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In his brilliant novel Aberration of Starlight (1980), Gilbert Sorrentino observes that "photographs, because they exclude everything except the split second in which they were taken, always lie. Still one stares at them, urging them to give up their truths." Michael Reed, director of Chicago's Emerging Improvisers Organization and prime mover of the Treehouse Project, has been doing his share of staring and urging. He conceives the Picture Show as a set of improvised wordless stories woven around old photos. For "Prologue: Cameo Frame", he selected six images, created a brief theme for each and allocated it to a single instrument. The musicians then manoeuvred around the lead instrument in order to draw the story from the picture. Reed and bassist Matt Thompson, who has played with saxophonists Ira Sullivan and Von Freeman, mark out the time with some ingenuity. Jonathan Doyle improvises melodically on tenor saxophone and clarinet, sturdy and gnarled on the former, smooth and wistful on the latter, dropping plentiful hints of his extensive engagement with rootsy music, including work with The Wabash Jug Band. Ken Champion makes full use of the pedal steel guitar's aptitude for swing and swoon, but he's an associate of Jim O'Rourke and is equipped to venture out from the music's melodic heartland when necessary.
"The Picture Show", centrepiece of the triptych, comprises pieces penned by Reed to tease truths from a further selection of photographs. Here the group is augmented by guitarist Colin Bunn with additional help from guests John Poston on banjo, pianist Brian Anderson, Trumpeter Nate Walcott, and Lisa Schrag on harp. Rock, R&B, folk and bebop memories filter through. Bunn demonstrates expressive versatility and in this expanded context Doyle and Champion display the breadth of their combined ability to evoke mood and feeling.
Reed's pieces were conceived as wordless songs. On the concluding disc, "Epilogue: Last…Words", actual pop songs take the place of photos as the repositories of the past and its emotions. Lyrics are consigned to print on the sleeve while the quintet seek ways to preserve their meaning and impact. Pete Brown's words are dropped from Cream's "Politician". "Just a Little Loving" is adapted from Dusty Springfield's Memphis album and records by Ray Charles, Ron Sexsmith, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and The Handsome Family are also plundered. It's a neat conceit based on jazz standard practice but, arguably, interest wanes a little as the project draws to a close. A three CD package may seem extravagant. The Picture Show offers around an hour and a half of music, well conceived and played with conviction.