The Coctails & Jimmy Chamberlin Complex


January 7, 2004


As an unrepentant rockist, I’m not ashamed to admit that I find most jazz a bit mind-boggling: I generally prefer when improvised instrumental music gives me a 4/4 backbeat or a touch of punk-rock aggression to provide a handle on things. But next week, two acts that have long been Chicago favorites are returning to the stage with sounds that bridge the worlds of jazz and rock in intriguing and accessible ways.

After moving here from Kansas City in the early ’90s, the Coctails became the virtual house band at the late, lamented Lounge Ax, until splitting up in 1996. The quartet was probably best known for its spiffy attire—matching black Beatnik suits or yellow tuxedos that would do a polka band proud—and its innovative low-budget/thrift-store merchandising; the D.I.Y. 12-inch “action dolls” of the four band members remains my favorite gimmick.

But the mix of ’50s “cool” jazz, esoteric soundtrack music and lo-fi indie-rock pioneered by Mark Greenberg, John Upturch, Archer Prewitt and Barry Phipps—multi-instrumentalists one and all, switching off on everything from sax and bass clarinet to vibes, flugelhorn and bowed saw—also presaged and partly inspired the cocktail lounge/space-age bachelor pad revival. And these sounds hold up amazingly well on the new three-CD “Coctails Pop Corn” box set released by longtime champion Patrick Monaghan’s Carrot Top Records.

The box set compiles assorted rarities, B-sides and out-takes from throughout the band’s career, and serves as a fine introduction to the group (though my favorite release is still “The Early Hi-Ball Years” album, which compiled the best moments of the quartet’s first two albums and initial EP). Even during their strangest moments of free-form wailing and odd-time-signature meandering—think Sun Ra on a bender—the Coctails never totally lost the plot, thanks to a pervasive tongue-in-cheek humor and an irrepressible love of melody that “post-rock” bands such as Tortoise or Prewitt’s The Sea and Cake could sorely use.

The Coctails have come together again to celebrate the release of the box set—they reunited once before, when they were the last group to perform at Lounge Ax when the club was forced to close its doors in 2001—but having opened one show for the Pixies at the Aragon late last year, they’ll split up once more following a gig at the Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace, at 10 p.m. next Saturday (Jan. 15). Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew in his solo guise as Dump opens, and tickets are $10 in advance or $12 at the door. Call (773) 478-4408 for more information.

As the founding drummer of the Smashing Pumpkins and the short-lived Zwan, Joliet native Jimmy Chamberlin always brought a jazzy finesse and an impressive dexterity to his most primal pounding. Now, with his former bandmate Billy Corgan pursuing a solo career, Chamberlin is free to really indulge his jazzbo leanings on his own solo debut, “Life Begins Again” (Sanctuary).

Credited to the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex—the core band featuring Chamberlin on drums, his primary collaborator Billy Mohler on bass, Sean Woolstenhulme on guitar and Adam Benjamin on Fender Rhodes—the disc boasts 11 tunes that generally boast an early ’70s jazz fusion/progressive-rock vibe while varying wildly in their specific styles (and in their quality) depending on who’s guesting at the vocal mike.

The most impressive names among the cameos, crooning on one or two tracks each: Corgan, Rob Dickinson, formerly of Catherine Wheel, and Bill Medley, one half of the Righteous Brothers.

Chamberlin wrote most of the lyrics himself, drawing on his experience of fighting back from the drug addiction that nearly claimed his life, and they’re infused with a new-found spirituality. “I think that love and spirituality and this cosmic vibration that runs through everybody is a real thing,” he says. “For me, music is a testament that if you acknowledge the vibrations going on around you, it’s possible to reproduce that in to an art form.”

Of course, the primary reason to give the disc a spin or to investigate the group live is to catch the vibrations on Chamberlin’s drum set: He’s still atop the shortlist of the best percussionists Chicago has ever produced.

The Jimmy Chamberlin Complex performs at Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee, at 9 p.m. next Saturday (Jan. 15). Giant Step opens, and tickets are $12 in advance or $15 at the door. Call (773) 489-3160 for more information.