The Big Pond | Music Review | Chicago Reader

The Big Pond 

Back in Arkansas, Keefe Jackson could pay the bills playing other people's music--but to play his own, he had to come here.

By touring together or appearing on one another's recordings, important artists like Ken Vandermark, Rob Mazurek, and Tortoise have helped establish Chicago's reputation as a friendly musical community unconstrained by stylistic orthodoxies--and that reputation has proved irresistible to many up-and-coming jazz players in the last decade. But when reedist Keefe Jackson moved to Chicago in 2001 from Arkansas, he wasn't thinking about all that. "I was familiar with the history of music that had happened here, but I didn't really know what was currently taking place," he says. "I had heard a couple of Vandermark records, but for me it wasn't about coming here because of what was happening. I just assumed there were lots of opportunities and musicians."

He assumed correctly, of course, and within a few months Jackson, now 29, had fallen in with the loose group of younger players who gig regularly at the Hungry Brain. Now his tenor saxophone figures prominently in several strong ensembles, from the Chicago Luzern Exchange to the Lucky 7s--and late last month at the Hideout, after more than five years of collaborations and sideman work, he released his first album as a bandleader. The nuanced postbop on the superb Ready Everyday (Delmark), by Jackson's sextet Fast Citizens, is a far cry from the in-your-face free jazz that made the 90s Chicago scene famous, but the tunes still give the players lots of leeway to reimagine the direction and complexion of their lively contrapuntal themes.

Jackson started playing cello by the Suzuki method at age three, and his parents started taking him to concerts as soon as they could; by the time his cello teacher moved away, he'd already developed a fascination with jazz, particularly the saxophone. He wouldn't get his first horn till he was ten, but within five years he was jobbing in a jazz band. (He notes that Bill Clinton, while attorney general of Arkansas, pushed through laws letting underage musicians play in bars.)

After a year at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, in 1996 Jackson decided to follow that band to Portland, Maine, when the bassist leading the group uprooted it to move closer to his kid. "I wanted to gain a lot of experience in a broad kind of way," Jackson says. Soon he was in several groups, playing not just jazz but rock, funk, and especially klezmer.

Jackson would return to Fayetteville before long, though, to look after his mother, who died of thyroid cancer in 1998. The local economy was more robust--Wal-Mart, which has its corporate headquarters in nearby Bentonville, was enjoying a string of particularly good years, and a slew of new restaurants and cafes had opened. Jackson found gigs playing mainstream jazz almost every night and for the first time was able to support himself as a musician. Still, he made repeated visits to New York and Chicago, looking for a more adventurous scene. "In order to make a name for yourself you have to live in a big city, for jazz anyway," he says. In Chicago he saw concerts at clubs like the Velvet Lounge, the New Apartment Lounge, and the Empty Bottle, and the atmosphere and audiences appealed to him. Soon he forgot about going to New York. "Chicago felt like it wasn't as expensive," he says, "and it was more friendly and open."

After establishing relationships with local players over the course of a couple years, he started presenting his own music, most notably with a large band he called Keefe Jackson's Project Project. In 2005 he made his first appearance on disc: Several Lights (Delmark), the excellent debut by the Chicago Luzern Exchange, also featured cornetist Josh Berman, drummer Frank Rosaly, and Swiss tubaist Marc Unternahrer. The album paved the way for tours of the U.S. and Europe, Jackson's first as anything but a sideman. Since then he's put out records with the Lucky 7s--formed by players from Chicago and New Orleans shortly after Katrina--and with the 774th Street Quartet, an all-saxophone group that includes Guillermo Gregorio, former Chicagoan Aram Shelton, and Swiss bass saxist Thomas Mejer. Jackson also has high hopes for Fast Citizens--Berman, Rosaly, Shelton, bassist Anton Hatwich, and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm--though the members' busy schedules (and Shelton's move to the Bay Area) make it hard for them to get together regularly.

Jackson has to work a part-time job to get by in Chicago, despite playing in half a dozen regular bands, but he's not disappointed. "I'm definitely surprised and happy to have the kind of musical relationships that I have," he says. "In this kind of music there's really not any 'making it.' You might still be waiting tables and playing the gigs you like to play with people you like, putting out a couple of records and doing some tours....That's making it."

Keefe Jackson's Project Project plays the Hungry Brain on November 26.

Another Way to Skin That Cat

Last week I wrote about the digital-download service developed by Bettina Richards at Thrill Jockey, but she's hardly the only person in Chicago working on new models to help indies compete online. In early 2005 Justin Sinkovich, the former leader of Atombombpocketknife, launched a digital-distribution service for Touch and Go Records that spares its distributed imprints the difficulty of dealing with vendors like iTunes and eMusic. Rather than sell their music directly, Touch and Go uses its pull to get it into big online stores.

Sinkovich has long been an advocate for digital distribution: in 1999 he cofounded the download service Epitonic and in 2003 helped start the still-viable BetterPropaganda. He says that as a distributor Touch and Go approaches downloads much like physical product, picking and choosing among labels to keep the operation at a manageable size. In addition to Touch and Go releases, Sinkovich handles music from Jade Tree, Overcoat, Voodoo-Eros, Suicide Squeeze, Sounds Are Active, Estrus, Asthmatic Kitty, In the Fishtank, 2.13.61, and his own label, File 13.

"Many of the labels we digitally distribute are labels that we were already physically distributing," he says. "However, there are a couple of labels that we are friends with that needed help with their digital distribution, so we started working with them."

Touch and Go takes a small cut of the proceeds from its vendors--Sinkovich says he's not at liberty to reveal how much--but presumably it's a fair trade-off for the distributed labels, which need extra leverage when they're forced to compete with majors for visibility and placement. "Many digital retailers are not willing to work directly with smaller independent labels, so many indie labels have to be part of a bigger group just to get into these digital stores," says Sinkovich. Touch and Go lowers barriers to entry in other ways too. "There's a lot of information that has to be attached to each track--like the identifying ISRC number, what countries it can be sold in, publishing information, et cetera. Indie labels are usually really overworked as it is, so they don't have the time to figure all these new requirements out. We have more resources and systems built to manage all this data, the audio, and the artwork for them."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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