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Jason Roebke’s Music Is ‘Transgressive In A Positive Way’

photocredit: Lawrence Minor

According to the map app on my phone, Chicago is five hours away by car, a scant six by Amtrak. To anyone who has ever wasted an hour creeping along I-480, this is the equivalent to a pleasant Sunday drive. So why do so few members of the Windy City’s stupefyingly abundant music scene make the trip?

It’s a fair question, but don’t think about it for too long. Better to luxuriate in the opportunity to hear four of Chicago’s best when New Ghosts presents bassist Jason Roebke’s quartet at BOP STOP Sunday.

Northeast Ohio music stans might remember Roebke’s appearance with the Tomeka Reid Quartet at Cuyahoga Valley National Park in 2018, so he’s not exactly a stranger here. But good bassists are always in demand, and the richness of the Chicago scene keeps Roebke’s calendar full without leaving home.

Yet Chicago’s close-knit music scene can be like a cozy sweater that keeps you warm but hugs a little too closely. Call this quartet Roebke’s version of a musical wardrobe change.

Jason Roebke

For gigs in Chicago, Roebke said, “we’re relying on people who are friends. [We’ll say,] ‘Hey, we’re going to do this thing, and it doesn’t really pay that much, but we’re friends and it’s fine.’ I kind of wanted to get away from that because, well, I just wanted to work with other people. So I this is really an experiment of working with people from outside your little community.”

Classically trained pianist Mabel Kwan checks multiple boxes in that regard. A founding member of contemporary classical music group Ensemble Dal Niente, she also plays with synthesizer duo Mega Laverne and Shirley and sings. Marcus Evans has played drums with some of Chicago’s most vital improvising musicians, among them flutist Nicole Mitchell, cornet player and tone scientist Ben LaMar Gay and firebrand saxophonists Isaiah Collier and Greg Ward.

Edward Wilkerson, Jr.

But Roebke’s most consequential personnel decision—at least for the Cleveland audience–might be the inclusion of tenor saxophonist Edward Wilkerson, Jr. who grew up in Shaker Heights and hasn’t played in Cleveland for many years. Wilkerson is a leading figure and past chair of Chicago’s seminal Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). He was a founding member of Kahil El’Zabar’s magical Ethnic Heritage Ensemble and led the influential large ensemble Shadow Vignettes and 8 Bold Souls. Like Roebke, Wilkerson works mostly around Chicago these days, but his stature as an under-recognized master of the tradition would make his appearance here a must-hear, his ties to Cleveland notwithstanding.

New Ghosts principal Matt Laferty agrees. “Ever since we had the opportunity to bring Roebke to town many years back as part of Tomeka Reid’s masterful quartet, we’ve wanted to have him back for his own music, ”Laferty wrote me. “When we realized that we had the opportunity to showcase the great Ed Wilkerson Jr., the show was essential for us. Luckily the BOP STOP made it easy to bring these heroes to Cleveland.”

On paper, Roebke’s band looks like a conventional horn-plus-rhythm quartet, a canonical formation in the jazz tradition. Though Roebke sees himself as part of that tradition, he had little interest in recreating it. “I was thinking about what this classic quartet instrumentation signified, and then how to have a dialogue the opposite of fulfilling those expectations,” he said.

One way he did this is by writing compositions that explore the notion of starting and stopping. That’s the very antithesis of the jazz bassist’s role of keeping a steady rhythm. As heard on the quartet’s excellent new recording Four Spheres (Corbett Vs. Dempsey, 2023), it’s an approach that is more jazz-ish than it is identifiably jazz. producing a music that teems with detail and keeps the ear wonderfully engaged.

“I wanted to propose something new in terms of form, but I also feel like in jazz the orchestration, the instrumentation, also has a big semiotic meaning to it, right? I’m trying to be transgressive in a positive way, in a generative way,” Roebke said. “I think of this band, and maybe all of the work that I do, as proposing something else, like, what if we throw this around for a little while?”

Jason Roebke, Sun., April 7, 7 p.m., BOP STOP, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland. Tickets $20, available here. The concert will also be livestreamed on BOP STOP’s YouTube page at showtime. Accessing the stream is free but donations are encouraged and directly support the band.

NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.

Red beans and ricely yours,