Cosmic Reverberations: Backstory Café introduces Wednesday night concerts with a community vibe

Jazz at the Backstory Café, photo by Sarah Pickering
Since its opening last year, Woodlawn’s Backstory Café has established itself as a slow-food coffee shop, a used bookstore, and a “supporting member of the vibrant independent cultural infrastructure.” Last week, it took on another title: avant-garde jazz and jam venue. In a new musical program curated by Alex Wing, groups and solo artists perform scheduled sets every Wednesday night, followed by an open-invitation jam session that lasts until the café closes.

Wing, who plays electric guitar and hulusi flute, was himself a performer in the first show of the series, which took place January 21. His group, the Microcosmic Sound Orchestra, boasted an eclectic instrumentation: a singing bowl and a harmonium rounded out the group’s already experimental sound. Ghostly chords drifted from the harmonium, cradled by Ben Boye, while Jayve Montgomery’s saxophone spat eerie melodies. Listening carefully, one could observe his circular breathing, allowing him to play continuously for longer. Wing was no less impressive on guitar, while his brother Eli coaxed snaps and whispers from a three-piece drum set. Throughout the night, he utilized almost every square inch of it to produce music, before adding his body to the mix by slapping his belly and thighs and jangling the keys and spare change in his pockets. Tearing through such self-proclaimed “sonic odysseys” as “The Exorcism of Sarah Palin,” the brothers’ tangible chemistry made watching them play almost as rewarding as listening.

Yet this was not music without a purpose. Both Alex Wing and Ben Boye are alumni of the University of Chicago, and they expressed hopes that this series would encourage UofC students as well as those at the nearby elementary school not simply to listen, but to bring their own instruments and participate in the jam. “I want to have a mix of professional or so-called professional musicians who are gigging and also people who are new,” Wing says. “It’s open and not necessarily sort of another concert series like the other ones that happen in avant-garde, jazz, creative music or whatever we call it.” In dismantling avant-garde elitism, Wing hopes to embrace every aspect of “free music.”

The project is bigger than just one band. The Microcosmic Sound Orchestra is an arrangement of players drawn from a larger collective of experimental musicians, Sonic Healing Ministries. Many of the artists performing in the series are part of this collective. “Everything in existence on the physical plane, all energy/matter, vibrates at a particular frequency that defines it,” reads a statement from the collective’s website. “Love is the force that harmonizes this myriad of frequencies and binds everything together into a functioning whole.” SHM believes its music to be an expression of that love, and “a reverberation of the macrocosmic sound.”

A practical commitment to community development complements the spiritual aspects of the Orchestra’s message. Its title, for instance, suggests the image of a collection of “microcosms” within the larger collective, representing a vision of both musical connections and the ways in which the larger network can influence whole communities. And among its goals, SHM lists “free music/art concerts” and building “ideal performance/healing spaces”–all in line with Backstory Café’s dedication to social change through community growth and activism.

At the show, an audience member pointed out that he participated as well as listened to the Microcosmic Sound Orchestra’s performance. It was true: when performers use their bodies and ambient noise, their separation from the audience gets fuzzy. When a woman knocked over her chair, the performers smiled–had their number just increased? The squeaky door of the Backstory Café seemed to mesh perfectly with the group’s sound. So next week, come with instruments or with your ears alone; whether or not you intend to play, the intimate space and hypnotic sound is sure to pull you in.

Backstory Café, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave. Wednesdays, 6-9pm. (773)324-9987. backstorycafe.com. A listing of performers is available at www.myspace.com/alexwing