Damon Locks > Tomeka Reid > Nicole Mitchell > Jeff Parker (Continuous Performance via Solos & Duos) / Experimental Sound Studios Quarantine Concerts / May 28, 2020

The post-pandemic flourish of live-streamed shelter-in-place concerts has not particularly excited me, but I can’t deny that Chicago’s own Experimental Sound Studio is presenting at a very high level with their all-remote Quarantine Concerts series, featuring great musicians almost nightly since the shutdown began. That said, the only one I’d attended previously was a bit of a letdown. It was Damon Smith, Jaimie Branch, Andrew Scott Young, and Ryan Jewell, and believe me, all four are great players, but the lo-fi footage and unstable audio inherent to the medium, and especially the fact that they weren’t able to interact in real time, all made me long to hear a live ensemble, hurtling into grooves with ensemble momentum, crackling back and forth in real time repartee. (I mean, just imagine Branch/Smith/Young/Jewell as a two-bass trumpet quartet burning live in a good room!) I know the problem is latency (“the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction for its transfer”), which makes it impossible for remote ensembles that rely on feats of synchronization like ensemble riffs, complex unisons, and/or a tight rhythmic pulse. Even a split-second lag would mess all of that up completely, but I think free-form improvised music could still function with a separated ensemble, even when experiencing latency, especially considering the aleatoric experiments of Ives and Cage, and the xenochronic experiments of Zappa, the recent (and still ongoing) Distant Duos series curated by Staubitz & Waterhouse, and many other such experiments by many other composers and improvisers.

And whaddayaknow, the Experimental Sound Studio Quarantine Concert I attended last night experimented with live remote ensemble free-form improvised music. And believe me, the experiment was successful. Extremely successful. And the chat function was so lively, and not disruptive to listening, that it very much replicated the experience of being part of a live appreciative audience. It certainly helped that the lineup was so good: Damon Locks scheduled for 8pm, Tomeka Reid at 8:30, Nicole Mitchell at 9pm, and Jeff Parker at 9:30pm. The atmosphere was further charged because the date was May 28th, 2020, three days after the murder of George Floyd, Minneapolis and St. Paul burning, the murdering police officer Chauvin not yet arrested, and opening artist Damon Locks responding to it all in a way you would expect from the founder/bandleader of Chicago’s Eternals and Black Monument Ensemble, and then some. Promptly at 8:01pm, he materialized on Twitch, sitting in front of a wall of records, several killer topical titles faced out as appropriate, at a table set up with a sampler and other gear, and proceeded to throw down a beautiful and intense DJ/sampler set, a Bomb-Squad-worthy array of beat drops and stabs and heavenly choirs, samples I could never recognize, the 911 phone call accusing Christian Cooper, interviews with James Baldwin, “I can’t breathe,” and so much more, and I wish I could remember every one of the powerful samples, or be lucky enough just to hear it one more time.

The chat was alight with appreciation of the sheer brilliance of what Locks was laying down, and imagine what happened at the 20-minute mark when Tomeka Reid suddenly sci-fi’d in next to him and immediately started exquisite real-time counterpoint from her ancient-to-the-future acoustic cello, singing what words cannot say live, over Damon’s live samples. My god, I want to hear it again right now. I want to tell you what Damon’s samples were saying, and how much further deep feeling Tomeka could draw out of them, in very real time, with her cello, but you already know. You really do already know. And everyone on that chat knew too, all overwhelmed with the beauty of the collaboration, and I’m saying that without any exaggeration or hyperbole. Lots of people were donating at least a $5 cover charge, myself included, and there were over 400 watching at the highest point, so theoretically $2000 might’ve gone to the artists. They certainly deserve it. Either way, if this gets archived at ESS’s YouTube channel, watch and listen!

Damon left at the 30-minute mark, and the visual switched from Tomeka at home to a film by Nzingha Kendall. The audio from Tomeka’s home continued, and her live solo cello became the live soundtrack to the film, less outward/protest/holy/spiritual than the duet with Damon, more introspective, low-key, subtle. Though, after about 15 more minutes, and other short films by Foolish Mortal and Lucie Romero, things got holy/spiritual again, if not downright cosmic/angelic, with the remote entrance of Nicole Mitchell’s space-flute. The films were still playing, and though I don’t quite remember the visuals themselves, the absence of Mitchell/Reid-as-grounding-visual furthered the celestial nature of the music. As for the audio, much like Locks/Reid, I would love to hear this duo again. I need to hear it again. It was beautiful.

Which made the next transition, from the abstract visuals of the film with duo soundtrack to Mitchell’s home setting and solo performance, like being suddenly teleported back to Earth. There she was, dressed sharp 1980s Ornette Coleman style, with glorious ‘composer hair’ and sharp eyeglasses, wailing on her flute while standing at a noise table (okay, a modular synth table) in a very down-to-earth garage, complete with red wheelbarrow and many other household items, all captured very nicely by an innovative uncredited cinematographer. Audience members used chat to complement said camera work, as well as ask, after the wheelbarrow had come and gone through the frame, “Was that a William Carlos Williams reference?” Musically, Mitchell’s solo brought down the house just as much as the Locks and Locks/Reid and Reid and Reid/Mitchell performances did, especially when she would get the MiniMoog going with one hand, and then wail flute over that. Once again, as with Locks’ solo sampler style, and both of the duets, I had to know: can I get an album of this?

By the way, a couple times while Nicole was jamming, Jeff Parker popped in on the right, also in an amazing garage, as it happens, with the best rug ever, but he wasn’t playing yet, just sorta getting ready. I think Mitchell was in Pittsburgh, where she is now Endowed Chair of Jazz Studies for University of Pittsburgh, and Parker was in Los Angeles. He Zoomed back offscreen, and Nicole went fullscreen again, until his 8:30pm set time, when he came back for good, plugged in and playing, darting in and around and shading Mitchell’s cosmo-flute. It sounded awesome. I made it until Mitchell left and it was Parker solo, which also sounded great, but I had to leave, just like when you’re at a real show, and sometimes you have to leave early, even if it means missing one of the bands you really came to see. But it’s OK. I was able to see Parker play live, in person, not too long ago, with Mitchell in fact, in the Bamako*Chicago Sound System band at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival of September 2017, and I’ve already heard him play a great solo set before, because I have his live (also at home) solo LP Slight Freedom.

So yeah, livestream performances can be awesome, and in this case tonight possibly one of my Top 10 (Top 5?) favorite live music experiences ever. And I’m starting to go through the Quarantine Concerts archive, getting to see Aaron Dilloway & the Chickens’ also-legendary performance, and Excepter had a good/weird one, and Ka Baird was downright incredible, like new-syntax type shit, and good to see a new gig by C. Spencer Yeh, and I’m sure there will keep being more and more great ones, especially as we all get more used to this brave new medium.


(Pssst, guess what?)