Creation Myth

Thirty-five years ago, a Chicago arts collective charted new territory in black music. Now, in a three-day retrospective, Minneapolis free-jazz explorers Douglas Ewart and Carei Thomas return to that land of possibilities.

Regardless of how one charts the AACM's "creative peak," the fact remains that the organization continues to teach students in Chicago and induct young trailblazers into its midst. "We have lean years and, well, less lean years," jokes Lewis, when asked about the institution's financial health. Most important, the idea of the AACM as an island of improvisational experiment, continues to motivate both members of the organization and others influenced by its example.

Carei Thomas's posture at the piano is a curious thing to behold. His elbows hang out over the keyboard and his arms bend inward. His fingers, curled into themselves at the first knuckle, float stiffly over the keys, rigid wrists propelled with thoughtful deliberation. Thomas's manner of fingering is complicated and distinctive. The runs he coaxes from the piano are often staccato, Monkish jabs that eventually reveal themselves as unsettled chordings. Forearms maul the keyboard violently in more invigorating passages. Maintaining a sprightly rhythm throughout, Thomas transforms the choppiness into a jaunty mood, a dance of improvisation.

Thomas's five-man Feel Free combo--a drummer, a bassist, a saxophonist, and a flügelhorn player--is tucked away in the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater on an early Wednesday evening in October. (They perform there the first Wednesday of each month.) There's often a speakeasy-style secretiveness to the theater: Just a few yards away, after all, folks hurl bowling balls down warped lanes at unresponsive pins, while, unknown to them, a gaggle of us are secluded here in the darkness consuming some esoteric manner of fringe art. But tonight, the space is more familial: There are known children in the audience. One seven-year-old sitting in front of me (whose bag Thomas's frisky avant-jazz would apparently seem not to be) preoccupies himself with piloting a digitized character through some rococo matrix of LCD peril.

Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments
Tony Nelson
Father of invention: Douglas Ewart and one of his homemade instruments

In a beret and with a scruff of a beard that would mark him as an elder jazzman in any setting, the 62-year-old Thomas introduces another "cartoon," as he calls a certain playful style of composition that he sometimes employs. This piece is supposedly a musical depiction of a "portly Charles Laughton/Orson Welles-type character" he and the band have noticed "roaming about town." Oblivious to the accessibly peppy rumble emanating from the stage, and no longer diverted by his handheld videogame, the kid in front of me is now all afidget. As Thomas motions with his head for the horns to respond to a particular motif, the boy tosses the game down on his table and goes running off to the back of the room. The lurch of tones jumbling from the stage, like some mix of Carl Stalling and Kurt Weill, seems a fitting soundtrack to the boy's rambunctiousness. You can tell by the expression on his father's face that he wants to make the kid behave. Unfortunately, his father is playing saxophone onstage right at that moment.

If Carei Thomas notices the commotion, he doesn't acknowledge it; he's busy stirring up some commotion of his own. What is striking about Thomas's music is that, no matter what complexities lie underneath, the sounds are graspable on first listen. Not ordinary sounds, but, to anyone with a grain of patience and an open ear, it is music capable of being translated from unfamiliarity to a pleasing system of timbres and pitches. This is as true with the "cartoons" Thomas performs at the Bryant-Lake Bowl that night as with 1995's Windfall: Twice in a Lifetime, which teams Thomas with a violin and cello in an "improvisational piano trio" dubbed Triade. In this piece the results are both intimate and elegant, exploring unexpected tonalities without abandoning melody. "I like to use the word pan-tonal, meaning all-tonal, as opposed to atonal, meaning no tones," Thomas will say.

"My music doesn't reek with virtuosity," Thomas admits with a smile when I meet with him several days later. "I am a complex yet simple man, and I think my music reflects that." He considers this supposition for a moment. "I think my mission is to show people how you can be complex and simple at the same time."

As if to demonstrate this, Thomas closes his performance at the Bryant-Lake Bowl with a song entitled "Baby Baby Home Buddy," which he dedicates to his wife, Joyce Marie Thomas, sitting in the front row. A love ballad, the tune is unexpectedly pretty. Of course, you think at first: After the joyous cacophony that has preceded it, any song employing even marginally straightforward harmonics is bound to seem like a familiar standard. But "Baby Baby Home Buddy" is as undeniably pretty as it is shamelessly sentimental, laid out over a bed of changes so lush and melodic that Wynton Marsalis himself might be tricked into soloing over it in a weak moment.

Thomas's conversation is just as unpredictable as his music. As he sits comfortably in the front room of his south Minneapolis home, his thoughts and the words he chooses to encode them are restless. He launches into whirling, unchartable (and in a sense, unquotable) soliloquies that veer from musical exegesis to Buddhist philosophizing--which he then undercuts with apologies that transform into digressions longer than the original speech itself. His conversation is, like his music, improvisational, and even when you can't fully suss the dialectics of his discourse, you can skitter along the surface of his speech for pure pleasure.

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