The idea of the avant-garde has always been built around the shock of the new, the unceasing urge to push further, reinvent, or question what’s come before. All of which can make it somewhat disconcerting to realize just how long some of our most challenging artists have been stretching those boundaries, and how many have been lost along the way.
That became particularly clear at this year’s second annual October Revolution of Jazz & Contemporary Music, which took place in Philadelphia over four days in early October. Presented by the Philly organization Ars Nova Workshop, the inventive festival takes its name from trumpeter Bill Dixon’s artist-driven 1964 fest—a reminder in itself of how long much of the underground has stayed underground.
The spirit of those pioneers who’ve passed on, especially in recent years, loomed large over many of the performances. The image of Alice Coltrane was projected behind the brightly-robed singers from the spiritual leader’s California ashram, while a dense, large-scale composition by Muhal Richard Abrams for Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound big band was given its second-ever performance, this time without the composer to guide it. One of the weekend’s liveliest sets, by Brian Marsella’s Philly-centric trio with Christian McBride and Anwar Marshall, also served as an act of rediscovery for a long-forgotten Philly native, the Legendary Hasaan.
The weekend’s most anticipated headliner seemed almost an apparition of herself, as Annette Peacock took the stage of Fringe Arts for a rare appearance, or perhaps more accurately disappearance. She played the entire set as a phantasmic silhouette, her face wholly in shadow and topped by a feathered hat. Her lyrics traced unpredictable pathways while seeming to dissolve against the discordant crags she created on the piano.
A couple of false starts screeched to a halt with a breathy expletive and the half-muttered apology/self-recrimination “Why don’t I write a simple song?”—its present tense telling in that her songs seemed to have been invented on the spot. The keyboard washes and drum machine beats with which Peacock accompanied herself constantly teetered between transcendent and clumsy, mysterious and bewildering, until the haunting finale when she rose from the piano and walked away as her disembodied voice continued, the line between the live and the prerecorded unsettlingly seamless.
The festival opened on a mournful note, with Oliver Lake announcing that his longtime World Saxophone Quartet bandmate, Hamiet Bluiett, had “made his transition” earlier that day. The news—which hadn’t yet reached most of the audience, based on the gasp of surprise that greeted it—was given time to sink in as the OGJB Quartet (Lake, trumpeter Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda, and drummer Barry Altschul) embarked on a ruminative piece that felt like an invocation. Fonda and Altschul laid down a destabilizing rumble while wisps of melody passed back and forth among the horns.
Cellist Tomeka Reid had appeared at FringeArts a year earlier as part of the controversially reimagined Art Ensemble of Chicago, which was celebrating its 50th anniversary with Roscoe Mitchell the only founding member on hand. This year, Reid took center stage to round out the opening Thursday evening with two of the festival’s most striking sets.
First she was joined by violinist Mazz Swift and bassist Silvia Bolognesi as Hear In Now, a quietly commanding string trio that combined the precision of a chamber group with a genre-discarding improvisatory daring that can be traced in part to Reid’s AACM ties. They concluded with Swift singing “Deep River,” the trio honing the song to a scything sharpness and unearthing the roiling emotions rooted at the spiritual’s core. That was followed by Reid’s quartet with guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jason Roebke, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, offering a postmodern collage of swing traditions that deconstructed and reassembled a mélange of march rhythms, trad countermelodies, and blues orthodoxy.
On Saturday, the proceedings moved to nearby Christ Church Neighborhood House, a meeting-place adjoining the historic church, for the afternoon. Pianist Dave Burrell got the day off to an explosive start with the latest incarnation of his Full-Blown Trio, this one featuring saxophonist Darius Jones and drummer (and recent Philly transplant) Chad Taylor. As Burrell and Taylor parried with a sharp, percussive dialogue, Jones essayed long, piercing tones, launching a masterful long-form improv that moved fluidly through a variety of moods and textures for nearly an hour. Burrell is unparalleled in his ability to shift from ear-shattering intensity to moments of baroque loveliness, and he was perfectly matched by Taylor’s rippling cymbals and Jones’ borealis-like shrieks. One memorable moment found Burrell’s ringing chords and Taylor’s shimmering cymbals merging to evoke the tolling of bells in a church steeple.
The weekend’s most head-scratching set came from its most conventional group: the Humanity Quartet combined saxophonist Joel Frahm, guitarist Peter Bernstein, bassist Sean Smith, and drummer Leon Parker, their well-attuned postbop seeming oddly out of place in a weekend of invention and eccentricity. The Tiger Trio, with flutist Nicole Mitchell, bassist Joëlle Léandre, and pianist Myra Melford, was a better fit, though their spirited and often thrilling set was hampered by taking place in Christ Church itself, their intimate dynamics often overwhelmed by the cavernous room and awkward staging.
The crowd moved en masse back to FringeArts for Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids, a seeming stand-in for last year’s revels with the Sun Ra Arkestra. Though Ackamoor gave a heartfelt recap of the band’s long history, the influence of their travels through Africa and echoes of Sun Ra’s cosmic philosophy felt superficial, as related to their models as Les Baxter’s breezy exotica is to “world music.” The real deal appeared to close out the night, as Marshall Allen joined the provocateurs of Wolf Eyes for a surprisingly sedate set. Away from his boisterous big band, Allen remains an astute improviser at 94, flexing his mutant EWI whoops and blurts against the duo’s bleak poetics, electronic glitchiness, and growling homemade instruments.
Earlier that day, the Eno-endorsed improviser Laraaji laced his ambient improvisations on autoharp, gong, and electronics with poetry and laughter, often seeming more repetitive than meditative. Perhaps it was the prevailing mood, as smartphones around the room buzzed with the news that the most controversial Supreme Court nominee in living memory had just been confirmed. Amirtha Kidambi’s “I have a lot of rage this week” thus seemed more fitting than Laraaji’s “I walked through a peace garden,” however attractive the idyllic latter notion might seem.
Kidambi opened Sunday’s program with her group Elder Ones, presenting her howls and screams as a kind of group catharsis, while promising to also include “some other nice sounds.” As she repeated the words “We will rise” as a steely mantra or shook with manic ferocity about “the heel of your boot on our necks” during “Decolonize the Mind,” the singer managed to create a trance-like atmosphere without losing direction or the incisiveness of the band’s attack.
The reprise of Muhal Richard Abrams’ expansive “Soundpath” was welcome, this time presented by an all-star version of Zankel’s long-running big band conducted by Marty Ehrlich, who enjoyed a decades-long relationship with Abrams. With the likes of saxophonist Hafez Modirzadeh; trumpeters Graham Haynes, Duane Eubanks, and Dave Ballou; trombonists Steve Swell, Jose Davila, and Michael Dessen; and bassist Michael Formanek joining regulars Julius Pressley (alto), Tom Lawton (piano), Mark Allen (baritone), and Taylor on drums, the ensemble found plenty of fertile territory to explore, from immense tidal waves of sound and intricately interlocking lines to breathy rasps and full-section group freakouts.
The Ashram Experience brought Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda’s spiritual music to vivid life, combining the soulful if admittedly amateur singers who studied under her guidance with ringers Dezron Douglas and Rudresh Mahanthappa to turn FringeArts into “a sanctuary” for the evening. A more somber performance closed the festival, as John Zorn took over the Christ Church pipe organ for an improvised set that bashed together the instrument’s monolithic extremes, from gut-churning bellows to chirping highs, with playful evocations of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor laced throughout. The music was one moment droning horror-movie score, the next a lilting medieval air, always delighting in dredging surprising contrasts from the organ’s gargantuan range.
The October Revolution’s second incarnation featured fewer marquee names than the first, and the results were more uneven. But the schedule represented an exciting adventurousness in programming, a willingness to take the pulse of the modern avant-garde in its myriad forms while remembering even its more forgotten legacies. That’s a revolution worth fighting.
Read Shaun Brady’s review of the 1st October Revolution in Philadelphia.