Christopher Dammann

composer/musician

Chris Dammann’s Restroy roils in jazz and the world around it

An explosion of understanding careens out of “S.M.I.B.D.,” a track off Restroy’s “Saturn Return.”

It’s composer Chris Dammann convincing his perceptions of music to carouse with the world around him. The booming assuredness of recorded sound echoes down through each of the disc’s eight cuts and extends into Dammann’s daily life as he divvies up existence between time in Charlottesville, in Chicago and stints on the road as bassist in David Wax Museum.

Sure, his sojourns to that aging Midwest behemoth include him roughing it on the floor of some friend’s apartment, eschewing a proper bed. But it’s in service of finding ways to play as much as he can in a fertile and relentlessly creative scene.

When he’s not on the road, though, Dammann said he usually carves out at least four hours to play each day. Sometimes he gambols around Bach compositions. And sometimes he ticks off items on a checklist, so there’s some sort of structure to his exercises. However he’s managed to arrange it all, though, the process seems to have imbued him with the ability to perform in a range of groups, each with its own musical imperative.

“I didn’t really study any music until I went to Northwestern [University],” Dammann, who left the institution with a jazz studies degree, said. “I was a bad classical musician for those years.”

So, Chopin might not be a part of Saturday’s setlist. But Restroy and the 3.5.7 Ensemble — founded eight years back with Dammann’s assistance — service a disparate part of the bassist’s urgent need to play. He just doesn’t want to get down on “Stella by Starlight.”

“I feel like I don’t do it well. But I’m interested in the architecture of that kind of music,” Dammann said about taking a wide berth with standards. “It seems silly for me to put that forward as an artist because I don’t feel like I’m doing much with it.”
Working within the confines of someone else’s composition can have stultifying effects. And even if Dammann perceives the inherent poetry in all the bop stuff that still in some ways defines the genre, it doesn’t mean he wants or needs to speak that particular language.

His own compositions seem unhurried, gently tamped down by the past, as well as a desire to expand on the form. It’s a sound he’d call “authentic,” an unfettered dispatch from inside the mind of a composer working to sort out the world around him through song. And on Restroy’s “Saturn Return,” the troupe’s proper debut, Dammann’s perhaps figured it out.

“I think of [Restroy] as contemporary classical music. But I also like pop music,” the bassist said, somehow splitting the difference between the history of jazz on either coast and setting it within a singular Chicago ethic. “It doesn’t sound like pop music, but in my head it does.”

The history of that city’s jazzbo culture only flirts with New York concerns, although a healthy blurring of genre enables avant-gardists to move in and out of a scene with few attendant restrictions. On “11 Eggrolls,” Loren Oppenheimer’s tabla adds embellishment to Dammann’s writing as swells of electronics hustle the endeavor forward. It’s not quite Sun Ra levels of eccentricity. And even if Dammann doesn’t think of the whole thing as jazz, it is. Just in the least stodgy way possible.

“I feel like, if I had a teacher, it would have been Fred Anderson,” Dammann said about the Chicago jazz impresario who ran the Velvet Lounge, a southside club, up until his 2010 death. “He was there, hangin’ out and just being present. I loved his playing so much. … He could just make things happen in the moment and wasn’t playing standards too often. He was using whatever was in front of him to make music.”

Compared to some of the sax player’s work, Dammann’s might seem less emphatic and more curious. But no less confident. “Waiting,” another track off Restroy’s full length, swings easy. It’s not blustery. It’s just casual in approach and quiet by nature.

An astrological concept stating that pushing into one’s late 20s makes for a calmer existence explains the album’s name, Dammann said — not a reference to the supposedly Saturn-born Sun Ra. If he’s prowling around for a more serene existence, though, it’d seem that choosing jazz as an avenue to hash out an expressive midwife isn’t the wisest choice.

Thing is, though, we don’t all get to choose how we puzzle together being human or how to express it most succinctly. Dammann’s been called to music, giving the world his treatise on how to get over. And anyone in earshot might benefit a bit by at least listening.