Four Horns, One Siren: Black Bear Combo and the Rebecca Sullivan Quintet

On a frigid December night I squeezed into the Sub T Lounge in Wicker Park to warm up beneath the undulating Balkan rhythms of Black Bear Combo. A major player in the brass-band renaissance that's taken over Chicago's alternative music scene, Black Bear is a six-man outfit that infuses eastern-European party music with jazz, rock and funk influences. As you can imagine, this is a recipe for sheer dance madness. I've seen Black Bear at a few clubs around town, but they also play weddings and funerals--the latter being perhaps problematic, as the band's sounds are so infectious the departed might be prompted to climb out of the casket and get down with his bad self.

Most of the group's tunes are originals penned by saxophonist Doug Abram; he gets avid, athletic support from Rob Pleshar on sousaphone, Gerald Bailey on trumpet, Andrew Zelm on euphonium, Dersu Burrows on bass drum, and Ehsan Ghoreishi on accordion and daf (Persian frame drum). The rhythms are all fast, and all delightfully sinuous, but still utterly distinctive; within the admittedly narrow boundaries of the sound world Black Bear Combo has staked out, they manage to mine endless variety. Over the course of the evening they may edge towards tonal anarchy, or achieve a sweetness you might almost call refined; but they never repeat themselves, and they never flag. And you, humble patron, never get the chance to sit down and take a breath. What the hell, life's too short for breathing anyway.

The Sub T is a classic Chicago bar space, meaning long, narrow, dark, and architecturally mongrel: I was especially taken by the tiling behind the bar, a Populuxe pattern that wouldn't be out of place in Betty Draper's kitchen, but which in this context looks like a prom queen seated uncomfortably amidst a clutch of Dickensian reprobates. It's a pretty good environment for Black Bear, who boast of a "raucous mutt" sensibility and eschew any kind of formality. The first time I saw them, at a multiple-band showcase, they didn't even take the stage, preferring to play their set down among the revelers. And on this particular night, they lasted exactly two tunes before spilling off the platform and mingling with the cavorting crowd, giving their wailing, shimmering sounds an entirely different sonic quality than most stage-bound bands can manage.

The audience at the Sub T was a very young (this is Wicker Park) and wildly worshipful crew who at first threatened to crowd the stage, but had to give it up once the band went walkabout. One rather large fan was so overcome by high spirits that he seemed to be having a religious experience, gesticulating at the band members as though trying to levitate them right off the floor. No need; they're pretty good at soaring all on their own.

The same week, I headed to the south Loop for a very different kind of recital at a very different venue: the Rebecca Sullivan Quintet on the lush, capacious stage at Joe & Wayne Segal's Jazz Showcase.

One of the paradoxes of being a fan is the longing for the object of your enthusiasm to be embraced by a wider public, and the subsequent feeling of panic when this in fact occurs. "Hey," you want to shout to all the hipster-come-latelies, "welcome to the party and everything, but stop crowding me out, I was here first." I feel something similar about Sullivan, a beguiling young jazz singer who used to be a familiar presence in my north-side environs. Now she's gone widescreen, branching out into other clubs, other 'hoods... she's even making a name for herself in the suburbs. Suddenly, I'm faced with a new reality: if I want to see Rebecca Sullivan, I gotta get in a car and drive.

This time it was definitely worth the trip: headlining the Showcase is a kind of jazz benediction, a notch in any musician's cane, and it's Sullivan's next step in her continued ascent. She certainly looked ready for world domination, sporting the simple black cocktail dress that constitutes the battle armor of female jazz singers everywhere. Backed by Josh Moshier on piano, Jeremy Cunningham on drums, Mike Allemana on guitar, and--a heroic last-minute replacement for an ailing John Tate--Matt Ferguson on bass, Sullivan launched into "I Only Have Eyes For You" with so much insouciant swing I almost had to grip the table to keep my center of gravity in place.

Sullivan had promised "standards, nonstandards, and originals" for this gig, and she delivered. The nonstandards included a knockout jazz reading of the folk ballad "She Moved Through the Fair" (with Allemana's guitar as sole accompaniment) and a cover of the alt-rock tune "Human Racing" by St. Vincent. The originals boasted Moshier's "Saturnine," Allemana's "This Way, This Time" (with lyrics by Sullivan which, she confessed, she'd only finished about an hour before the show), and Sullivan's own "I Am Not," with its floor-dropping time-signature shifts in the bridge.

But even the standards weren't so very standard; they included Thelonious Monk's "Ask Me Now," Irving Berlin's "Russian Lullabye," and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Chega de Saudade" (with her cool, lilting soprano, Sullivan was born to sing bossa; and she sings it in Portuguese, thanks). There was also, notably, "Sweet Surprise" by Blossom Dearie--a performer who, I'm embarrassed to say, I hadn't till now realized is one of Sullivan's natural precursors. Like Dearie, Sullivan pairs an appealing, sparkling-fresh instrument with keen intelligence and sophisticated musicianship; sagacious soubrettes, I call them. You could probably do better. Actually, so could I. But I'm too busy listening... and smiling.

For more about Black Bear Combo, including upcoming dates, visit their website. Likewise for Rebecca Sullivan's info and calendar, check out her site.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Earlier this year I blogged about The Flesh Market, the latest revue by the monologuist troupe BoyGirlBoyGirl. Well, the members of BGBG have invited me to perform in their next show, Massive Fireball Over the Midwest, which will be part of the 22nd Rhinoceros Theater Festival in January. When I blogged about The Flesh Market, I had no idea of ever being affiliated with any BGBG production, and I'm still not sure they aren't bat-guano crazy for asking me. But they did, and I am. So there it is.