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A Damon Short Discography

Damon Short has been a stalwart presence on the Chicago jazz scene for decades. A percussionist possessing ears finely attuned to jazz in its many forms and permutations he also harbors abiding interests in classical and 'world' music systems. Since the early 1990s he's also curated a website designed not only to describe his own musical pursuits, but those of other musicians he admires as well. Most notable among these additional entries are engrossing essays on Walt Dickerson and Cecil Taylor.

Gigging actively in various aggregations over the years Short's thankfully found the resources and time to record. In early 2001 he started his own CDR label Depth Perception in an effort to circulate archival material to a much wider audience. The brief capsule reviews that follow are intended as a primer into his ever-growing discography and hopefully prompt reader interest in investigating the man and his various past and ongoing projects out.

Clearing the cobwebs from some of Short's earliest extant recordings the two-disc Acme Monastery offers a revealing entry point into the drummer's early aesthetic. He had only been on the Windy City scene several months at the time of the session's waxing, but Short parlayed the short interim into a chance to form a group of surprising cohesion and consistency. Taking the Steve Lacy-Roswell Rudd School Days Quartet of the early 1960s as their principal stylistic template and appropriating a similar songbook of Monk tunes the quintet, known under the collective moniker Worry Later (another Monk anthem), set about trying to garner an audience. Judging from the quality of the music on hand it's hard to imagine the reception they received being anything less than supportive.

Opening things up in the absence of a piano, Freeman's vibes lend an atmosphere of autonomy from strict chordal constraints while still tethering a strong melodic center. Short deftly moves from firm but flexible accompaniment to the occasional solo all the while keeping a varied rhythmic pulse in conjunction with Steele's lightly amplified strings. As the frontline Burdelik and Weiser make a good match and the saxophonist in particular manages absorbing solos on nearly all of the tracks. His spiraling Dolphy-like statement on "Ascendant", is one of the many that test melodic boundaries while remaining true to the structural integrity of Short's arrangements. Appropriately enough Steele also takes a substantial amount of space on this Jimmy Garrison penned tune paving a path that Short adds further rhythmic cobbles to during a set-ending solo.

Interestingly enough the arrangements are where the set falls somewhat shy of an unmitigated success. Too often the tracks slip into the predictability and safety of heads-solos successions. Curiously it's on the two originals "Cycle Times Two", formulated by fellow musician Tom Cosh, and Short's own "Boo-Jee" where the band seems to take the most chances and to greatest effect. In sum and as the cardinal entry in Short's discography the albums hold up comparatively well against their future brethren and both discs hint invitingly at the further freedoms he would later explore. Sadly the quintet's longevity was short-lived as Short and Freeman soon skipped town effectively ending the band.

Jumping ahead nearly a decade All of the Above, Short's debut on the Chicago-based Southport label, is an ambitious enterprise filled with bravely realized ideas that expand creatively on his previous work. Bassist Kohut is the only holdover from the earlier ensemble and new associates Scea and Smoker lend a decidedly different sound to the drummer's compositions. "Then As Now" works much like set of spiritual calisthenics with Scea tracing an Ayler-like vibrato on tenor and the group blowing with almost sanctified seriousness across a folk-tinged melody. Yanda's shimmering chords contrast with Smoker's smear-laden growls and the piece serves as a scintillating introduction to Short's freshly minted lineup. Scea's spiraling flute lines push the group on the intriguingly titled "Melting Crystals" dissolving into a flamboyant muted bombardment from Smoker's brass. Scripting on the fly from behind his kit Short's brushes flutter atop his skins and metals creating a changing backdrop for each of his partners to ruminate against and his own solo retains his usual blend of restraint and stability. Though he cites Buddy Rich as an early influence in the detailed liner notes it's difficult to imagine Short ever resorting to easy bombast to make a point.

Scea's versatile flute also advances the guiding theme on "Refractions" slicing through a verdant hedge of crosshatched lines cultivated by his partners. His throaty bass clarinet on the ostinato-forwarded "Shards" is similarly adept at cutting to the melodic chase while Smoker's rambunctious slurs favor a more effusive bent. Kohut vamps diligently, playing the role of anchor, but also incorporating creative stops that offset several segments toward the piece's close where the action seems to stagnate a shade.

The obvious opus of the date is the concluding title suite. A multi-sectional work broken into a series of harmonic and melodic variants on a twelve-tone row, the piece showcases Short's affection for classical forms in tandem with jazz-based improvisation. Schultz and Newell join the ranks bolstering the group to sextet size, while Yanda sits out and the band benefit's from the expanded instrument palette. Kohut's agile pizzicato structures are an early draw that eventually defers to unison horn riffing and volatile breaks from Short. Over the suite's industrious duration the band assembles and disbands a myriad of component groupings including a particularly engrossing duet interlude for Smoker and Short. The sextet resumes at full muster for the finale tying up the tangle of loose ends unraveled by the various improvisations into a satisfying theme denouement.

Third Prize finds Short surrounded by yet another cadre of colleagues, but his new cast of players ends up just as agreeable as its predecessors. According to the sketchy liners the session tape was originally submitted as an entry in a "Best of Chicago" competition sponsored jointly by a local beverage company and a 'smooth jazz' radio station eventually earning the accolade of the title much to the surprise of the band. Comprised completely of originals the program is a potpourri of styles ranging from early New Orleans polyphony to freewheeling harmelodics, touching down with healthy strains of bop and modal elements along the way. Shultz's bass trumpet, a rare jazz voice by any estimation, adds a weighty edge to the horn section in tandem with Tuttle and Beer, but without deadening the group's fully articulated melodic thrust. His fluid solo on "917" flirts with trombone-like unctuousness dissipating into intricately plucked improvisation from Kohut. Tuttle's crisper tone contrasts favorably dealing more often in fast darting phrases and injecting both color and tonal breadth through a small arsenal of reeds. Short sounds more inspired in these multifaceted surroundings, varying his patterns wildly and never resorting to rote time-keeping.

Generously portioned the compositions leave plenty of room for solo and communal ingenuity. Highlights to my ears include the gradual smoky groove of "Anesthesiology" advanced by the lurching throb of Kohut's bass and the leader's effervescent cymbal accents, and the subtle complexities of the group's rundown of the Ducal warhorse "Mood Indigo". Short stays the course throughout, delivering fill in the blank flourishes and steady pulse fortifications whenever the music seems on the verge of drifting. His fine-spun stick work is a marvel of sensuous strength. If there's a downside to the disc it manifests in the overall length of the set, which clocks in at well over an hour. Several of the pieces could have been trimmed of some fat, but as they stand the tracks are well stocked with bountiful and creative interplay.

Aside from a slight swelling in personnel with the augmentation of John McLean's guitar, and the return of Burdelik in place of Tuttle, the group on Airplay retains the same philosophy and configuration of Short's earlier ensembles. As with past albums the disc's title again signifies a secondary meaning, this time couched in the aspiration every band has of achieving radio rotation. Short is the sole composer and each of his pieces yields plenteous space for extended solo improvisation. Burdelik in particular revels in the increased elbowroom wasting no time in blowing the melodic hinges off the opening "Breakup". Rolling out florid sheets of sound his solo inspires a series of chases between Beer and Schultz. Short abstains from joining in the heated energy release keeping an even keel from his kit while offering a measured barrage of accents. Kohut's ensuing solo completely derails the piece's momentum, but in a manner fully supported by the horns, which riff murkily around him.

Schizophrenic variations of the disc's title track paint agnate, but ultimately divergent portraits, the first centering on Schultz and Burdelik (on soprano) and the second featuring Beer with a broad range of embellishments from McLean. Short delivers streamlined statements on each one that uncannily balance propulsion with restraint. His exposition on "Butterfly Decoy" is similarly coded, but delivered with what sounds like hands or heavy mallets. McLean's fretwork is a curious blend of plectrum-sounded lines and strange tone-shifted pops and sputters, but in either guise his creations always seem to fit snugly into the framework of the interplay.

"Fly in the Ointment" builds off an underlying rhythmic tension conveyed through Short's quiet, but bustling traps, but loses some steam over its long duration. Burdelik's frothy alto workout during the track's first half exudes a healthy virility, but McLean's string twisting follow-up, awash in luminous echo proves less decisive. Coming full circle with "Anthem" the sextet treads emotive straits akin to those on the disc's opener starting slowly, but gaining force. Burdelik doesn't seem to want it to end and burns through a solo on tenor that notches a new peak for him in terms of creative ebullience.

Another of Short's working ensembles, the quartet featured on Removable Media has several of the usual suspects including Scea and Shultz. Kupersmith is the new recruit and his at times stringent and methodical style lends appreciable tension to the band. Programmatically the music is all over the map, ranging from the rampant Dolphy references of "Back From Lunch" to the unapologetic bebop freneticism of the closing "Bullets". Scea and Shultz make for a boisterous frontline jousting and complimenting one another as the collective compass mandates. The saxophonist's corkscrew circular breathing on the opening "Toll Free" is one example eliciting burnished exhortations from Shultz and inciting Kupersmith into a bout of strenuous string sawing.

The title track is completely different in sentiment cycling through airy, almost balladic patterns floated by Scea's flute and Schultz's rounded smears that inoculate the ears for the impending somber abstraction of "Figure 37". Scea's scabrous tenor serrates the final minutes of the piece worrying a frayed vertical phrase to the point of near implosion. Shultz seems similarly agitated snorting and scuffling in the lowest registers of his brass. The kinks are fully ironed out on the spacious "Song Not Heard", a piece that experiments with Eastern modalities and offers a chance to hear Scea's bass clarinet trade in a contemplative colloquy with Shultz's muted brass. Short's rolling patterns work in concert with Kuppersmith's resonating bow to further elevate the meditative mood. Scea's switch to alternately lyrical and screaming flute delivers the final clincher.

Recorded just one day after the quartet session the meeting of Short and Scea in a duo setting on Balance of Power is a logical outgrowth of their ensemble time together. Their years of mutually supportive association virtually mandate a highly compatible end product. Both men bring a wide range of instruments to the bargaining table and it's this restless variety from track to track matched with a potent creative camaraderie that makes this date such a success. All but two of the pieces are spontaneous improvisations and absence of premeditation works in the pair's favor. Track lengths are excised down to almost universally concise dimensions and virtually every possible combination of instrumental constituents is attempted over the span of the fourteen improvisations.

Out of necessity the music resides more in the impressionist side of the spectrum with familiar melodic and rhythmic guideposts revealing themselves only on occasion and the duo instead favoring freely associative interaction. Scea makes frequent use of vocal effects in his sound production, whispering, sputtering and shouting into his reeds and flute sometimes with a ferocity that borders on the frightening. Short gladly takes on the frequent role of colorist, inking and outlining with sticks, mallets, bows and hands. The pieces that wed tenor saxophone and drum kit, like "Impending Downpour" and the title track, are among the most accessible of the program and their inclusion keeps matters from moving irrevocably into the realm of the abstruse. The title track, a post-Coltrane blowout that has Scea screaming into the altissimo range and Short beating out a muscular commentary below him is just the poultice needed for ears irritated by the uncompromising challenge of the duo's more quixotic wanderings.

Also included are two vibraphone solos by Short, "2WD1" and "Wahzo 3", each one a micro-study in the instrument's tonal properties and possibilities and a clear indication of the drummer's affection for Walt Dickerson. Schulz makes a guest appearance on two cuts "MLC" and "Drop That Name" extending the timbral parameters without out compromising the careful balance between the principal actors in the drama. Stacked against Short's previous outings this disc is an altogether different animal. Demanding in its abstractionist tendencies and abandonment of the usual underpinning architectures of his earlier work it suggests that his musical mind is staunchly averse to catering to expectation. As a milestone in a continuing career this project also points to intriguing new directions for future excursions.