As the rain came pouring down on top of our heads, we ducked underneath the L to avoid the skull tapping droplets that pelted and massaged the back of my scalp. It had been hot that day so these huge balls of liquid felt good on my warm, sun-soaked skin. It was great to be in Chicago again. Every time I visit this place I take a deep breath, absorb my surroundings and walk away with a different perspective than I had before. I seem to have developed an almost unconscious attraction to this city. The truth is, I love Chicago.
After scarfing down some pizza at Frazier and Amy’s pad, we headed back out and hopped on the Red Line headed towards the northside. I always get lost in thought when I’m riding the L, observing the people on board and wondering where they had come from or where they were going. What drew them here to this Midwestern Mecca? What were they doing to make ends meet? The rain had long passed at this point and as I snapped out of my public transit reverie, we found ourselves standing outside the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Rumor has it, this jazz club used to be owned by “Machine Gun” Jack McGurn, a right-hand man for Chicago legend Al Capone. Capone himself is said to have frequented the club. The evidence was strong. Simply put, this place was teeming with elegance and sophistication. Extravagant booth seating and paintings that hung bordered by lavish frames filled the dimly lit room. I remember white tablecloths draped over a number of small, round tables surrounded by men and women who sat cross-legged with one hand on their knee and the other clutching a glass of wine. The locals had definitely beat us to the punch and we were left standing in what could have been the only spot to stand in the entire club.
As Fareed Haque’s Flat Earth Ensemble took the stage, the crowd softly tapped their hands together in approval. Now, I understand that jazz music can sometimes bring in a bit of an older, more “mature” crowd if you will. But this wasn’t your mother’s jazz music. I wasn’t expecting some uproarious ovation from the patrons in attendance that night, but those who were expecting to hear some of that smooth jazz, elevator-sounding bullshit were in for a rude awakening. As Fareed and the rest of his crew positioned themselves behind their various instruments, I was overcome with excitement. I had seen Garaj Mahal before and knew what this man was capable of. The Flat Earth Ensemble blew up like a volcano. One of the more unique and outstanding characteristics of this music came from tabla player Salar Nader. This guy sat Indian style behind a group of four hand drums. Each of his ten fingers acted as a separate entity to create this otherworldly, eastern-sounding blend of percussion that attacked you straight to the core, where the human body senses rhythm. In addition, drummer Greg Fundis was in complete control from the word go. Greg, with an assortment of both acoustic as well as electric drum components mixed in amidst his command station, monitored the ever-shifting flow of the raging river that is the Flat Earth Ensemble. From trickling creek to furious rapids, Greg played with tempo, power, precision and an unwavering endurance that left me awestricken and downright mind-blown. At times, he sounded like a firing squad of four hundred Yankee riflemen standing in formation on the front line. To top it all off, a guest percussionist by the name of Kalyan Pathak came walking out on stage to add to the aggressiveness of an already percussion driven style of jazz fusion. This man seems to have developed such a deep connection with the tabla instrument that he has learned to actually speak the language of the instrument itself. Somewhere between an Indian chant and an American form of scat singing, Kalyan, in poetic synchronization with the tablas, kept leaning into the microphone to compliment the sound of the finger-tapping Nader. “Takka ta takka takka dogga da diggy diggy dog da dog tigga takka ta takka ta takka takka ta" as my good friend and fellow show-goer Frazier so aptly puts it. Check out his review on Chicago Jam Scene for a really interesting perspective on this show and a glimpse into the mind of a phenomenal music journalist.
Fareed Haque. It’s hard to read a piece of literature about Fareed without seeing the word virtuoso. Wizard, master, guru… there aren’t enough words in the English dictionary to articulate this man’s talent with the guitar. Fareed, sporting a long, grey tunic, plays in inexplicably explosive style of jazz guitar. With a whammy bar in his right hand, he explores the space-time continuum. He explores the space on the neck of his guitar with a vision that few have the capacity for realizing. He scrambles up and down the most outrageous scales, emitting these atmospheric gasses and spewing meteoric rock in every direction. Striking notes that burn into my memory. Just when your brain matter seems to be all twisted up into knots, he pauses to let the room breathe. The audience chimes in with some well-timed applause, as if it were part of the performance. Greg Fundis, in simultaneous coherence, breaks down and starts tapping and brushing at his symbols. His snare, as well as his wrists, were in need of a break. To pass the time, bassist Alex Austin and pianist Willerm Delisfort take off on some bouncy rhythm and quick-fingered ivory work to keep your brain cells from overheating. At this point, I realized that my eyes were stinging and my mouth bone dry. I had been captivated. My jaw had been hanging loosely in the dropped position and my eyes had refused to blink. Fareed had been flawless.
Jazz can be ecstasy. Tension and resolution, improvisation and spontaneity… fluidity, uncertainty, and rapture. There are so many elements that make jazz music untouchable in the minds of so many music aficionados. Fareed Haque’s Flat Earth Ensemble helped me visualize these elements. Upon reflection, this was one of the most stimulating, out-of-this-world shows that I have seen in a very long time. I find myself having flashbacks of the being at the Green Mill that night. I find myself craving the emotions that were provoked. Jazz. I can almost feel my addiction maturing. At the conclusion of the final set, our quartet parted ways and Karrin and I caught a cab headed towards Damen. Everything was beautiful.