BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
The members of improvisational jazz/post-rock engine Stirrup have been all around the Chicago music scene, helping to craft some of its most memorable output in recent years. Bassist Nick Macri previously provided propulsive and lyrical low end for James Elkington’s vehicle The Zincs, culminating in 2007’s underground classic “Black Pompadour.” After that band splintered, Macri joined Elkington, Eleventh Dream Day’s Janet Beveridge Bean, drummer Charles Rumback and local avant garde cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm for the jazz-savvy psychedelic folk of The Horse’s Ha.
The Horse’s Ha produced the sprawling exploration “Of the Cathmawr Yards” in 2009 and the more focused folk “Waterdrawn” in 2013. Although the quintet’s dynamic hinged upon downtempo beauty and vocal interplay between Elkington and Bean, performances were often ignited by Lonberg-Holm, whose madly careening cello solos unfailingly provoked a visceral reaction.
Rumback’s deft touch and freewheeling rhythmic sensibility suggest a fond debt to legendary percussionist Elvin Jones and kinship with contemporary masters like Brian Blade Jr. With Macri, Rumback and Lonberg-Holm functioning independently as Stirrup, the trio’s sonic identity is fully-formed and separate, owing to its own improvisational icons rather than The Horse’s Ha’s foundation in heady English folk.
Following 2009’s studio project “Sewn,” the new live album “A Man Can’t Ride on One” showcases Stirrup’s unique symbiosis. As with many trios, Stirrup draws strength from interaction rather than pushing one musical personality forward. “A three-legged stool is always steady,” says Lonberg-Holm. “It’s the same with a three-person group. Each leg is essential.”
“Floating Melody” appeared on “Sewn,” filling five exhilarating minutes with Lonberg-Holm’s unfettered Eastern melody and complex interplay between Macri and Rumback. The song is stretched to double-length on the live album. There are touchstones to the earlier recording, but further exploration and noted Milwaukee trumpeter Russ Johnson’s presence as guest reveal previously unimagined territory.
Bold improvisation implies risk of failure, but Lonberg-Holm believes even mistakes hold potential for greatness. “That’s why Stravinsky composed at the piano,” he says. “He said he was a bad piano player, but if he played a wrong note, he might decide that he liked it.”
The arrival of “A Man Can’t Ride on One” coincides with four Tuesdays during August at the Elastic Arts Foundation. The dates are part of Lonberg-Holm’s summer-long residency. Stirrup’s August 18 date features accomplished Madison, Wisconsin-based violist Jen Clare Paulson. Veteran Sun Ra Arkestra drummer Avreeayl Amen Ra and esteemed multi-instrumentalist Peter Maunu join Stirrup on Aug. 25.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.