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The 3.5.7 Ensemble’s Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples

05-04-2016 | By Marc Phillips | Issue 85


One of the advantages of writing about LPs and turntables for the last 18 years is that sometimes records just show up in my mailbox without warning or reasonable explanation. I know nothing about Chicago's Milk Factory Productions, and even less about The 3.5.7 Ensemble, but my intuition tells me that the same intrepid individual who sent me the Frank Lowe Quartet's Out Loud about eighteen months ago mailed this out to me just before the end of last year.

I made this connection because Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples features the same beautiful, nearly noise-free pressing of some full-throttle bad-ass free jazz. I even assumed, through the first couple of listens, that the 3.5.7 Ensemble was a contemporary of Frank Lowe, playing in the same NYC jazz clubs back in the '70s. The sound quality is remarkably similar, clean and well-defined and yet still a window, slightly smudged around the edges, into a historic event that happened forty years ago.

But here's the catch—this is a modern recording, captured in November of 2013 by producer Greg Norman at Electrical Audio. So is that same gritty patina you hear from '70s jazz recordings intentional? How exactly do you replicate that almost imperceptible shift? It's like watching a modern movie where a vintage piece of film is offered as a true artifact and you can still see where the filmmakers just shot a scene, converted it to black and white and then scratched up the negatives—except that in this case they got it right and made it look perfectly authentic. Perhaps Michel Hazanavicius was involved?

Diving into this mystery a little further, I found out that the 3.5.7 Ensemble is named for the fact that they perform as a trio, a quintet or a septet, depending on the music. The trio consists of Nick Anaya on woodwinds, Chris Dammann on contrabass, and Dylan Andrews on percussion. The quintet adds James Davis on trumpet and Tim Stein on guitar, and the "7" brings Richard Zili's clarinet and Jim Baker's piano to the mix. This allows the ensemble to expand and contract according to the piece's requirements.

On the ensemble's website they are even more specific about tailoring the ensemble to composers, preferring the septet configuration for large ensemble works by Mingus and Ellington, and shrinking down to recreate classic trios from Sonny Rollins or Albert Ayler. This suggests that the members of the ensemble are perfectionists, and you can hear that in the lofty level of these performances. For this album the ensemble goes in a slightly more esoteric direction, with several compositions from Joseph Raymond Anaya, combined with original pieces, and even a rearrangement of a Zimbabwe folk tune in the opening cut, "Dangurangu."

In fact, I was a bit unfair when I called this full-throttle bad-ass free jazz. In its septet formation the 3.5.7 Ensemble can certainly deliver chaos in an almost orgiastic fashion, but the thrilling changes in moods throughout this album are mostly created by the fluctuations in the amount of musicians on stage. So if you're a little unsure about finding the structure in the noise, just hold on—a beautiful, lyrical and melodic section will come up soon. Amongst the Smokestacks and Steeples is such a comprehensive piece of music, certainly monumental in many ways—it's the thinking man's jazz.

I actually felt remiss in waiting so long to tackle this review—complicated music should not be approached capriciously, and I actually had to move 2000 miles in the middle of thinking about it. Now I feel a little bit worse in knowing that this album was originally released back in 2014. So my mystery benefactor might have read my appreciation of the Frank Lowe Quartet album and decided I was the guy to give this release another kick in the pants. I'm glad to do it. Being challenged by impeccably performed yet difficult music is something that does more than broaden your horizons. It places images in your mind, ones you've never seen before.  If you're the type of jazz lover who prefers to crawl inside and look at the performance from within, here's your latest assignment.

You can find out more about Milk Factory Productions and the 3.5.7 Ensemble by visiting their website. (It seems a bit amazing that this gatefold double-LP adorned with amazing artwork from Mary Jane Kwan is only $25—including the digital download code as well.)