Ropeadope Resumes “Experiment” Series with Marquis Hill, Joel Ross, Jeff Parker, Darryl Jones & More in “The Chicago Experiment” (Album Review)

This is Ropeadope’s fourth installment of their acclaimed Experiment series. The Chicago Experiment follows in the tradition of the 2001 Philadelphia Experiment, the 2003 Detroit Experiment, the 2007 Harlem Experiment, and now after fifteen years, one centered on The Second City. From the opening notes of “The Chant” one hears the highly recognizable vibes of Joel Ross, and the patters of beat master Makaya McCraven, artists inextricably associated with contemporary Chicago jazz. They are joined by the organizer of the session, keyboardist and Ropeadope label artist Greg Spero (Spirit Fingers), trumpeter Marquis Hill, guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Darryl Jones, and saxophonist Irvin Pierce. The Chicago sound invariably mixes the Black music forms of blues, hip-hop, soul, funk, gospel, and contemporary jazz with artists Ross, McCraven, and Parker among its most revered torch bearers. It’s a sound that you’ve heard on recordings from these artists. 

Spero and McCraven have been collaborators and supporters of each other for the past fifteen years. Hill plays and performs with McCraven regularly as does Parker. Both, along with Ross, are present on McCraven’s most recent work, 2021’s Deciphering the Message. Jones, a generation above Spero and McCraven has long been a Chicago mainstay while Pierce appears most often in rock and pop contexts. The organic sound is the same one heard on recordings of Spero and McCraven with Corey Wilkes and Junius Paul 12 years ago in a kind of Chicago loft scene at Close Up 2 in the south loop. 

The recordings on The Chicago Experiment result from four days of improvisation and performance. Spero brought in some compositions, but the sessions veered more toward free expression, yet with a distinctive groove for each piece. Spero then distilled down 4 days of this work into succinct tracks that flow together cohesively and emit a smooth, captivating sound which falls into three general categories – breezy R&B, more fully developed ethereal soundscapes, and funk-jazz fusion, the latter not unlike the kind found of the McCraven-produced, Spero-led Spirit Fingers’ 2020 Peace, also covered on these pages. They begin with “Chant” which has Pierce, Hill and Spero riffing with Ross adding colors and textures to propulsive rhythms. Pierce and Hill are the principals in the lead, with the latter taking an especially fiery turn toward the end. “Sizzle Reel” stays in a similar vein as Parker and Spero develop a swaying, calming groove underpinning Pierce’s smooth tenor. It’s an ideal soundtrack for a brisk walk along the chilly city streets.  

“Always Be” has the front line horns stating the melody to McCraven’s insistent beats in an unrelenting groove that picks up from the previous. Unhurriedly they continue to play the refrain as Spero floats in on electric piano, giving this one a majestic timbre and a triumphant exit. Two other tracks fit into these breezy, intoxicating grooves with “Cloud Jam,” the single carrying a slightly brisker pace to the undulating and ebbing energy of Spero, McCraven, and Ross primarily. “Double Take” is in a similar vein with Spero more prominent. 

In “Still of Water” McCraven begins with single beats that emulate slowly dripping water as Spero, Parker, and Ross create an atmospheric soundscape with the mix setting the horns in the background, as if echoing. “For Too” is  permeated by Hill’s low register resonating trumpet which assumes greater focus in the soaring over Spero’s tinkling keys.

“Maxwell Street” stands apart and begins to raise the intensity. It’s named of course for the famous market that presented blues jams on Sunday mornings. McCraven’s African beats evoke the busy activity of the shoppers in the market as Pierce and Hill blow choppy lines punctuated by comping and single notes from Ross and Spero.

The last three tracks go in funky style, first with “Rose Petal’ as Jones lays down a filthy bass line and McCraven stirs the energy, soloing as it fades out and into “Tiny Beat,” a brief, churning groove that bleeds into “Straight Shooter where Parker and Spero trade lines across driving rhythms from the bass-drum tandem in straight-out funk-fusion.

The term ‘experiment’ is a nice, neat title considering the projects that have preceded this one but it’s clear throughout that these cats are not just fooling around. They are most purposeful in their approach, weaving together the various aspects of the Chicago sound into a pleasing, danceable, cohesive soundtrack, that, while improvised, bears little resemblance to a carefree jam session. Spero did a remarkable job harnessing this music into one smooth flow.  

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