Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Flawless Records: 8 Bold Souls "Last Option"

From the comments section of Scott's Chicagoist post about the Illinois Entertainer's top 25 albums of the past ten years:

Chuck: Sorry for going off topic, but is there anyway to work in some modern jazz picks in one of your numerous blogs/posts? I have a growing interest and decent knowledge of jazz before 1964, but am clueless about what's good among the current stuff.

This was a request from commenter "vise77" after I wrote that, while it was nice to see Patricia Barber included on the list, it was more for cursory measures. Fleshing out and showing some diversity. I actually considered 8 Bold Souls "Last Option" to be the best record from a Chicago-based jazz artist in the past ten years. But before I explain why, a little back story about the band first.

The band started out as a little bit of an experiment. Saxophonist and bandleader Ed Wilkerson, Jr. had written some compositions for octet, and set up a series of concerts to debut the music at the old Chicago Filmmakers. The name of the concert series was "New Music for 8 Bold Souls." The chemistry between the musicians and the tightness with which the band played was so good that Wilkerson decided to keep the band intact after the concerts, adding to an already full plate that included, at the time, his work in the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, the larger Shadow Vignettes orchestra, and solo performing.

Wilkerson isn't a fast worker. In the 22 years 8 Bold Souls has been a group, they've only released a total of 4 albums, and one of those is a hard-to-find import. Odds are that if Wilkerson weren't introduced to Thrill Jockey Records founder Bettina Richards, "Last Option" would be hard to find, as well. On the surface, Thrill Jockey and 8 Bold Souls seemed like an odd marriage, until one starts to analyze the jazz and avant garde influences of fellow label mates Tortoise, Chicago Underground, and Isotope 217, then it doesn't seem so far-fetched. The band recorded "Last Option" at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio Recorders, with Casey Rice (Liz Phair) co-producing the record with the band.

Recording at Electrical allowed the band to all be in the same room, working live with the full band dynamic, rather than laying tracks over each other in separate rooms. Wilkerson also wrote some of the best compositions of his career for "Last Option." The result is a record that captures the immediacy of a concert, and a recording where every instrument is distinctively heard. Given Wilkerson's penchant for composing for lower registers and 8 Bold Souls' unique "basso profundo" setup of bass, cello, tuba, and trombone, it's an amazing sonic achievement.

The opening track, the 12-plus minute opus "Odyssey", is a showcase for multi-reedist Mwata Bowden (playing clarinet), cellist Naomi Millender, and trumpeter Robert Griffin. Millender's solo is as tempting as a siren's call, leading to the steady tempest of Griffin's muted trumpet, while the rest of the band stays back in the cut, like a Greek chorus. The simmer of "Odyssey" is followed by the boil of "Third One Smiles", a playful piece of modern jazz that highlights the band's bottom end, with the work of monster bassist Harrison Bankhead and tuba player Gerald Powell sandwiched between fiery solos from Griffin and Wilkerson.

Each of the individual members of 8 Bold Souls is an excellent musician and, with the exception of Powell, given a couple solos to shine. But the genius of 8 Bold Souls is in how tight its members play as a unit. Few bands can move effortlessly from the free jazz opening to the circular rhythms of the title track, or master the manic, staccato riffing of "Pachinko", which wo
uldn't sound out of place on a silent movie film score as a chase scene. Then there are the slower numbers, like the brooding "The Art of Tea", with beautiful bow work by Bankhead on contrabass, or the interplay between Griffin and Millender on "Gang of Four."

The album closes with the New Orleans swing of "Brown Town", featuring one of the most expressive solos Wilkerson has committed to tape and a trombone run by Isaiah Jackson that could start a Mardi Gras parade out of thin air.

The results of "Last Option" were numerous. Through its release on Thrill Jockey, 8 Bold Souls' music was introduced to a younger, multicultural audience, they were able to play in both rock and jazz clubs to packed houses, and they were able to tour longer in support of the record. I remember a concert at Symphony Center in 2001 where 8 Bold Souls opened for Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Not only did they blow MMW off the stage, the filled the room with the music of just those eight musicians and their instruments, and had the handful of jam band geeks who sneaked recording devices into the hall scrambling to set up and get the last two songs of their set.

The success of "Last Option" also gave Thrill Jockey more cache with Chicago's free jazz community. Tenor legend Fred Anderson now records for Thrill Jockey, and Wilkerson released a recording from his new project, "Frequency", with Bankhead, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and drummer Avreeyal Ra. If Wilkerson never records another record with 8 Bold Souls again, "Last Option" would be a fitting epitaph. But I wouldn't bet against seeing Wilkerson getting the band back together one day.

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