dynamism.

But what I want to write about here is the song most unlike its neighbors. Have a listen:

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"First Reading: Paul's Letter To The Ephesians," from Mike Reed's People, Places & Things, About Us (482 Music). Mike Reed, melodica; Greg Ward, alto saxophone; Tim Haldeman, tenor saxophone, Jason Roebke, bass. Chicago, Ill.: Feb.-Mar. 2009.

Purchase: 482 Music

Reed and PPT usually traffic a form of jazz somewhere between hard-bop and free improvisation. (You can download two tracks from About Us at Reed's Web site.) This is different. There are no drums, no four-beat bass line, no loose swing feeling. It's syrup-slow, meditative, frequently dissonant, almost unpleasantly so, and ... wait for it ... strangely beautiful.

Yea, I said it: Beautiful. If you didn't hear it through the claws-on-a-chalkboard arco bass and atonal noise exposition, I've isolated the melody for you:

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Check out the way tension builds, seems to hang indefinitely, and then resolves in a most satisfactory way. And the way that all those dissonant screeches, unconventional overtones and creaky ornaments act as a sort of gauzy curtain — but how they also occasionally reinforce harmonies. That's all before the "solo" section too — which is another trip in itself. I can't even fully decipher what instruments are present (melodica I'm told — are those scraped cymbals too? squeaky saxophones?) but I do know this piece literally made me stop in my tracks the first time I heard it.

It's a great example of one of my favorite phenomena in jazz: the kind of musical beauty that emerges from the conventionally ugly. That could mean fiery extended-technique saxophones, or astringent friction noises, or irregular rhythmic phrasing, or just the clatter of staggered, deliberately sloppy arrangements. But through it all, you can hear a fleeting tune shine through — maybe only in glimpses, but that's often enough to hit the spot.

Thelonious Monk was a master at creating what seemed like clutter, then cutting through it. His ballads tend to have a jagged, improbable architecture — one of his tunes is, of course, called "Ugly Beauty" — but their melodies sing loud and clear. It's accentuated when he performs them solo, and he can throw in a full range of extended voicings, epileptic jabs and signature irreplicable scale runs. Try this 1969 version of "Crepuscule With Nellie," perhaps the most exemplary of this idea:

Personally, my hook into Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler was their respective gifts for radical melodies. "Lonely Woman" and "Ghosts" don't really need more inexpert exegesis from me, though. Let's not forget Eric Dolphy either, and what he could do with a bass clarinet. Dig his complete restructuring of "God Bless The Child" — those hypnotic repeating patterns, and those erupting fits of creative liberty, and that nasty bass timbre:

Of course, I don't know if Mike Reed had any of these predecessors in mind when he came up with "Paul's Letter To The Ephesians" — I presume he has that depth of knowledge, but I would also presume he wasn't trying to ape Ayler or anything. Judging from the title, he probably had other inspirations too. Yet he still managed to tap that same phenomenon, of creating rough in which to find a diamond.

Beautiful songs are quite scarce, and even harder to find when they also stretch the limits of imagination and sonic tolerance. Surely I can't be the only one to have noticed it when it does appear, though. All you out there: do you have any favorite examples of unconventional but gripping beauty?

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**This isn't really a feature on Mike Reed, but you really ought to know more about him if you don't already. He's a music presenter: he directs the Pitchfork Music Festival, and helps run lots of other concert series in the Chicagoland area. He's a percussionist: he plays with all sorts of creative improvisers, and represents them as Vice Chairperson of the AACM. He's a composer and bandleader: in addition to People, Places & Things, he has a group with alto sax, vibes and cello (plus bass and drums) called Loose Assembly — they're two records in already — and if you check his Web site you'll see he's up to yet more projects. More Mike: NPR's Jacob Ganz caught up with a sleep-deprived Reed this summer on the last day of the Pitchfork Music Festival.

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