In its second year, Constellation reaches critical mass

 Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams

Pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (Chris Sweda, Chicago Tribune / August 28, 2013)

Last Friday night, the bar area at Constellation was packed, the room alive with the chatter of people discussing a dance event they just had attended in one of the club's two formal concert spaces.

As the night proceeded, the lobby crowd only grew, a new audience pouring in to catch Chicago guitarist Jeff Parker's late show at Constellation, where performance rooms double as dance studios.

The dynamic scene said a lot about what's happening at Constellation, which opened less than a year-and-a-half ago – in April of 2013 – and quickly has established itself as a nexus for adventurous music and dance. By featuring a wide range of jazz and other musical idioms, as well as the dance presentations of Links Hall (a long-running Chicago institution that makes its home in Constellation), the venue appears to be gaining remarkable momentum.

During the next month, in fact, it appears that Constellation is reaching a kind of critical mass. In the next few weeks alone, the performing arts center will present master jazz reedist Roscoe Mitchell duetting with drummer and Constellation founder Mike Reed (Saturday); pianist and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams (Sunday); Ken Vandermark's Audio One, a 10-piece band with the power of an ensemble twice that size (Aug. 22-23); and After Fest sessions (following Chicago Jazz Festival shows in Millennium Park) featuring Kidd Jordan, Matthew Shipp, Alvin Fielder and others, a high-powered new-music lineup if ever there were one (Aug. 29 and 30). And more.

Reed, a protean force in Chicago culture who also produces the Pitchfork Music Festival, downplays this remarkable confluence of events as "really just coincidence," he says in an e-mail. "There was no great plan in it, except that we were proactive about some of the shows, (and) it just so happened that they were all possible in August. With the exception of the After Fest shows, which I'm hoping will become a staple of Jazz Fest Week, the other shows could have happened at any time."

But they're happening all at once at Constellation, and they're setting the stage for more in the fall. Next month, Constellation for the first time will begin presenting events six nights a week, and seven on some occasions. In addition, major attractions such as saxophonist Mark Turner's quartet with trumpeter Avishai Cohen (Sept. 23) and pianist Fred Hersch (Sept. 30) will share the calendar with emerging artists who contribute equally to the vitality of the place, located in the former home of the Viaduct Theater.

As if this weren't enough, Reed and colleagues have conceived three intriguing series that present music in innovative ways.

The 3-on-3 series will nurture artistic experimentation by bringing artists from distinct disciplines onto the same stage, at the same time. "Each month 3 different artists are invited to present a mini-set of a mixed lineup of improvisers," according to Constellation's web site.

The opening event, on Sept. 15, will feature vibist Jason Adasiewicz, dancer-choreographer Adriana Durant and sound artist Lou Mallozzi in tandem. The philosophy here, according to the Constellation web site, is "a zero approach: no solo, duo or regular groups, no pre-set rehearsals, no comfort zone."

Sounds intriguing, but further explanation would be welcome.

"It's based on a series in Amsterdam that I've gone to, and I've played there too," says Reed, in an interview. "What that does is try to get these different types of improvisers – whether movement or electronic or jazz – to be in the same room. Sometimes those people, it's really hard to get them in the same place. Also it gives (artists) a chance to work with someone that they haven't before and not have to be in a huge commitment to it.

"We'll do two 25-minute segments. If it works (for a particular lineup), maybe it will develop into something else. If it doesn't, it's not like: 'Oh, man, I booked this gig. Now what?' It's a sampler for everyone: not only for the audience, but for the people trying to get together with someone else."

At the very least, audiences attending 3-on-3 will see and hear something they've never experienced before.

Another series, the Sound of the City Workshop that plays every Wednesday, "gives the traditional jam session a modern twist," according to Constellation's web site. Each Wednesday, a different band performs music conceived in Chicago during roughly the past 15 years, with the ultimate goal of putting the scores online for other musicians to perform and develop. After the evening's first set, Constellation opens the stage to other musicians, with each session hosted by one of four noted Chicago players: drummer Reed, bassist Joshua Abrams or saxophonists Cameron Pfiffner or Nick Mazzarella.

Reed conceived Sound of the City as a way of welcoming young talent onto the scene, while also encouraging veterans to stretch out.

"We need to be mindful about new people, and how do they get involved," says Reed. "When I first started getting involved, there was a whole crew of people. A lot of the people would be at the (Empty) Bottle or the Velvet (Lounge), and it felt easy to connect. Maybe I was just lucky.

"Some people (today) can feel it's really closed. … You need to start planting some seeds. So that's what I'm thinking. It's free, so broke musicians can come to it. And the other thing is usually at a jam session, there's a house band and they play a set. Here the house band changes every week."

But pity the aspiring musician who skips the house band's opening set, showing up in time to join in for the second.

"I turned a kid down the other night – he came after the first set and wanted to play," recalls Reed. "I said: 'You weren't here to see the band.' I want people to come see shows.'"

Finally, Constellation's Keys to the City series will feature something different in new-music Chicago: duo piano concerts. Because Constellation has two grand pianos, the idea seemed natural, says Reed, but there was more to it than that.

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