"Sometimes I go through periods where I just don't want to listen to anything," declares Edward Wilkerson, Jr. "It's like I'm sick of music."
This sentiment might be difficult for fans of 8 Bold Souls, the jazz octet that Wilkerson fronts, to understand. The band's offerings have been so few and far between (just four albums in nearly two decades, coupled with infrequent touring), that there is a constant clamoring for more, not less music.
"It's hard to get eight people together," explains Wilkerson, who composes all of the group's music when he's not busy with other projects. "It's hard to get our schedules to match up, and even though it seems like there are a lot of venues here, the Souls are so big that a lot of places we can't fit on stage."
Of course, it's Wilkerson's own fault that the band has such an unwieldy number. The group formed after playing together at a series of concerts in 1985 at Chicago Filmmakers; the name of the series was New Music for 8 Bold Souls, and it stuck. "When we initially put the group together," recalls Wilkerson, "there were people I knew that I had played with, and had never had an opportunity to play with in a group. I wanted them in the group because they were friends."
Many of his friends played instruments on the lower scale [the other band members: Harrison Bankhead (bass), Mwata Bowden (woodwinds), Aaron Dodd (tuba), Robert Griffin (trumpet), Isaiah Jackson (trombone), Naomi Millender (cello), Dushun Mosley (percussion)], a sound that has come to characterize much of the band's music.
"I didn't really consider the instrumentation that much at first; it turned out that a lot of them did have that low sound," says Wilkerson, who plays tenor and alto sax, clarinet and alto clarinet. "Having all that low-end energy means I can make things real rhythmic, and that tends to make people kinda listen to what we do."
Bettina Richards was one of those people listening. The head of Thrill Jockey soon convinced Wilkerson that the forward-thinking label would be a great home for 8 Bold Souls. The result was 2000's Last Option.
The band headed to Steve Albini's Electrical Audio studio to begin recording. "Acoustically, it's one of the best studios I've ever been to," Wilkerson raves. He was looking for a particularly natural sound for this album, one in which "it sounds like you're sitting in front of the band." Last Option was recorded completely live, with all eight members performing together in the same adobe-bricked room.
The band's relationship with Thrill Jockey has created many opportunities to reach a new audience, from dates at the Double Door to shows in New York City with avant-garde rockers Tortoise. But Wilkerson is pretty comfortable where he is. "I'd like to perform more in New York, but I like living in Chicago," he says, noting that the Windy City is home to a larger diversity of styles than you'll see in the Big Apple. "It's exciting there, I like the hustle and bustle, but after a weekend, man, I'm just worn out. New York is like a gangster, it just turns you upside down and shakes all your money out. You come back saying, 'did I have a good time or not?'."
The 8 Bold Souls are having a pretty good time right here; the band was recently booked to play the Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park. "I don't really know what to expect," says Wilkerson. "It's gonna be fun just playing in front of people who probably don't know who we are. Generally we do pretty well in front of audiences like that; they're pretty open-minded. And I just got an email that said all the artists are gonna get free shoes. That will be cool."
Who knows, maybe the prospect of more complimentary footwear will finally encourage Wilkerson to get 8 Bold Souls on a more consistent schedule.
What I'm listening to:
I've been working on this opera based on Harold Washington, so I've been going to a lot of opera. I also just got a CD of Bach cantatas, and the new Coltrane and Monk Live at Carnegie Hall.
I get live at:
We play HotHouse a lot. I'd also love to get the Souls to play at the Hideout.
Fresh from the woodshop:
Frequency, a Wilkerson side project also featuring 8 Bold Souls' bassist Bankhead, will release its self-titled debut on August 22.
Coming soon to a stage near you:
The Pitchfork Music Festival on July 29, then the Chicago Jazz Festival (with Frequency quartet) on September 1.