in performance: the chicago plan/keefe jackson, christoph erb, jason roebke and tim barnes

Steve Swell of The Chicago Plan. Photo by John Rogers.

Jazz became a music that literally brought people together – well, at least the ones onstage Tuesday evening at the University of Kentucky’s Niles Gallery – as the Outside the Spotlight series concluded a mammoth month-long run of five concerts on Tuesday evening.

It began with two esteemed reed players – Keefe Jackson from Chicago and Christoph Erb from Switzerland – at opposite ends of the Niles Gallery stage area. Jackson was stage left, using a chair as a resting perch for his left leg as he shot out short, punctured phrases on tenor saxophone. Erb was seated stage right, his soprano sax pointing to the ceiling as if the instrument possessed sonar abilities. That began a rumbling exhortation with bassist Jason Roebke and drummer Tim Barnes that sounded like a locomotive coming to life. Once its did, the quartet – which was in the midst of its first gig a group, although smaller pairings of the players have collaborated in the past – ripped through three extended improvisations. Each shifted in tone from subtle dissolve to thunderous deconstruction.

All of it was remarkably inventive, from passages where Barnes dragged a pair of china cups across the wooden gallery floor for percussive effect to a high octave drone from Erb (this time on tenor) that produced an oscillating, almost electronic effect. By the close of the third improv, Roebke moved his double bass directly behind Barnes as Jackson gradually edged over to Erb’s side, sandwiching the four players within inches of each other as the music took on a stark, funereal tone.

The co-billed quartet The Chicago Plan, a unit fronted by another pair of cross-continental horn men – Steve Swell from New York and Gebhard Ullmann from Germany – finished off the program with music that worked from primarily composed material laced with generous doses of free improvisation. Two familiar OTS teammates, cellist Fred Lonberg Holm and drummer Michael Zerang – completed the lineup.

Opening with Ullman’s “Variations on a Master Plan # 1,” (what a pity, as the band’s fine, self-titled debut album only features the second and third parts), the four used a spacious, muted trombone run from Swell to trigger general group frenzy before Lonberg-Holm kicked into a turbulent groove. The results bordered on New Orleans style street funk (mostly through Zerang’s drumming) before imploding and reassembling.

The rest of the set possessed a darker sentiment – hence Swell’s set-closing “Composite #3,” a requiem of sorts for the 50 victims of the March mass shooting in New Zealand. Both Ullman and Swell settled in for meaty solos that underscored the tune’s inherent drive. But as Ullman guided the music home on bass clarinet, the remaining three players provided an almost elegiac trio backdrop where chamber style composition was countered by an anticipated reality check of ensemble fracture.

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