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Paul Rutherford - Chicago 2002

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Artist: Paul Rutherford

Album: Chicago 2002

Label: Emanem

Review date: Mar. 17, 2003

Bottle Up and Go!

Plainly put, the Empty Bottle bar could easily be considered an eye sore. Black peeling paint and a dilapidated exterior announce a watering hole low on welcoming ambience and soused in the inebriated after effects suggested by its sobriquet. The interior is even more depressing and haphazard, with worn out stools and tables arranged in a skewed semi-circle around a squared-off serving counter. A makeshift stage of cramped dimensions cobbled from ply board and stapled siding crowds the back. Sandwiched between storefronts on Chicago’s Northeast side, the Bottle is the prototypical dive, but with a difference. Several nights out of the week the venue serves as sanctuary to some of the leading lights, both American and European, in creative improvised music. The yearly capstone to these regular gigs takes shape in the Annual Empty Bottle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music, a three-day blowout of spontaneous sounds organized by writer John Corbett and musician Ken Vandermark, among others.

One of the guiding tenets of the festival since its bottle-breaking launch in 1996 has been the surprise coupling of musicians from both sides of the Atlantic in impromptu combinations. 2002’s blue chip event was the match-up of Euro’s Paul Rutherford (trombone), Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone), Mats Gustaffson (tenor saxophone) and Kjell Nordeson (drums) with a hometown threesome of Jeb Bishop (trombone), Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello & electronics) and Kent Kessler (double bass). The European contingent on Chicago 2002 represents a multi-generational striation of free improvisors, with veterans Rutherford and Coxhill having been present during the music’s first formations. The Chicagoans are among the most sought after of their peers, contributing to projects and aggregates that seem to multiply with each succeeding year. Fortunately, recording devices were spooling tape on the fateful day of the meeting and the combustive sparks were properly corralled for posterity.

Rutherford opens the disc in solitary stance, guiding an extended litany of breath through every crevice and canal of his instrument. It’s a demanding excursion, but well captured in the sometimes oppressive acoustics of the club. Perhaps in recognition of the relevance of his surroundings Rutherford even incorporates an empty bottle as a mute for his horn. Moving from moist legato lines to staccato firecracker bursts, the performance largely rivals his other solo recitals on record. The three ensemble offerings are even more interesting. “Loliloquy” gets off to a shaky start, but quickly stabilizes into a feature for the eponymous saxophonist who jockeys cloven tones with piquant sliding note streams. Lonberg-Holm’s dour cello saws away beneath, matching harmonic mettle with the hummingbird buzz of Coxhill’s cantankerous horn. There’s a looseness to some of the sections that betrays the group’s nascency, but by and large the interplay stays highly engaged. “Blue Bottle” and “Bottle Out” continue the fun along similar avenues of detailed dissonance marked by surprising detours into near lyricism. All three tracks prove the prospect of a reunion gig as more than warranted. As a venue the Empty Bottle might not be pleasing to look at, but its high stature in the history of improvised music is all but ironclad.

By Derek Taylor

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