Chicago’s double bass jazz tradition is anchored in the strongly rhythmic, percussive, and deep-toned playing of the late Wilbur Ware. Ware played mostly with traditional modern jazz musicians, but he was also fully at home with more adventuresome spirits such as Sun Ra. Beginning in the 1960s, Chicago became the center of a highly disciplined self-reliant avant jazz community gathered around the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), and the major bass player of this group was Malachi Favors, who adapted Ware’s approach to the new music. In turn, he was followed by another AACM bass master who works a similar musical vein: Harrison Bankhead.
For more than three decades, Bankhead has been in the forefront of new developments in Chicago jazz, working locally and touring the world with many regular and one-off bands, often in tandem with the amazing drummer Hamid Drake. Those who know him mainly from recordings consider him a stalwart of free improvisation, but in Chicago he is admired for his omnivorous musical interests, performing folk, rock, and classical music as well as various forms of jazz, with a typically Windy City deep feeling for the blues. He loves to play deep-toned pizzicato grooves but is also well versed with the bow and also performs as a pianist and cellist.
The role of a sideman comes naturally to bassists, but Bankhead has often been much more than that, participating in equal measure in small cooperative groups such as the Indigo Trio and the Chicago Trio. In 2010 he finally moved on to lead his own group and recorded a septet CD, Morning Sun, Harvest Moon, that surprised many with the maturity and originality of its conception. Very much in the AACM manner, Bankhead’s compositions look far into the future but are anchored in a variety of traditions, from African and Native American sounds and rhythms to the grooves of jazz and blues, with a bit of calypso adding color to the mix. Hard-driving saxophone solos are tempered by lush violin, but sometimes everything breaks out into hymns over massed percussion. The arrangements sometimes make you think of Duke Ellington looking over the man’s shoulder, ruminating on what he would do if he were back today.
Last year Bankhead followed up with another recoding, Velvet Blue, with a quartet made up of the core musicians from his previous CD: percussionist Avreeayl Ra and Mars Williams and Ed Wilkerson on various saxophones, clarinets, the African thumb piano known as the kalimba, and the Australian aboriginal didgeridoo. Each has a highly individual style, and Bankhead skillfully utilizes their strengths and the multiple sonorities that their various instruments provide. The album is perfectly paced, each song offering a different mood, coming together into a larger whole, more a suite than a succession of unrelated tunes.
Bankhead brings his quartet to Kerrytown Concert House on October 17 as part of the bass-themed Edgefest festival.