What happens when a Fast Citizen decides to cool his stride a little? For tenor saxophonist and clarinetist Aram Shelton that means working with bandmates in his former hometown while residing at the opposite end of the country. But it also translates into establishing fresh musical directions.
Let’s rewind for a second. Just before Christmas, Shelton – a veteran of a vibrant Chicago jazz community now living in Oakland, Ca. – was onstage at Gumbo Ya Ya with Fast Citizens. The group is an indie jazz collective based in Chicago that shifts leadership roles with every album. Last winter was Shelton’s turn as chief Fast Citizen.
Friendships new and old within the band, as well as the desire to attempt a performance project that was a touch smaller, led to the formation of the Aram Shelton Quartet. That lineup – Shelton, fellow Fast Citizens Keefe Jackson (on tenor saxophone) and Anton Hatwich (on bass) along with Marc Riordan (who subbed for the band’s usual drummer, Frank Rosaly, on last winter’s tour) – plays Gumbo Ya Ya tonight.
“We definitely have a friendship,” Shelton said recently from his Oakland home. “I think that’s what’s coming through musically. We’re supporting each other. We’ve known each other for almost a decade. Even though we haven’t lived in the same space for a few years now, it’s still a classic case of picking up the conversation where you left off.”
Such camaraderie carries over to These Times, the quartet’s newly released debut recording. But while the album draws from the compositional strengths and improvisational invention of Fast Citizens, it also opens the music up.
For example, a patient, almost hushed, drum serenade from Riordan sets up the blue-tinged Relief while the minute-long blast of solo bass bliss by Hatwich on Rise and Set colors a contemplative Coltrane-like mood. Especially telling, though, is the animated harmony that ignites Rings and An Interrupted Stroll when Shelton and Jackson play off each other.
“I never really enjoyed playing with other saxophonists much,” Shelton said. “I always thought that was doing too much of the same thing. In a small group, a quartet, it seemed a little redundant. But in this group, it’s really fun to play with Keefe. Our styles compliment each other because we’re different.”
One thing that hasn’t changed from Fast Citizens is the challenge presented when a band chieftain lives in one city while the rest of the group resides in another. But Shelton said a little prioritizing keeps an ensemble spirit vital and alive with his Chicago mates.
“Whenever I’m in Chicago, I’m just a lot more focused. I can block out the other distractions. When you live in the same city as everyone else in your band, things can kind of get pushed off to the side. The good thing about doing the project from a distance, I guess, is that it’s a lot more focused. There is an urgency that can really push you along.”
The Aram Shelton Quartet performs at 8 p.m. July 31 at Gumbo Ya Ya in the Bar Lexington complex, 367 E. Main. $5. Call (859) 523-9292.