December 7, 2011

In a universe of jazz quartets and quintets, sextets and septets, you might assume a band calling itself an "X-tet" has an undefined number of members. And in the case of the University of Chicago's Jazz X-tet, that surface definition applies.

But to hear ensemble members tell it, the "X" also stands for experimentation and extreme focus. It’s a challenging musical crossroads that has brought the players opportunities for new ideas and growth.

"It's been an incredible learning experience," says Sam Becker, 21, a fourth-year biology and philosophy major who plays upright bass. "I barely recognize myself ...after three years. Something happens where you learn how to play your instrument better. I've just expanded my horizons."

His rhythm section mate, drummer Peter Korajczyk, tells a similar story. Like Becker, the fourth-year biology major happened upon the X-tet at a music open house during Orientation Week. The former heavy metal drummer got involved, assuming he could have fun making things up as he went along. That's the whole point of free and experimental jazz, right?

Not exactly.

"It's not something you can coast through," explains Korajczyk. "There's this misconception of free jazz as being anarchist, with each musician taking his own path away from the musicians he's playing with. But to get the music to where you need it to go, you have to listen; there are moments of convergence and divergence. It's not just this constant level of noise. You're trying to build something meaningful without defined rhythm and chords."

Paradoxical state

Korajczyk, Becker, and the other X-tet members—they number about 15 at present—have an ongoing assignment worthy of a philosophy capstone: they need to feel their way into a paradoxical state of musicianship where they have such intense consciousness of everything around them that they can let go without the "crutch" of traditional sheet music, or the prefabricated digital wizardry pop musicians commonly employ.

If it's a tall order, the X-tet members have a worthy mentor, producer, and leader in Mwata Bowden. A graduate of Chicago's DuSable High School, Bowden studied with the legendary Captain Walter Dyett, who inspired talents from Nat King Cole to saxist Von Freeman. Bowden’s resume runs the gamut from touring with the Chi-Lites to playing an active role in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), starting in 1974. Two decades later, in 1995, he brought the Jazz X-tet to life.

Chicagoan of the year

In explaining the X-tet’s mission Bowden points out, “Jazz is about swing and learning how to improvise. It’s good for me to see the students grow, and see how this is usable and applicable across the board. I hope they see the relationship between what we do in music, and everything: science, sociology, anthropology. It’s critical thinking skills.”

Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich calls Bowden “a wonderful Chicago musician-teacher” and has written about the X-tet on numerous occasions. Reich, naming Bowden a Chicagoan of the Year in 2005 for his contributions to the city’s arts and culture, wrote: “The Jazz X-tet [is] one of the few college bands in the country dedicated to playing adventurous music by the likes of Henry Threadgill, Wadada Leo Smith, George Lewis and other free-thinkers. By nurturing the X-tet, Bowden in effect has brought AACM principles onto campus in a dramatic way, drawing capacity audiences for often-daring repertoire.”

If you’re unfamiliar with the adventurousness those names imply, consider an episode from recent X-tet lore, courtesy of Becker. He relates how Bowden brought in jazz legend Edward Wilkerson to lead the X-tet through some exercises. Wilkerson came with music sheets—sort of. The pages contained shapes and images that served as unusual instructions for the band members to interpret emotionally. “Then [Wilkerson] said, ‘You're all going to close your eyes, and no two people can play at the same time.’ So we just sat there and at first, nobody played. You could feel the tension. It's an example how totally on a different level this stuff is: It’s not superficial at all.”

In fact, Becker returns to one phrase again and again to describe his uphill climb to grasp music in intuitive X-tet fashion: “It’s a struggle.” But he relishes it nonetheless. “You always have to have faith in the music, and there is a spot you're going to fill, so you have to develop a sense of what is going to fit. I never had a sense of what I was going to play in those spaces until I joined this band. And it's fun: It really makes it seem like you’re working at something.”

When the future comes up, it’s no wonder Becker and Korajczyk have plans to continue playing together after graduation. They’ve formed an offshoot band of the X-tet, Silent Tongues (named after the Cecil Taylor album); all the members are current or former X-tet musicians.

“It’s a good way of continuing some of the things we like best about the X-tet, and also trying out some of our own ideas,” Becker says, adding that there’s still much unfinished business for the current X-tet lineup—and a lot more wisdom to absorb from Bowden.

“At the beginning, I thought it was, ‘Do whatever you want,’” he recalls. “But in reality, that couldn't be further format he truth. We really had to think about developing what we do. And we're still working on getting there.”

Or as Bowden puts it, “We want to motivate their thinking to go beyond the norm. And once you motivate that, there are no limits.”

By Louis R. Carlozo