If Chicagoan James Falzone isn't the hardest working clarinet player in jazz, he's pretty close to it.
In addition to touring with his widely admired jazz quartet KLANG and exploring Arabic music through his Allos Musica Trio, Falzone composes choral and symphonic works, plays in classical chamber settings, collaborates with experimental musicians from across the U.S. and Europe and gamely eludes stylistic categorization. Oh, yes, he also serves as director of music at Grace Chicago Church; releases his music on his record label Allos Documents; and teaches at Columbia College Chicago.
All of which, however, is but the backdrop for his latest – and certainly one of his riskiest – musical adventures. Beginning Wednesday night, he'll present debut performances of his newest musical organization, the Renga Ensemble, a band with no drums, piano or other semblance of a rhythm section. Instead, Renga will be all clarinetists (some doubling on other reed instruments), Falzone having convened several of the most iconoclastic players from Chicago and both coasts: Chicagoans Ken Vandermark, Jason Stein, Keefe Jackson and himself, plus Ben Goldberg from San Francisco and Ned Rothenberg of New York.
To anyone who keeps score on developments in avant-garde music, this A-list roster points to the ambitiousness of the venture, which Falzone has been conceiving for at least a year. He's the first to concede, however, that he can't say exactly how six musicians playing everything from the high E-flat clarinet to its contrabass counterpart are going to sound.
"It's always the beauty of doing something like this: You don't really know," says Falzone. "I have a lot of experience doing this, we've got great gigs lined up, all the pieces are in place.
"I've worked hard to craft music that will put each of these players in their sweet spot, but I'm also looking to put them outside their comfort zone.
"But at the end of the day, I don't fully know" what will happen musically, adds Falzone. "That's been the case with music from (J.S.) Bach to (Albert) Ayler."
The mere fact that Falzone places baroque master Bach and free-jazz firebrand Ayler in the same sentence, however, tells you a lot about the catholicity of his view of music. Unencumbered by the narrow definitions by which music is marketed these days, Falzone goes about ignoring widely accepted distinctions among genre, style and musical language.
At the same time, however, he shows remarkable fluency in multiple idioms, from the technical acuity of his jazz playing to the tonal control of his contemporary classical work to his folkloric sensitivities in dealing with ancient and modern Arabic music.
His new Renga Ensemble, however, poses fresh challenges. The term "Renga," says Falzone, refers to a Japanese form of collaborative poetry, which he hopes is a fitting metaphor for what he and his five clarinet counterparts hope to achieve. The idea, in other words, is to produce a music decidedly less explosive than the work of KLANG.
"Over the past couple of years, my flagship band has been KLANG, which is a jazz quartet … and it's going to continue, and I love that," says Falzone.
"But the volume of that group gets loud, and as a clarinetist, it can be hard to cut through that. After a gig, I'm spent."
So when Falzone was writing for Renga, he heard in his inner ear "a group with no drums, no percussion involved, all wind based, that would have the ability to play very quietly. When you have all clarinets, the possibility to have a very low dynamic, very intimate, is very appealing."
On the other hand, sustaining listener interest in a sextet of soft-spoken clarinets poses its own issues, though Falzone believes he can do it through the intricacies of his writing. All the more considering the distinct personalities for whom Falzone has been penning this music. Rothenberg's extended techniques, Goldberg's neo-klezmer and jazz leanings, Stein's innovations on bass clarinet, Vandermark's virtuosity on anything with a reed and Jackson's "old school" affinities, as Falzone puts it, certainly give Falzone plenty to work with.
Then, too, Falzone will be trying to weave passages of composition and improvisation, veering between the planned and the unplanned.
"I love that balance point – of course, that's been in jazz since the beginning," says Falzone.
"It's what I find so beautiful about jazz: The push and pull between the improvised and the through-composed."
Whether all of this proceeds fluidly or results in the sonic equivalent of a train wreck will be known soon: to Falzone, to his band and to everyone listening. Regardless, Falzone plans to take the musicians into the recording studio on Friday. If the music proves as strong as he hopes, he'll release it next year on Allos Documents. If not, well, he will have learned a thing or two.
"If I'm not satisfied," says Falzone, "I'll have a nice sounding document that I won't release. But I have a good feeling that it will be worth getting out there."
James Falzone's Renga Ensemble performs at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia Ave; $10; 773-227-4433 or hideoutchicago.com. Also 6:30 p.m. Thursday, on a double-bill with Devin Hoff, at the Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington St.; free; 312-744-6630 or chicagoculturalcenter.org. Also 9 p.m. Thursday at Elastic, 2830 N. Milwaukee Ave., second floor; $8; 773-772-3616 or umbrellamusic.org. In addition, Rothenberg will play a solo set 3 p.m. Saturday at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 1120 N. Ashland Ave., third floor; 773-278-1664 or corbettvsdempsey.com. And Goldberg will play a solo set on the Ratchet Series of house concerts, at 7 p.m. Saturday; $10-$15 suggested donation; for location, visit ratchetmusic.com/p/ratchet-series-house-concert.html
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
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