Rock History 101: Fred Lonberg-Holm’s Lightbox Orchestra

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    Jazz. The one musical genre seemingly forgotten in today’s ever growing music blogosophere. Thankfully, our own Adam Kivel is here to provide a history lesson of sorts on this genre and one of its most talented performers…

    Fred Lonberg-Holm is one of the staples of the Chicago improvised music scene. So, when he puts together an orchestra, you know it’s going to be the cream of the crop, as it were. This past Wednesday, I was lucky enough to catch his Lightbox Orchestra in action, encapsulating a large proportion of the outstanding group of performers that call the Windy City home. As such, this’ll be a review of the show, but also a bit of history on the interconnected squad that set up shop across Chicago.

    First, a brief overview of the Lightbox: Lonberg-Holm sat at a console of switches connected to a series of light bulbs. Each of the ten performers on stage was then assigned a light bulb. When their bulb was lit, the performer would improvise. Lonberg-Holm then held up signs with notes like “louder,” “sparse,” or the incredibly ominous “it ends now.”


    The array across the stage was nothing short of intimidating. The front row went as follows: bass clarinetist Jeff Kimmel, clarinetist James Falzone, trumpeter Jaimie Branch, bass clarinetist Jason Stein and cornetist Josh Berman. The back row featured Paul Giallorenzo on synth, Frank Rosaly on drums, Matt Lux on electric bass, Charles Rumback on drums and Kent Kessler on double-bass.

    As with any improv show, the glory is in the moments when the improvisers click, when their minds hit on the same wavelength. To this end, Lonberg-Holm’s role was just as important as the improvisers, making decisions on which musicians would work well together at each moment, what sort of direction would serve them well. Altogether, the group put together three long improvised pieces.

    Early in the first piece, a few of the musicians really started to stand out as the stars of the night. Stein seemed to refuse to play any notes through his bass clarinet, instead honking and squealing away. Under this, Rosaly smacked away at his kit, somehow dropping barrages of snaps and pops at seemingly random, yet intensely accurate rhythm. Falzone’s clarinet drifted in and out, triplet trills fluttering. The two bassists really held down fort, Lux’s electric chording more like a guitar than a bass, Kessler repeating a jaunty line.


    Rumback and Rosaly locked together in the second piece. Rosaly’s snare roll crashed in crescendo waves as Rumback clapped a string of seashells against his floor tom every four beats. The third piece really belonged to Berman and Kessler; the bassist grooved fluidly as the cornet squawked like a parrot.

    To get a better idea of the whole group though, I’d have to start by giving a more in depth description of the conductor. Lonberg-Holm moved to Chicago from New York in 1995. Back in the Big Apple, he solidified himself as an outstanding cellist, in free jazz as well as a session player. He’d often work with the queercore group God is My Co-Pilot, among other big names. His collaborations in Chicago are even more impressive, though, and this is where the fun Bacon-esque connect the dots game begins.

    Lonberg-Holm has worked with Jim O’Rourke, Wilco and Swedish Jazz saxophonist extraordinaire Mats Gustafsson (The Thing, The Original Silence with O’Rourke, Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo). He’s recorded sessions for Califone, Will Oldham, The Flying Luttenbachers and more.


    He’s also a member of The Vandermark 5, led by MacArthur Fellowship winner and Chicago jazz mainstay Ken Vandermark. Kessler is another founding member of the 5. The group played weekly at Chicago’s Empty Bottle for a long while, along with releasing a plethora of CDs while the lineup shifted nearly constantly.

    Lonberg-Holm also plays with the Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet. This group, led by the German saxophonist behind the legendary free jazz album Machine Gun, is a star-studded who’s who of Chicago and world jazz. Kessler and Vandermark are here again, this time with The Thing drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, Chi-town mainstays Jeb Bishop (on trombone) and Michael Zerang (on drums), among others.

    He leads The Valentine Trio, with bassist Jason Roebke and (here comes another Lightbox member) Rosaly. 2005’s “Other Valentines” featured covers of Sun Ra’s “East of Uz”, Chan “Cat Power” Marshall’s “Fool”, Syd Barrett’s “Arnold Layne” and Wilco’s “Jesus, Etc.” 2007’s follow-up “Terminal Valentine” consisted entirely of Lonberg-Holm’s compositions. Here, he shows his versatility; not only is he an amazing cellist and improviser, but his fluid, moving compositions are extraordinary. Rosaly’s drumming is consistently strong as well, finding the perfect balance between rhythm support and featured player.


    The best bookstore in the city, Myopic Books, hosts a Monday night improve show on their third floor, between the Literary Criticism and Eastern Religions sections. Lonberg-Holm is one of four coordinators of the event, and plays it fairly regularly. A couple of months ago, I caught an amazing set that featured Lonberg-Holm, Lightbox member Berman and tuba player Marc Unternährer.

    Kimmell and Branch play in the Tim Daisy Ensemble. Daisy is a drummer who often collaborates with….that’s right, Fred Lonberg-Holm. Berman, Branch, Falzone and Rosaly are all members of the Keefe Jackson Project Project. Tenor saxophonist Keefe Jackson also leads Keefe Jackson’s Fast Citizens, a group that includes Berman, Rosaly and (no surprises here) LONBERG-HOLM.

    Alive in The Woods and Friends sets up shop every Tuesday night at The Charleston. Lightbox performers Stein and Berman play in this group, along with bassist Anton Hatwich, guitarist Matt Schneider and percussionist Dylan Ryan. Hatwich played in saxophonist Dave Rempis’ Percussion Quartet, which featured Rosaly. Rempis has also worked with Lonberg-Holm.


    Giallorenzo sings and plays assorted keyboard instruments with drummer/vocalist Allison Stanley in their band Telegraph Series. Also featured on the group’s new album are Stein and Lonberg-Holm. Rumback also plays with Tyler Beach and (dun dun dun) Fred “mothafuckin'” Lonberg-Holm.

    Matt Lux also plays with Isotope 217, a supergroup of Chicago post-rock, alongside Tortoise members Jeff Parker, John Herndon and Dan Bitney, and Chicago Underground members Sara Smith and Rob Mazurek. Parker and Lonberg-Holm recently worked together for a show at noise-friendly venue Enemy.

    So there you have it: a brief introduction to the Chicago free jazz scene and one of its key members, Fred Lonberg-Holm. To keep yourself up to date on the swirling interlocking members comings and goings, keeps a stellar record of upcoming gigs. Each day features five or more experimental, jazz and world music shows, most of which are free or cheap.


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