Alto saxophonist Aram Shelton doesn’t hail from Chicago, but he spent his formative years in the city of broad shoulders and hard-blowing horn players, honing an aesthetic steeped in the visceral hurly burly of free jazz.
Since moving to the Bay Area in 2005 to study at Mills College, he’s become an essential part of the region’s left-of-center improvisational scene while also maintaining his Chi-town ties. Shelton has launched several Bay Area-based bands, such as the raucous sextet Marches – which extrapolates on the music of Sun Ra, Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler – and These Are Our Hours, a quintet showcasing a bevy of highly promising young players. But he’s getting his first major West Coast exposure with a powerhouse quartet featuring Chicago compatriots Keefe Jackson on tenor sax, bassist Anton Hatwich and drummer Tim Daisy.
“It’s strange that I’m breaking out with this Chicago group,” Shelton says, “but this quartet is the one that’s closest to more traditional jazz music, with a lot of in-time swinging and playing melodies and structures.”
Following two Saturday afternoon sets at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Aram Shelton Quartet concludes a high-profile California tour Saturday night at the Red Poppy Art House. Shelton also performs with guitarist Nathan Clevenger’s sextet Sunday at Oakland’s Freelove Music School and Sept. 30 at Legion of Honor with the Oakland Active Orchestra, a creatively charged 14-member collective that appears regularly at the Uptown Nightclub in Oakland.
With his thick, sinewy tone, Shelton, 36, often makes the alto sax sound like its larger sibling. On the quartet’s debut album “Everything for Somebody,” he and Jackson bob, weave and dance around Daisy’s mercurial rhythmic churn. No one is likely to mistake the grooves for dance music, but the quartet retains the ecstatic, call-to-assembly urgency found in its primary sources – Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. “I listen to them all the time,” Shelton says. “Their music has this beauty and energy that comes out of the soloists playing really simple. Well, not simple as much as honest. That’s what really inspires me.”
Raised on a small ranch in southeast Florida, Shelton spent his teenage years immersed in the Western classical tradition. Just as he was finishing a music degree at the University of Florida he experienced an epiphany at a performance by Sam Rivers’ extraordinary multi-instrumental trio. Settling in Chicago in 1999, he quickly threw himself into the thick of the city’s roiling creative music scene, collaborating with leading players in a series of singular ensembles. He’s done much the same thing in the Bay Area.
“Aram is so prolific and such an original voice, he’s really a beacon for what’s possible out here,” says bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, who opens the Red Poppy show with ROVA saxophonist Steve Adams. “Besides the sheer energy and work he puts into making things happen, it’s been great that he’s kept his relationships with Chicago. We get to interact with those players and that cross pollination helps our scene.”
by Andy Gilbert