The New Chicago Sound: Karl Siegfried and the New Quartet synthesize a unique mix of jazz and rock influences

“Don’t you listen to a single word against rock ‘n roll. The new religion, the electric church, the only way to go,” sang Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead in the 1986 song “Built For Speed.” A Motörhead fan wearing long hair, a Led Zeppelin T-shirt, and frayed jeans, the young Karl E. H. Seigfried must have appeared a true follower. Seigfried, who would later become a prolific, genre-defying Chicago musician working in and beyond the jazz, rock, and classical idioms, taught himself to play the electric bass in high school, inspired by bands like Black Sabbath, Hawkwind, and Deep Purple.

Influenced by Charles Mingus and Paul Chambers, Seigfried picked up the double bass in his twenties and developed his jazz playing under the tutelage of Bertram Turetzky, George Lewis, and Jimmy Cheatam at the University of California, San Diego. At the time, Seigfried’s jazz band was full of California surfers who didn’t care about jazz but needed a venue for their electric guitar playing. Charles MacPherson, Jr., subbing one day for George Lewis as the instructor of Seigfried’s improvisation class, heard the rock styling in the band members’ improvisations and instructed them to take a break from rock n’ roll for five or ten years. They needed to immerse themselves in jazz to learn its language. Seigfried took this advice to heart: he put away his rock T-shirts, and got a haircut.

A Master’s Degree and a doctorate in classical double bass performance later, Seigfried is unwilling to so limit himself to a single musical language. A highly active Chicago musician, he plays across a wide range of genres, from classical, to noise, to jazz. Seigfried’s most recent project, the New Quartet, combines jazz, contemporary classical music, rock, and Carnatic music, a tradition of classical music from the south of India. The New Quartet will be performing at the Velvet Lounge on Saturday, May 31st, in celebration of the release of their album “Blue Rhizome” on Imaginary Chicago Records. In addition to Seigfried, who plays bass and electric guitar on the album, the New Quartet consists of saxophonist and flautist Greg Ward, violinist Carmel Raz, and drummer Chris Avergin. On Saturday, the New Quartet’s performance will be followed by a set by Soul Power Trio, who will play heavy metal reinterpretations of the material on “Blue Rhizome.” Another of Seigfried’s many projects, Soul Power Trio features Seigfried on electric guitar, Avergin on drums, and Aaron Getsug on electric bass.

“The composition of this piece was inspired by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith, faith in humanity,” begins a brief essay Seigfried wrote for the “Blue Rhizome” liner notes. He observes that humanity, by way of “ethnicity, race, religion, culture, and nationality,” divides itself into tribes. These divisions narrow humanity’s world view and shut out new, potentially enlightening experiences. The New Quartet’s blending of seemingly disparate genres of music provides an example of cross-tribal synthesis. Seigfried relates this idea to self-segregation within the Chicago jazz community. Chicago’s major jazz organizations, the largely African-American Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Asian Improv Arts, and the European-American-oriented Umbrella Music are generally divided along racial lines. Seigfried believes that one of the most important things he can do as a musician is to assemble diverse musical ensembles. To him, the beauty of the United States of America is that diverse people can come together to make something new. Seeing a diverse group of musicians working together on stage has the potential to make a powerful and progressive emotional impression on the audience, encouraging them to reach beyond their own tribal boundaries.

In recent years, Seigfried has observed an increasing number of Chicago musicians who, like the performers in the New Quartet, are committed to breaking down tribal divisions. Difficult to pigeonhole into any one style or genre, these diverse musicians constitute what Seigfried calls the “New Chicago Sound.” They are versed in many styles of music and blend styles effortlessly. While the wide exposure to music afforded by the Internet has made genre blending common, contributors to the “New Chicago Sound” differ from many genre benders in their respect for tradition. They digest the styles they perform completely, and harbor great respect for their histories. As a result, the music they perform is organic and coherent to the novice and the aficionado alike.

The New Quartet performs at the Velvet Lounge, 67 E Cermak Rd. May 31. Saturday, 9pm.