Blowing in from Chicago
by Piotr Michalowski
Chicago is notorious for many things: stockyards, railroads, architecture, theater, rough politics, and old jazz. But during the last few decades, the great city has also become known all over the world for its vibrant and productive improvised music scene, drawing musicians from all over the country and even from abroad. The push to move jazz and improvised music forward while respecting their past was spurred by the musicians who established the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) cooperative in 1965. Many of the best-known members of this organization, such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, and Anthony Braxton have moved elsewhere, spreading their ideas through performance and teaching, but they have been replaced by younger artists, and the improvised music scene in Chicago now encompasses many different players, groups, and centers--though the AACM continues to play an inspirational role. While many schools and collages across the country enshrine bebop jazz of the fifties and sixties as a frozen model, the eclectic Chicagoans pursue many different avenues to create new musical forms, drawing inspiration from many different sources, including classical and world music, as well as from contemporary popular idioms.
Aram Shelton grew up in Florida and studied classical saxophone in college. Once he discovered improvisation, he made his move to Chicago in 1999, where he quickly became an important member of the younger set of musicians who were creating their own musical scene in the city. At the time his major focus was the alto saxophone, which continues to be his main horn, but he also began study of the trumpet and clarinet. Many of his contemporaries were influenced by completely spontaneous improvisatory modes of earlier generations, but they fused this with a focus on compositional forms. Shelton absorbed much of this as he worked in groups led by others as well as with his own combos, and this led him to eventually move to Mills College in California to study composition and to
explore a new interest in electroacoustic music. The move not only expanded his technical musical horizons, but also exposed him to a different musical and social scene on the West Coast.
Although he has clearly been influenced by others, including Chicago predecessors Braxton and Mitchell, as well as earlier players such as Lee Konitz, Shelton is a saxophonist with an immediately recognizable tone and style, with a deeply personal edge to his expression. He likes drama, but also holds things back to a degree, creating an emotional tension that moves his music forward as if on a spring, with a pull that goes against the tide; his writing and improvising often relying on repetition to create a springboard for forward leaps.
Shelton comes to the Kerrytown Concert House on July 25 for his Ann Arbor debut with a quartet made up of old friends, tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson, bassist Anton Hatwich, and drummer Marc Riordan, promoting his new CD, These Times.
[Originally published in July, 2010.]