If the first two AACM-related concerts concerned themselves in overt ways with civil rights and racial oppression, the third (which closed the four-day festival on May 20) might be said to have shown overcoming by example. The trio which calls itself The Trio includes two of the organization's four founding members and a Columbia University professor who is also the AACM's historian. Namely, that's pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, who led the big band that grew into the AACM more than four decades ago and who was recently awarded an honorary doctorate from Columbia; Roscoe Mitchell, who holds the Darius Milhaud Professor of Music chair at Mills College and who has arguably done as much to advance the language of the saxophone as anyone since the 1960s; and trombonist George Lewis, the Edwin Case Professor of Music at Columbia and author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago, 2008), the definitive text on the seminal collective.
Together they played a music that was wizened and deeply intuitive. Calling it improvisation is almost misleading, as the three are so deeply in sync aesthetically, philosophically and politically that they are playing a music they know well even if it isn't scored. Or, as Lewis would likely argue, that is exactly what informed and heightened their shared improvisation. At times, all three reduced their expressive gestures to single notes and brief, isolated glissandi. Abram's piano seemed often to set the pace (and set it slowly) while Mitchellon soprano and sopranino saxophones and flute (and a piccolo he didn't pick up), often far from the microphonedefined the perimeters. Lewis' trombone filled the field defined by the other two but he also redefined the playing field from his laptop, processing the sound of the other two while folding in voices, his own field recordings, a bit of drummer Han Bennink and layered variants of white noise. All three took unaccompanied soloslong a hallmark of the AACMincluding Lewis at the laptop which made for dramatic listening and an intriguingly unsettling stage presence.
The Constellation contingent of the Montreal presence included bassist Thierry Amar and drummer David Payant, who both played in Roberts' band and later the same day with Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra, delivering roundhouse punches with heavy, violin- inflected rock. The day began with the melancholy instrumental chamber pop of Montreal's Esmerine, led by the emotive cellist Rebecca Foon. The sweeping moodiness of that set was matched beautifully by the lightbox scenes of Clea Minaker, who stood onstage with the band, dropping leaves and feathers over the glass platter of the projector. Like Jesse Gilbert's video work during Smith's concert, Minaker's imagery worked fantastically well as a dimension of the music. Both artists' work represented another aspect of the festival as well. Music is certainly FIMAV's primary objective, but Artistic Director Michel Levasseur also brings the work of visual artists in to the performance halls and in recent years has expanded into the town's common areas with outdoor sound installations, this year curated by Quebec City sound artist Érick D'Orion.
The other segment of Quebecois representation came by way of the always reliable Ambiances Magnétiques, and if that venerable collective has been looking to position itself as a new music organization, it's been doing an excellent job of it. The Ensemble Supermusique is a sort of cream-of-the-crop band (perhaps operating a bit like New York's Bang on a Can All-Stars), counting among its membership saxophonists Jean Derome and Joane Hétu, percussionists Michel F. Côté and Danielle P. Roger and turntablist Martin Tétreault, some of the finest of Montreal's musique actuelle composer/performers.
They played as a tentet, opening and closing with a pair of wonderfully atmospheric pieces by Tétreault. Hétu's contribution was "Poème à faible résistance," a striking work even to a non-Francophone; her voice acting is becoming as strong a part of her work as her saxophone playing. The ensemble also mixed a couple of improvisations into their set, which came off (to their credit) as cohesively as the composed pieces. If the genre of scripted discontinuity and small gesture is waning in the days since Zorn, Otomo Yoshihide and others have changed strategies, Ensemble Supermusique is to be thanked for keeping composed chaos fresh.