Chicago Jazz String Summit Showcases Improvisors Around the World

The seventh annual Chicago Jazz String Summit took place virtually on April 30-May 1, 2021, with evening performances and daytime workshops live-streamed on Twitch and hosted by Chicago’s Experimental Sound Studio. This year’s program could be summed up in one word—diverse. From bluesy twoubadou to experimental abstractions, the program ventured into far corners of jazz-adjacent contemporary music on strings. Both nights featured a wide array of musicians playing, improvising, and experimenting with sound on a myriad of stringed instruments, with the occasional percussive accompaniment. Though many of the artists performed on cello, violin, viola, or bass, the variety of the musical styles explored on violin family instruments demonstrated the vast ocean of non-classical and non-Western tonal structures possible on four strings.

Leyla McCalla, who is of Haitian descent, performed interpretations of Creole folk music on the cello that adhered mostly to a rhythm and blues-style structure, accompanied by her own vocals sung in creole. Her performance contrasted sharply against Biliana Voutchkova’s atonal performance that deconstructed the concept of bowing in the traditional, classical sense. Voutchkova played around with different pressures, positions, and speeds of the bow, and at one point swapped out the bow completely for what seemed to look like a pencil. 

Leyla McCalla performs at the 2021 Chicago Jazz String Summit--Screenshot courtesy CJSS

Leyla McCalla performs at the 2021 Chicago Jazz String Summit–Screenshot courtesy CJSS

Judith Insell (viola) and Joe Fonda (bass) explored quarter tones and chromatic scaling in a more loose musical form, dipping into free form occasionally. One composition had the duo play the same notes, albeit different octaves, in rhythmic unison—a stylistic choice that forced the listener to question the assumption that a duet must perform different, harmonious exchanges between the two instruments. Sam Bardfeld (violin) and Ches Smith (drums) took it one step further by playing three movements of a work almost completely removed from any defining structure. The inclusion of percussion in the performance paid tribute to the fact that jazz is defined not only through non-diatonic tonalities, but through deeply complex rhythmic structures, as well. 

The line-up also included other stringed instruments outside of the violin family. Brandee Younger performed a sweeping arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Wise One” on the harp, invoking the stylings of the jazz harp greats like Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby. Endris Hassan, who hails all the way from Ethiopia, gave a stirring performance on the masenqo, a single-stringed bowed lute native to Ethiopia and Eritrea. Hassan played improvisations set in the Ethiopian kignet, a tonal mode that sounds vastly different from the sound of a Gregorian tonal structure.

Endris Hassan performs at the 2021 Chicago Jazz String Summit--Screenshot courtesy CJSS

Endris Hassan performs at the 2021 Chicago Jazz String Summit–Screenshot courtesy CJSS

Drawing from jazz styles from around the world made this year’s summit full of sonic variety that beautifully demonstrated the vast capabilities of string instruments. The wide range of global and racial representation was a refreshingly inclusive display of just how far the string instrument community stretches. Armenian cellist Artyom Manukyan, who was accompanied by fellow Armenian Arman Jalalyan on drums, gave a truly stunning performance that was just as much grunge and post-rock as it was jazz.

Half of the performers on the 2021 Chicago Jazz String Summit program were BIPOC and three were from countries other than the United States, a strong step in the effort to gain more visibility in an industry that tends to fixate on white and American performers far too often. It’s not that the industry isn’t diverse; nearly every culture in the world has some form of a stringed instrument in its history, and much of the music created today incorporates some element of jazz in some capacity. However, for far too long has visibility been granted to white men, even in jazz. To see and hear a program drawing from a myriad of cultures was nothing short of a pleasant surprise, and to hear just a slice of how elements of jazz have been interpreted across a wide spectrum of musical performances gave new weight to the universal appeal of the genre as a whole. 


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