Live Review: October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music

An historic avant-garde gathering in Philly, featuring the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Anthony Braxton and more

In 1964, trumpeter Bill Dixon organized the October Revolution in Jazz, a four-day festival at New York’s Cellar Café intended to showcase the leading edge of free jazz and improvised music. Headliners included Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Paul Bley. Out of the public and private discussions at the festival ultimately grew the Jazz Composers Guild, a musician’s cooperative intended to bolster the negotiating power of avant-garde artists.

Over the course of four days in early October, Philadelphia played host to the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music, which carried the aesthetic torch of its namesake festival while showcasing the ways in which the business of and attitudes toward the music have changed in the intervening decades.

The major shift comes with the fact that the 2017 incarnation isn’t a DIY effort undertaken by musicians to assert their artistic and organizational autonomy. Instead, it was the brainchild of Ars Nova Workshop, a nonprofit presenting organization which has been bringing forward-looking jazz and experimental music to the city for the last 17 years. That presentational model—and the grant support that makes it possible—reflects the avant-garde’s evolution as it has passed from underground insurgence to respected if still esoteric art form. The same could be said for the venue that hosted the majority of the event: FringeArts, opened in 2013 as a headquarters for the city’s Fringe Festival and a year-round home for likeminded endeavors.

As the expanded title points up, this new festival also spotlights the ways in which modern jazz and contemporary classical music have converged, not just artistically but in terms of audience and presentation. Alongside well-known jazz figures like the Sun Ra Arkestra, Tim Berne and Anthony Braxton, the line-up also featured a performance of John Luther Adams’ “Across the Distance” by members of Philadelphia’s Orchestra 2001; a set by new-music quartet Sō Percussion that included pieces by Adams, John Cage and avant-rockers Man Forever (a.k.a. John Colpitts); and a program of new music for flute by International Contemporary Ensemble founder Claire Chase.

Taking the long view, though—as Ars Nova’s October Revolution seemed to be doing—such parallels are really nothing new. Less than a year after Dixon’s festival, for instance, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) was founded in Chicago with the mission of blurring, if not outright obliterating, such boundaries.

The AACM was well represented at the festival, not least through the rare opportunity to see the organization’s flagship band, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, in one of a handful of performances intended to celebrate the group’s own 50th anniversary. In a way, this new version brought the Art Ensemble full circle to its beginnings as the Roscoe Mitchell Sextet, with the multi-reedist the only founding member remaining. (The retired Joseph Jarman, who had joined the band to contribute poetry the night before at Columbia University, did not make the trek to Philly.)

Photo of Art Ensemble of Chicago at October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)
Art Ensemble of Chicago at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)

As usual, the Art Ensemble began its packed Saturday performance by facing east en masse for a moment’s silent meditation. With a brief sax honk from Mitchell, a cue he’d reprise to move the music along throughout the night, the show commenced with a lengthy unaccompanied bass solo by Junius Paul, followed by a turn from co-bassist Jaribu Shahid—both new additions to the fold, as were trumpeter Hugh Ragin and cellist Tomeka Reid. Such a radically altered line-up begged the question of whether this particular sextet could properly be called the “Art Ensemble of Chicago,” but the deeply rooted yet ever-shifting rhythms of longtime drummer Famoudou Don Moye, who joined the group in 1970, made a convincing argument, especially during the inspired group improvisation that dominated the second half of the performance.

Mitchell was the centerpiece of the show, however, both in his dapper gravitas and the sustained, quiet intensity of his soloing. After sitting in silent contemplation as his bandmates took their initial turns, cross-legged with his eyes closed and head down, he finally stood and stilled the breath of everyone present with an extended, profoundly focused bout of circular breathing that strained the limits of his sopranino while maintaining a precarious balance on the limits of audibility. Things came to a head later, as he rode his bandmates’ collective squall with a plunging, swirling alto excursion remarkable for its enthralling blend of acuity and transcendence.

With the passing of former members, the lab-coated antics and face-painted provocations of the Art Ensemble past were missing, placing the group’s set into intriguing contrast with Thursday’s opening-night headliners, the Sun Ra Arkestra. The intergalactic big band, which offered one of the festival’s concrete links to the original, took the FringeArts stage in full regalia to perform the landmark 1973 album Space Is the Place in its entirety. The Arkestra was chaotically resplendent in their glittering robes and raucous, rough-edged swing, highlighted by 93-year-old bandleader Marshall Allen’s swirling, burbling EWI, Tara Middleton’s soaring vocals and the occasional cartwheel and somersault from longtime alto saxophonist Knoel Scott.

Photo of Sun Ra Arkestra at October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)
Sun Ra Arkestra at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)

The Arkestra’s set was preceded by Karuna, usually a duo of percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake, here supplemented by multi-reedist Ralph M. Jones. With a vast array of percussion instruments, flutes, saxes and other miscellaneous sound-making devices, the trio offered a tasting menu of rhythmic ideas, each one lasting just long enough to make an impression before transforming into another sound, another texture. In a way, that night’s double-feature evoked the Art Ensemble’s “Ancient to the Future” slogan more immediately than did the AEC itself, with both providing startling blends of the primal and the inventive in very distinct ways.

Friday night’s pairing of flute virtuoso Claire Chase and AACM mainstay Anthony Braxton also proved surprisingly complementary. Both played solo sets that explored the range of technique and emotion accessible on their respective instruments, even while one played newly commissioned compositions and the other took an idiosyncratic approach to jazz standards.

Clad in black with luminescent silver shorts that gleamed in the bare spotlight, Chase might not have felt out of place with the Arkestra a night earlier. She began her set with Edgard Varèse’s “Density 21.5,” which she explained was a key influence and inspired a series of commissions leading up to the piece’s centennial in 2036. She performed four of those at FringeArts, including Marcos Balter’s participatory “Pan,” for which she invited 15 local artists to contribute drones on wine glasses, blown bottles and triangle. The group then lined up and invited the crowd to join in for Pauline Oliveros’ “Tuning Meditation,” a group chant allowing participants to hum their own tone or approximate others’.

Photo of Anthony Braxton at October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)
Anthony Braxton at the October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)

Braxton’s solo set was particularly captivating, eschewing his famously abstruse compositions for a set of freewheeling improvisations and ruminations on jazz classics like Miles Davis’ “Four” and Monk’s “Ruby, My Dear.” Each impromptu piece was constructed around the tension between lyrical beauty and rigorous deconstruction, the alto saxophonist’s masterful dynamic control carving a monument to agitation and struggle from labyrinthine lines, throbbing wavers, harsh rasps and marching melodies.

The daylong programs on Saturday and Sunday were a study in contrasts; a drearily rainy Sunday opened with a dizzyingly brutal duo set by Borbetomagus saxophonist Jim Sauter and drummer Kid Millions (also John Colpitts), while Saturday was more idyllic in both weather and sound, as John Luther Adams’ “Across the Distance” gathered an ensemble of more than a dozen French horns along the repurposed green space of Race Street Pier. The piece played with the sonic expansiveness of the outdoor arena, with brief patterns echoing through the air and leaving space for the rattling New Jersey transit trains and rushing traffic on the Ben Franklin Bridge above.

Ars Nova regular Tim Berne was featured twice on Saturday’s schedule, along with drummer Ches Smith; the two first appeared as guitarist David Torn’s buzzing electric trio Sun of Goldfinger and then in Berne’s quartet Snakeoil. While the latter ran through a typically expansive set, with hometown pianist Matt Mitchell dissecting knotty turns with microscopic precision, Torn’s set was more playful even as the volume level buzzed—eventually collapsing in on itself, as a ridiculously lengthy coda of crackling noise was revealed to be a mysteriously damaged amplifier. “That probably should have ended a little sooner,” Torn apologized after discovering the source of the sound.

Photo of David Torn at October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)
David Torn and Ches Smith (left) at October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music (photo by Hugh Wilikofsky)

Sunday shifted the locale to historic Christ Church, where many of the country’s Founding Fathers once worshipped and where pianist Burton Greene returned from the original October Revolution for a lovely solo set. He played between two groups that brought the Scandinavian free-jazz contingent into the fold: The Norwegian quartet Cortex paired a knack for memorably angular melodies with sharp, concise soloing that maintained a sense of form and purpose even at its most molten; while the Chicago-Norway trio Ballister began with unbridled fury and modulated from sparseness to fervor from that point forward.

Earlier that day, in the black box confines of Christ Church’s nearby Neighborhood House, drummer-composer Mike Reed led his Flesh & Bone septet, an expanded version of his longstanding People Places and Things quartet, through an engaged and engaging set. Inspired by a neo-Nazi rally the band encountered in the Czech Republic in 2009, the surprisingly introspective music wasn’t written so much in protest but in searching reaction, becoming a meditation on being human in the face of such ongoing and deep rooted divisions. The band was arrayed in a semi-circle against a triptych of screens mixing found footage and abstract animations, a visual approximation of Reed’s headspace that was thankfully never too literal in relation to the music, which was bolstered by the soloists’ face-to-face positioning. Disturbingly relevant in Reed’s own country eight years later, the repertoire was marked by well-tempered passions and gut-wrenching balladry, as well as kaleidoscopic interwoven horn lines, soul-shaking poetry by Marvin Tate and an optimistic but not delusional collision of hope and despair.

In the end, while the festival was most prominently a survey of the history and current state of the avant-garde, it ended up spotlighting a whole series of convergences: those mentioned above, between the jazz and classical idioms, but also an array of others—tradition and innovation, organic and synthetic, composition and improvisation, past and future. Importantly, it brought a high-caliber festival to Philadelphia, a town with a rich jazz history that the city mostly neglects, long leaving it without a world-class jazz fest to call its own. Even if this one does reside on the music’s far fringes, it’s a much-needed effort.

Read Bill Shoemaker’s review of the recording of the 1997 incarnation of the October Revolution in Jazz.