Chicago-based drummer and composer Mike Reed, 35, is virtually unknown outside of his hometown. But he's one of jazz's best young musicians and is building a multi-headed career worthy of emulation.
Reed wears many hats. He's a promoter who often books his own gigs and turns those performances into a well-regarded series. He is principal organizer of the Pitchfork Music Festival, an independent annual rock event in Chicago that attracts more than 50,000. The festival was a pioneer in the concept of having a band perform a classic recordings, track by track.
In recent years, Sonic Youth performed Daydream Nation and Public Enemy performed It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back in this manner. But Reed's greatest musical contribution is found in the music that his group People, Places and Things has released on three superb discs — Proliferation, About Us and Stories and Negotiations, all on 482 Music — that open ears to Chicago's vintage jazz scene in the 1950s.
With so many jazz clubs closing and large record labels abandoning the music, jazz has a growing number of do-it-yourself types, and Reed's career is archetypal. When he began playing, he worried that he couldn't keep pace with Chicago's best musicians.
So he created gigs in off-beat venues. These performances drew other young musicians, and soon Reed was running series devoted to up-and-coming jazz players. Besides Pitchfork, he works with the Chicago Jazz Festival, the Umbrella Music series and the Downtown Sound series at Millennium Park.
This musical self-reliance has a long tradition in Chicago. In 1965 the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) — a collective that nurtured the careers of extraordinary musicians including Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Nicole Mitchell, as well as the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Air and 8 Bold Souls — was launched. Reed was elected vice chairman of AACM last year.
For years, Reed's less visible activities have overshadowed his bandstand work, but the trilogy of discs by People Places and Things is changing that. The quartet features Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman on various reeds, and bassist Jason Roebke. The four pay tribute to late-1950s jazz masters in a contemporary way. Chicago jazz was peaking, and soulful saxophonists like Gene Ammons and Clifford Jordan were emerging. Bop's innovation was still being extended by musicians like Johnny Griffin and Von Freeman, and further along the musical spectrum, the nascent avant-garde was taking root among some of the AACM founders as well as Sun Ra.
Reed's quartet captures the time's flavor but doesn't diminish the musical personality of each band member. The result is a sound that melds the styles in a contemporary jam session.
Here, the quartet tears into Jenkins "Be-Ware" at an Eastern European jazz festival. Nine of the 12 tracks on Proliferation are covers of 1950s tunes. The stellar About Us was written by band members and has guests from today's jazz scene: guitarist Jeff Parker, trombonist Jeb Bishop and saxophonist David Boykin. The added horns provide a gleaming luster with depth and authority.
The most recent CD, Stories and Negotiations, a live gig at Millennium Park, reintroduces three late-'50s Chicago jazz veterans. They are trumpeter Art Hoyle, trombonist Julian Priester and saxophonist Ira Sullivan. The setting enables the band to swing ferociously, giving its elegance a visceral oomph.
Each disc's virtue is the ability to provide a clear sense of jazz's glorious past while focusing on a future perhaps as grand. In order for that to occur, more sweat equity will be required from the musicians, but Mike Reed shows how it's done.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root. Follow him on Twitter.