This weekend one of the most intensely anticipated events of the jazz season will unfold in one of the most important rooms in the city.
It's a rare occasion indeed when trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart and drummer Mike Reed meet on a single stage. Each tours the globe steadily in various settings, making their convergence here a near-miracle of both scheduling and creative programming.
That they'll be playing Constellation, the increasingly busy arts center in the old Viaduct Theater building, on North Western Avenue, only underscores the significance of the occasion. For Reed opened the place less than a year ago, quickly making it a nexus for adventurous musicians of various kinds and for dance, as well, in the form of events presented by Links Hall.
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Even Reed seems slightly disbelieving that his emerging partnership with Smith and Ewart advanced from the talking stages a few years ago to a two-night engagement at Constellation and a forthcoming recording.
It all started when Reed was leading his much lauded People, Places & Things band at the Vision Festival, in New York, in 2010, says the drummer. Smith and Gunter "Baby" Sommer played right after Reed's ensemble, "and I think (Smith) might have heard something I'd done, and he said, 'We should get together and do something at some point.'
"I took that as him just being nice," adds Reed, referring to a widely esteemed musician who last year was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
"After that summer, I saw Douglas (Ewart) at the (Chicago) Jazz Festival, and he said, 'I was talking to Wadada – he wanted to get together.'"
Apparently Smith wasn't "just being nice" after all. The idea percolated for about a year, until the three musicians finally booked a date last year at the University of Chicago, at which point Reed nonchalantly suggested that perhaps they should go into the recording studio when everyone was in town. Just to see what might happen.
"They both came in with some compositions, and I was kind of unprepared," remembers Reed. "They said, 'What do you have?'
"'Uh, I didn't think we were actually going to do this,'" Reed responded, thinking: "OK, here we go."
The session went well enough that the threesome booked this Friday and Saturday night's appearances at Constellation, a partnership between musical eminences Smith and Ewart and a younger musician-entrepreneur who's building on their legacies. Which poses certain challenges once the music-making begins.
"It's always tricky dealing with veterans like that and trying to be both respectful but also not timid," says Reed of their interaction. "That's a trick. But they were both really gracious, so that makes it a lot easier."
As for the sound of their work, "There's been a lot of space in it, as opposed to things I've done with somebody like Roscoe," adds Reed, referring to the ferociously focused multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell.
"Who knows what will happen (this) weekend, but there's been a lot of use of space, a lot of sound spectrum. … It will be interesting to see what will and won't happen."
Whatever ensues, it's noteworthy that it's happening at Constellation, a unique venue with multiple performance spaces that's still in the midst of defining itself, for Reed opened it just last April. Thus far Constellation has presented an appealing and far-reaching lineup of concerts, including performances by pianist Matthew Shipp, the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra, the George Freeman/Mike Allemana Quartet, Matt Ulery's Loom, Tim Berne's Snakeoil, Peter Brotzmann with Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell with Reed, plus Rob Mazurek, Nicole Mitchell, Craig Taborn, Dee Alexander and many more.
When the powerhouse new quartet of Jack DeJohnette, Henry Threadgill, Roscoe Mitchell and Larry Gray needed a place to rehearse in preparation for their opening-night performance at last year's Chicago Jazz Festival, they chose Constellation.
All of these events "add to the persona and the mystique and the story and the look of the place" Reed believes. "Venues have their own personalities, and that's what they carry with them. You can meet people around the world, and they'll tell you about some place. Maybe you never met them at some venue, but they know it as intimately as you do. …
"I've been traveling a lot around the world, and people totally know about (Constellation)," adds Reed. "I'll be in Italy, and someone will tell me: 'So and so is playing in your place tonight.'"
But Reed is quick to emphasize that Constellation's future depends on how the arts community responds to a venue designed to champion new, often provocative ideas in music. So far, so good, he says.
"It's going really well," says Reed. "I mean, the things that I'm mostly concerned with are not about how we're reaching the audience or the booking. It's: 'I have a leaky roof.' They're the mundane things of owning any business, but that's good. … That means I'm not worried about the content….