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You're a young, creative cat studying music at a university a few hours from your hometown. All in all, things are good and comfortable. But being comfortable is for people with finance degrees and not for a percussionist like you. You need a change, to get out there, but nothing as dramatic as, say, John Roderick of The Long Winters walking across Europe for five months. No, this thing you gotta do is about fostering your sound and finding the deepest nutritional value in a music that's chock-full of soul food.
In the meantime, you're playing straight-ahead gigs in the college town's central core. On the side, you're trying this music that some folks call free jazz or the avant-garde or whatnot. You're also studying with legendary drummer Billy Higgins, who, before he leaves the planet in 2001, encourages you to break rules, which is what this thing you're trying to get at is all about. He also tells you to stop messing with playing that Elvin Jones stuff and those Jack DeJohnette-sounding breakdowns. Though you don't get it yet, you listen because this dude played with Ornette Coleman — a guy who has a Pulitzer Prize for music — so he knows what's up. It doesn't matter what you're doing with that ride cymbal, Higgins tells you, as long as it's producing sounds.
Good advice, man, but there's a problem. The towns that you have been creating in aren't exactly known for your thing, which is this jazz thing, man, this way of being that keeps you listening to records by yourself until 4 a.m. The only answer to forward your creative nexus seems to be New York City.
Your name is Frank Rosaly, the Phoenix born-and-raised, Northern Arizona University-schooled musician. And now you're on your way to pursue an advanced degree at the Manhattan School of Music. But on your way out east, you drop into Chicago and happen to see these cats doing a mind-blowing improvisation, a consciousness-shifting thing that was never disclosed in your graduate-level coursework. You then realize, while witnessing Chi-towners Michael Zerang and Fred Lonberg-Holm fusing traditional instrumentation with handmade implements, that the Windy City — and not NYC — is the spot.
During his eight years of Illinois living and gigging, the 35-year-old Rosaly has become a key contributor to a scene that's unlike any other in the States. Where Phoenix doesn't have enough opportunities, Los Angeles is all jazz-conservative, and New York City is where creative musicians are forced to take wedding gigs to pay the bills, Chicago's risk-taking, community-building approach to non-traditional jazz is nurtured by a supportive circle of players, listeners, and venues.
The Chicago sound can be traced back to 1965, when the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) planted experimental roots that still grow today. The mere mention of the organization carries an air of sanctity, especially in Chicago. (Further proof of its god-like status can be found in A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, a Bible-size tome penned by trombonist/composer George Lewis.) In other words, participating regularly in the city's improvised music community, which Rosaly has, and then some, since leaving Arizona in 2001, is a big deal.
"There is a sense of urgency that I see coming from Chicago musicians, and it's not as much the critical acclaim the real musicians are looking for. They are looking to share something personal," says Rosaly, who has played all over the globe and collaborated with all sorts of cats like current Sun Ra Arkestra leader Marshall Allen, the great German sax man Peter Brötzmann, and seminal South African percussionist Louis Moholo-Moholo. "People are developing idiosyncratic approaches to music that don't tie into the 'contemporary jazz' bag as I see it. I hear a lot of risk. I see a lot of bravery on the stage. I hear people reaching. It's quite inspiring."
Rosaly, a graduate of Thunderbird High School, has developed into an unorthodox alchemist of percussion, whether it's the super-charged snaps and pops that he coaxes out of the kit in a straight-ahead setting or his freak-out style, which relies on all sorts of moving human parts. Musically, it's originally expressionistic but never intrusive. Visually, especially when he's deep into an improvised solo, Rosaly can look like an octopus having an orgasm.
According to Bob Koester, founder of Chicago institutions Jazz Record Mart and Delmark Records, a big reason Rosaly is such a heavy-hitting presence is that he's a musician and not just some generic plug-in-there timekeeper. "There's this story about when [reed player] Albert Nicholas went into the studio and somebody asked him how many people were going to be on the session and he said, 'Six musicians and a drummer.' Frank isn't like that. He's much more than just a drummer," says Koester, whose 1966 Delmark release of Roscoe Mitchell's Sound challenged comfort zones and shattered preconceptions of how a jazz tune is supposed to sound.
For Rosaly's Phoenix show, expect some equally challenging listening when he plays a solo improvisation under the Milkwork moniker. The one-man-band project utilizes drums in their natural state as well as with contact microphones, effect pedals, and oscillators to produce soundscapes that range from unabated drones to traditional rock solos. However, open-minded listeners can greatly reward their conscious and subconscious minds with Rosaly's unique-to-Phoenix performance.
"I want to play something I have never thought of before. It's frightening to go up on stage with a completely empty palette. Once you make the first sound, you're bound to a trajectory. All you can do is listen really hard for what's next and attack it," says Rosaly. "I may use pasta on my drums. Who knows?"