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Bending the rules

Festival Quartet mostly colors inside the lines

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When Festival Quartet drummer Tim Daisy talks about Zion, the small Illinois town in which he grew up and discovered music, it hardly sounds like paradise. Situated halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, Wis., Zion was established by the Christian Catholic Apostolic Church. In the beginning, its founding fathers dictated that to live there one had to belong to the church and adhere to its archaic prairie values. As time wore on, things loosened up a bit, but not much. "You weren't allowed to buy pharmaceuticals, you weren't allowed to drink," says Daisy. "You weren't even allowed to chew gum!"

Although his family didn't subscribe to Zion's old fashioned ways, Daisy's unrepressed musical ways were formed while he came of age in such a stifling place. He focused his burgeoning rebellious streak by taking up music at age 11. "I started playing saxophone in fifth grade," Daisy says. "When I got older, I was listening to a lot of really heavy metal bands, like Slayer and Ministry. Not too many of those kinds of bands had saxophones in them so I focused on playing drums."

Transcending the town's restrictive mindset opened a myriad of new horizons for Daisy's musical output, and since 1997 he has flourished amongst Chicago's modern free jazz underground. Fiery jazz and improvisational ensembles Dragons 1976, Triage and the Vandermark 5 served as incubators for Daisy's intricate and unorthodox drumming.

While playing with these groups, he harnessed a simmering, staccato sway by carving out intense rhythmic chatter and spacey exploration with uninhibited dexterity. Improvisation and an unconventional approach to writing and performing became major working methods for his break from tradition. But after years of developing his identity by losing himself in far-out sonic terrain, Daisy has come full circle to embrace a new approach to working under restraints.

Coming from such a strong background in improvised music, a sticker slapped on the back of Festival Quartet's hand-assembled, self-titled CD, stating "all compositions by Tim Daisy," seems a bit out of place. But with these songs, his aim has expanded to include much more than improvisation.

For Festival Quartet, Daisy selected a crew of Chicago musicians after playing with them in other ensembles to work with loosely arranged melodies he was writing. The goal: to work creatively with thematic material in an improvised setting while maintaining cohesive relation between the two.

Made up of Daisy (drums), Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone), Josh Berman (cornet) and Anton Hatwich (bass), the group's improvisational bouts are guided by an ever-present sense of melody and structure. Improvisation does play a large role in the quartet's material, but it's always kept in place by established structural parameters in each song.

"The idea is to explore new ways of improvising and working with thematic material," says Daisy. "I try to let things happen in a real-time sense and if someone wants to take the music into a completely new direction, we'll just go with it. But the improvisation is always influenced by the thematic material. I don't want to restrict the improvising, but I want to balance it equally with thematic material."

Songs like "Aztec" and "Vigil" exude with easy-on-the-ear free jazz ambles. "Safehouse" and "Uphill Both Ways" swagger through humid sonic terrain where skronks and wails flare and sputter in a medley of reflexive rhythms, flanked by distinct chord changes. In "Victory Suite" the rhythm section holds the pieces together while horns chomp at the bit, bark savagely from behind the fence, but never jump the gate. It's in recognizing its own limitations that keeps each on track, and gives the group free rein to develop ground-breaking and expansive music while keeping it within tradition.

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