The Flat Five at the Green Mill

The Flat Five — that wonderful Chicago group I’ve photographed and written about many times before — played three sets on Saturday, Aug. 27, at the Green Mill. As the band’s members observed, it may be the first time anyone has ever played a Hollies cover (“Carrie Anne”) at this venerable jazz club. But there’s a lot of jazz in what the Flat Five do, making this evening a real treat. The Flat Five’s long-awaited debut album, It’s a World of Love and Hope, comes out Oct. 14, featuring 12 songs written by Chris Ligon — the oddball songwriter who’s the brother of Flat Five member Scott Ligon. You can hear one song, “This Is Your Night,” on Soundcloud. Saturday’s show included songs from the new album as well as the Flat Five’s usual mix of obscure pop gems. Even though the group played from 8 p.m. to midnight (with a couple of breaks), it still played only a fraction of its vast repertoire.

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Exploding Star Orchestra

Exploding Star Orchestra’s concerts aren’t quite as rare as a comet’s appearances, but they don’t happen all that often. Band leader and cornet player Rob Mazurek (who splits his time between Chicago and Brazil) was in town this weekend, though, conducting a nine-piece version of the orchestra Friday and Saturday (Jan. 8 and 9) at the Green Mill.

This is one jazz group that doesn’t rely too much on solos. Yes, it’s true that many of the fine musicians on the Green Mill stage did get a few minutes in the spotlight with a solo on Friday night, but more often than not, the whole ensemble was playing Mazurek’s compositions at full throttle. Drummer John Herndon (who also plays with instrumental rock band Tortoise) and bassist Matt Lux propelled the music forward, keeping up their rhythmic attack almost all night long.

Exploding Star occasionally used electronic effects, giving the music a tinge of space rock. And the combination of Nicole Mitchell’s amazing flute runs with Jason Adasiewicz’s chiming vibes was a beautiful thing to behold. The group sounded especially powerful when all of the horns and woodwinds joined together — Mazurek, Mitchell, Matt Bauder on reeds and Jeb Bishop on trombone. Damon Locks added Beatnik-style vocals, and last-minute lineup addition David Daniell sat in on guitar — adding some “spice,” as he told me.

I’m looking forward to hearing another album by Exploding Star Orchestra. The group’s debut, We Are All From Somewhere Else, was a sci-fi concept album, but without lyrics. You just have to listen to the music to imagine the story that the band is supposedly telling. According to a press release, it’s “a story involving an exploding star, cosmic transformation, a sting ray, the travels of the sting ray, intelligent conversations with electric eels, the destructive power of humans, the death and ascension of sting ray, the transformation of sting ray ghost to flying bird, and the transformation of bird to phoenix to rocket to flying burning matter to a new-born star.”

I’m not sure that’s exactly what I pictured on Friday night as I heard the orchestra playing pieces from that album and a few new compositions, but there was something transformative about the music.

A remnant of the old Green Mill

Although Chicago’s legendary Green Mill jazz club is a pretty small joint these days, it used to be practically palatial, taking up most of the block where it now stands. As I was walking down Broadway near the club this afternoon, I noticed something interesting. A few doors north of the Green Mill, some workers were replacing the sign on the Fiesta Mexicana restaurant – revealing the old name “Green Mill Gardens” carved into the face of the building. This logo is a remnant of the days back when the Green Mill filled the entire building. I rushed home (not far away, fortunately) for my camera and returned in time to snap a few shots of the old name that has been hidden behind the Mexican restaurant sign for many years.

Back when it opened in 1914, the Green Mill included a large “sunken garden,” as you can see in this advertisement announcing the grand opening in the June 26, 1914, Chicago Tribune.

UPDATE: A friend pointed out this photo – – which shows that the restaurant sign wasn’t actually blocking out the old name, just hanging near it… and obviously, distracting me from seeing it, since I had never noticed it before.

UPDATE (Dec. 20): If you walk by the Green Mill now looking for the old “Green Mill Gardens” logo I photographed yesterday, here is what you will see: