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Tomeka Reid on Giving Strings the Spotlight in Jazz

The cellist hosts the Chicago Jazz String Summit this weekend.

Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

Up next in our series of interviews with notable, in-the-know locals: Tomeka Reid, who hosts the third annual Chicago Jazz String Summit May 12 and 13 at Elastic Arts and Constellation Chicago.

What’s the impetus behind the Chicago Jazz String Summit?

It’s a small jazz festival that’s highlighting orchestral strings—violins, violas, and cellos. These instruments are not often thought of in the context of jazz. Just being around the jazz scene, you would see a saxophone summit and a trumpet summit. What about a string summit? I wanted to have an event that put strings at the forefront.

There are only two criteria: Each group performing has to be led by an improvising string player, and they have to perform original music. I wanted to bring in some improvisation traditions over the course of a couple of days and show what’s possible.

Who are some of the performers?

Opening the festival is Hank Roberts, a really great cello player. I don’t know if he’s actually played in Chicago before. He’s doing a duo with Jacob Sacks. Also on Friday, there’s Mary Oliver, an amazing violin player. She’s American, but has spent most of her career in the Netherlands playing with the Instant Composers Pool. Mark Feldman, who’s part of the downtown scene in New York, is also playing a duo with Chicago-based drummer Tim Daisy. Feldman played in John Zorn’s group, the Masada String Trio. He’s a very active and innovative violin player.

On Saturday’s show, we have Eyvind Kang. Besides being an amazing improvising viola player, he was a mentee of Michael White. This year’s String Summit is a tribute to White, who was a really creative violin player in the ’70s. Then there’s Helen Gillet, who’s doing a solo set. She’s from New Orleans and she does a lot of different stuff, like singing and playing at once. The last performance on Saturday is a group that I co-lead, called Hear in Now, with Mazz Swift and Silvia Bolognesi. We have a record coming June 2 called Not Living in Fear.

How did you pick the lineup?

Mostly these are people that I’ve looked up to in my own journey to becoming an improvising cellist. It’s not like there’s a large array of recordings in that tradition. There’s not a ton of improvising cellists out there. That’s why I created this summit. People don’t know Billy Bang or Mary Oliver—they’re just not super familiar.

Why is that?

People still have this idea of what a jazz group is or even what jazz is—people think of bebop. For me, jazz is music where improvisation is at the core. In highlighting these super innovative, creative players, hopefully it will encourage more string players to improvise. During the classical era, string improvisation fell by the wayside. You would just play your Dvorak or whatever it was. This festival is also about creating community and getting more string players to come and create groups of their own. Maybe string players will be inspired to improvise again.

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