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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Keefe Jackson’s Likely So—April 16, 2022 at Constellation, Chicago

(From left to right) Sarah Clausen, Molly Jones, Keefe Jackson, Jason Stein, Adam Zanolini, Aram Shelton.

By Gary Chapin

One of the reasons I love the way the pandemic has boosted streaming concerts across the land is because it solves the “reviewing live performances” conundrum. “Why review live performances?” I would say to my copy of The New Yorker or The New York Times,”It’s not like I can go see it?” But with streaming concerts—which are often posted on the venue’s YouTube channel—you can go see the performance. And if I see a streaming concert, like Keefe Jackson’s Likely So at Constellation Chicago, and it sticks under my craw and I keep revisiting it and it keeps bringing joy, I can write a review even a full month later to draw everyone’s attention.

Likely So is a woodwind sextet featuring Sarah Clausen, Molly Jones, Keefe Jackson, Jason Stein, Adam Zanolini and Aram Shelton on all kinds of flutes, saxes, and clarinets. There’s at least one instance of a number of the group playing clear plastic tubes with mouth pieces on, and a harmonium (a free reed instrument) also shows up.

At the start, the group is assembling their instruments and form into a semi-circle, everyone still, with their hands at their sides. There’s something about it that is purposeful. Almost as if the score indicates “some silence before the sounds begin.” This is conjecture on my part. I have no way of knowing if that’s true, but it is the sort of theatrical or ritualistic element that shows up occasionally throughout.

For example, the opening sequence features each player playing an improvised sort of introduction to themselves. Another example, about ten minutes in, two of the flutists are circling the rest of the group slowly. Everyone is in their spot either crouching or sitting, the flutes draw a circle that marks the edge of darkness on the stage. In the second “act” trumpets play from the shadows (played by Josh Berman and Ben Lamar Gay).

The compositions are uncontrolling, as you would expect. They seem to create the conditions for improvisation, rather than carving out space. The most frequent compositional gambit is for a repeated figure (or two or three) to play while other improvisers wind around it, like the snakes around the staff of a caduceus. Rising long tones happen, unison playing, and then you hear the beats in the wave and know that they are drifting. The entrances to and exits from and settings of improvisation are very intriguing shared melodies. The improvisations live in an AACMish spaciousness, but the—what are they? heads? ostinatos?—have rhythmic weight and (dare I say it?) Hemphill-esque funk.

At one point four bass clarinets are playing with two alto flutes (I think, I couldn’t see one of the flutes clearly) and that amazing timbre had me thinking, “The world needs more of this kind of sound!” The infusion of minimalism and free jazz is one of my favorite things. This is music happening with a human dynamic, with a human density, between humans who listen to each other.