Chicago has been hotbed of vanguard jazz ever since the Navy shutdown Storyville in New Orleans, sending its talented bordello musicians and their hot Dixieland sounds north on trains and riverboats. Early on, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton dominated the scene, playing in a style that would later be widely recognizable as swing. From mid-century onward, the city’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) provided a fertile scene and support system for boundary-pushing free jazz, and improvised music drawing from an enormous breadth of traditions.
The vibrant bounty of jazz-adjacent music coming out of the city now is proudly and clearly descended from that tradition, but is also draws from the city’s rich music scene outside of jazz—hip-hop, soul, gospel, and post-rock bands like Tortoise. This renaissance scene features a close knit group of collaborators who often play together or appear on each others’ albums, including big names such as Makaya McCraven, Ben Lamar Gay, Marquis Hill, and bassist Junius Paul.
Paul’s debut album, Ism, demonstrates his range as a bandleader and composer. The album moves from potent free jazz brews to ominous, heartstring-tugging ballads and boom-bap-bathed instrumentals. Rhythm section instrumentalists often face an interesting dilemma when helming their own albums: should drummers and bassists give themselves an unusual amount of time in the spotlight? Or keep their head down in the rhythm section and just let their compositions do the talking?
On the roomy hour and half-long Ism, Paul happily tastes of both possibilities. But here on “Asé,” he reminds listeners that this is an album by a bassist—a disturbingly talented one—and don’t you forget it. The first two-thirds of the song is solo Paul wrestling with himself, before drums and trumpet join him for an urgent last minute. The song is a portent: something is impending—and it’s coming from Chicago.