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Deep Dish Jazz 

Dragons 1976 feed off Chicago's experimental music scene

You can make the case that New York City's jazz scene of the late 1950s and early '60s was the most fertile creative era in American music history. Drawn to the city by its studios, labels, clubs, urbanite fan base and like-minded musicians, jazz artists great and small created a Petri dish of artistic collaboration and invention. It was a setting where musical explorers like John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Max Roach and Eric Dolphy fed off each other's innovations in an atmosphere of cross-pollination that virtually ensured artistic transcendence.

Fast forward half a century and half a continent away to Chicago, where a similar melting pot of ideas and artistic visions forms another crucial musical laboratory at the turn of the 21st century. But unlike mid-20th century New York, Chicago's current experimental music scene isn't limited to jazz. Improvisational jazz heavies like Ken Vandermark, Mats Gustafsson or Fred Lonberg-Holm are just as likely to collaborate with members of post-rock pioneers from Tortoise, Brokeback, Boxhead Ensemble, Pit Er Pat or Town & Country, who in turn exert their influence on -- or have members playing with -- more traditional Chicago-based rock outfits like Wilco, the Sea & Cake and Califone.

It is from these headwaters that the experimental jazz trio Dragons 1976 springs.

"What's interesting about this city is not only is there assimilation between people here who are interested in playing free jazz," says drummer Tim Daisy, "there's also a lot of cross-over between rock, jazz and electronic music. Some guys you know more as rock musicians, but they bring out these elements of experimental techniques and concepts into their rock. I don't know whether they would have done that had they not lived in Chicago."

The Dragons 1976 were formed in Chicago in 2002; the name refers to the birth years of its three members -- Daisy, bassist Jason Ajemian and alto saxophonist Aram Shelton. A partial list of the members' resumes reflects their city's restless eclecticism: Shelton, who writes most of the Dragons' material, has played in Vandermark's Crisis Ensemble, Doug Scharin's more rock oriented HiM, and the Fast Citizens, which also includes Lonberg-Holm; Daisy is an integral member of the Vandermark 5 and the Rempis Percussion Quartet, and plays with Kyle Bruckman's Wrack and Lonberg-Holm's Lighthouse Orchestra; Ajemian plays in the experimental folk duo Born Heller, trumpeter Rob Mazurek's Chicago Underground, and in Cushicle, with Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker.

"When you've got a group of people working in similar artistic things together, you're going to have ideas you bounce off of each other and bring into all the various different groups," says Daisy. "We're all influenced by so many different styles of music it all blends in."

The music of Dragons 1976 is an amalgamation of these influences: improvisational jazz, structured melodies and electronic-based open spaces often associated with minimalist composers like La Monte Young or Morton Feldman. Their latest release, 2005's Winter Break, uses these elements to create a noir-ish, cinematic soundscape. "One" opens the disc with Shelton blowing a delicate theme over Daisy's brush-strokes and Ajemian's plucked lines, until the tempo picks up into a more traditional blues. It's a similar construction to the deliberate build and release of the Coltrane Quartet's "Alabama" -- if not quite as melancholic or elegiac. The trio's "Brand New" begins as a march until all three members push the pace into an outright gallop, Shelton's alto blasts out front riding the bass and drums for all they're worth. Both cuts are fairly straightforward, where melody and time are equal partners with texture and velocity.

"The themes Aram writes have a really memorable quality to them," says Daisy. "Writing a really good, strong melody is a lot harder than just going out there and blowing aggressively, which can be awesome in its own way. But in Dragons we utilize space a little more rather than relying on pure aggressive playing."

You can hear those spaces at work on Winter Break's longest cut, the 14-minute-plus "Passages," where things really open up. A bass-powered drone opens the song, building in intensity until Shelton and Daisy join in and the trio creates a slow-burn, Eastern-tinged blues. They stretch this out until Daisy executes a magnificent solo exclusively on his cymbals, drawing a host of different shadings from the instrument. The theme returns two-thirds of the way through until entropy seems to pull it apart by song's end. The following cut, "Montreal to Baltimore," is a more menacing drone-oriented piece, Ajemian's bowed double-bass doing battle with Shelton's lower-register alto buzz, all wrapped in a layer of electronic whirrs and wash.

"I'm really into the idea of slow-moving, glacially-paced music that takes a really simple idea, the minimalist concept, and having it change ever so slightly," Daisy says, citing Feldman as an example. "The thing I'm so attracted to is that it's extremely intense. If you're not doing it well, it can be this meandering, boring thing that sucks all the energy out of the people listening. Done well, it forces you to listen more carefully and hear things you might otherwise miss."

Taken together, the songs on Winter Break have a more expansive feel than the band's more tightly structured debut, On Cortez. Daisy credits the difference to the two-week tour the band undertook right before going into the studio for Winter Break, which reiterated to him how essential live gigs are in the formation of studio work.

"Live, we'll have four pieces that we know we're going to play in a set, and we'll start with one of them and just go where we want," Daisy says. "Occasionally, we'll drift into some different spaces, sometimes it'll be a more drone-oriented space, and then one of us will step up and start hinting at a theme.

"That's why it's so crucial to go out and tour with this, because that's where you really get to see and appreciate how this music can grow."

And growth is what scenes like New York's in the 1950s and '60s and Chicago's in recent years are really all about.

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