Located in the industrial no man’s land between the river and interstate 94, The Hideout is overlooked by buildings such as Chicago’s Fleet Management Center and other sinister industrial complexes. That being said, this only makes arriving in the relaxed and jovial atmosphere of this little venue more reassuring and pleasant. Before the show starts (probably 10pm or later), you might want to have a drink on the patio with some old-school Chicagoans who are full of great stories and insider knowledge on Chicago music. Proceed through the back doors of the bar to an unexpectedly large and cozy room where the concerts are held. On this Wednesday night the little stage at the Hideout was packed with an impressive array of instruments, an Eb clarinet, a family of saxes, a violin, some congas, a drumset, a contrabass, a hammered dulcimer, a lamellophone, and other toy-sized instruments. It seemed almost impossible to fit a sextet on this cluttered stage. But the players were not fazed by these tight quarters and their proximity even seemed to provide their playing with joy and energy. Chicago-native bassist and sextet leader Harrison Bankhead introduced his group with the kind of smooth stateliness that you would expect from a veteran radio host, speaking in the same low and poised tones that his bass would soon reveal. The group opened with a bass-heavy groove that almost instantly had you tapping your foot, the sax duo punctuating this groove with a staccato ostinato before James Sanders came in with a highly lyrical violin melody, reminiscent of Stéphane Grapelli’s playing. The groove evolved naturally, traveling the line between a rock feel and a Cuban feel instilled by Ernie Adams’ implacable congas and Avreeayl Ra’s polymorphous drums. When the time came for solos, Edward Wilkerson Jr, with his inimitably cool attitude, stepped up slightly and took things at his own pace, effortlessly spiraling in and out of long, low, and soulful tones that contrasted nicely with the increasingly frenetic rhythm section. This solo was followed by James Sanders’ violin solo, which gave an insight onto his versatile playing as it alternated between folky, jig-like rhythms and powerful pentatonic licks that had his violin wailing like an electric guitar. All this accompanied by his cheerful dancing that conferred even more energy to the bewildered crowd. By the time everyone thought the tune would be winding down, Bankhead stepped it up a notch, increasing volume and tempo as the rhythms got denser and the harmonies more dissonant. Before anyone knew it, the tune had devolved into a massive ball of uncontrollable energy, pushed into the stratosphere by Mars Williams’ scarily frantic and powerful tenor playing. This on-stage explosion blew the crowd away, throwing people back in their seats in fright and exhilaration until it finally started decreasing in energy and the musical cataclysm passed. The song that followed gave the crowd some respite; it started with a duet between Avreeayl Ra on lamellophone (also known as a thumb piano) and Mars Williams on hammered dulcimer. The atmosphere was highly spiritual and focused here as each musician carefully added to the texture of the piece. A groove eventually settled in, but the song remained rather peaceful and introspective until the end of the first set. After a short break, the musicians came back on stage for an equally impressive and expressive second set, pleasing the crowd with even more than you can hope to hear from a sextet of established Chicago musicians: rhythm, melody, harmony, virtuosity, and moments of great catharsis and incomparable synergy.
Check out the latest album from the Harrison Bankhead Sextet Morning Sun, Harvest Moon (2011), featuring many tracks featured from this concert.