Last year was a volatile one for the inimitable Chicago drummer-bandleader-composer Dana Hall.
With the considerable help of ace arts administrator Kate Dumbleton, Hall had rejuvenated the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, which William Russo had created at Columbia College Chicago in 1965. But facing significant budgetary pressures, Columbia began to consider folding the CJE, prompting both artistic director Hall and executive director Dumbleton to resign.
This year, the CJE is on hiatus; Dumbleton is flourishing as an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a champion of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; and Hall is getting settled in as associate professor at DePaul University, where he took a position last fall as associate professor of music, focusing on jazz and ethnomusicology (he previously had been teaching at the University of Illinois).
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Chicago's listening public hasn't heard a lot from Hall in recent months, but he'll be remedying that on Friday and Saturday evenings, with a major engagement at the Green Mill Jazz Club. Leading an expanded version of his band spring – which for this occasion will include guest trumpeters Etienne Charles and Victor Garcia – Hall will unveil new music that he and the sextet will be recording the following week.
"It's reintroducing myself to the community, in a way," says Hall, whose virtuosity as drummer and rigor as composer really need no reintroduction.
"I'm doing it with smaller ensembles (than the CJE) and doing it with a different project. … This is a big weekend for me."
And for anyone who values the creativity and originality of Hall's efforts. In 2009, Hall made a stunning recording debut as bandleader with "Into the Light" (Origin Records), the muscularity of his quintet's playing matched by the depth of his compositions.
With the music for spring, Hall says he's taking a different approach. He launched spring several years ago as a vehicle for cross-genre experimentation for him, bassist Clark Sommers and saxophonists Geof Bradfield and John Wojciechowski, a high-powered, 21st century Chicago band if ever there were one.
"I had been listening to a lot of classical music, listening to a lot of composers that in the late 1950s and through the 1960s were trying to find ways of marrying composition and improvisation," says Hall.
"That includes a lot of (former) Chicago composers: Anthony Braxton and George Lewis.
"Also Bob Brookmeyer, Jimmy Guiffre, Gerry Mulligan. I was looking at the way they were marrying these ideas. And I was inspired a lot by the Tony Williams ensemble, with Wayne (Shorter) and (Sam) Rivers – two saxophonists," plus pianist Herbie Hancock and bassist Gary Peacock, which famously made the noted, 1965 Blue Note album "Spring."
"I thought this might be an interesting way of having a conversation with musicians who are friends of mine. We were all interested in a lot of different things: African rhythms; Brazilian composers other than Jobim; find out a way that we can take (Alban) Berg's 'Wozzeck' and things happening in that opera, and move them into the jazz arena."
Those sources inspired an outpouring of musical ideas, says Hall, who got so far as to record them with spring a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, a thunderstorm in Chicago zapped power at the recording studio and took with it all the computer systems – plus the music that was digitally stored on them.
"You can imagine how demoralizing that was," says Hall.
So he refocused his energies elsewhere but couldn't fully let go of the concept.
"This is a group that's really passionate about the music," adds Hall, "and I'm really passionate about it, so I thought a way to resuscitate my ideas was to add guest artists."
That was a significant move, considering that trumpeters Charles and Garcia bring currents of Afro-Caribbean music into the ensemble. In addition, says Hall, while various artists in spring will be doubling up on percussion instruments from time to time. Hall sees the band breaking down into various sub-groups during the course of both evenings, and on the forthcoming recording, but, of course, we won't really know what he's up to until this weekend.
How does this new version of spring compare to the one that cut the now-lost recordings?
"It's a couple exits down the turnpike," says Hall.
"it's becoming more of a blueprint for the type of collective I envision, in terms of the way the instruments can blend and play with one another. … The type of material we play is informed by both Victor's and Etienne's roots in African and other diasporan elements. So I don't have to fabricate Trinidadian rhythms – I've got someone from Trinidad in the band," adds Hall, referring to Charles.
"It all lends itself to a certain authenticity that I'm attracted to."
He's not the only one.
Also worth hearing
Marquis Hill: The young Chicago trumpeter, who has been increasingly active in a variety of ensembles, leads his quintet. He's sure to play music from his album "Sounds of the City." 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.; $15-$20; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
Dave Douglas: An immensely creative trumpeter, Douglas headlines the 46th annual Elmhurst College Jazz Festival; 7:30 p.m. Friday. Also on the schedule: Maria Schneider Orchestra, 7:30 p.m. Saturday (sold-out); and Bobby Floyd, Dennis Mackrel, Byron Stripling and the Elmhurst College Jazz Band, 4:30 p.m. Sunday; prices vary; at Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel, 190 Prospect Ave., Elmhurst; 630-617-5534 or elmhurst.edu/jazzfestival
Maggie Brown. A formidable Chicago vocalist and songwriter, Brown headlines this week's installment of the Sunday-night sessions presented by the non-profit Hyde Park Jazz Society. 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. Sunday at Room 43, 1043 E. 43d St.; $10; valet parking available; hydeparkjazzsociety.com
To read more from Howard Reich on jazz, go to chicagotribune.com/reich.
Dana Hall's spring
When: 9 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway
Tickets: $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com