AACM Great Black Music Festival

Kurt Gottschalk By

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Ars Nova Workshop's AACM: Great Black Music Festival
Philadelphia, PA
June 4-13, 2011
It's been a hot half decade for the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Nicole Mitchell's tenure as co-chair (with Ernest Dawkins) came at a time when her star as a flutist and bandleader was also rising. Co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams was one of the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters honorees. Trombonist and professor George Lewis' invaluable book, A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago, 2009), gained attention and gave understanding to the musicians' collective. And festivals in Val-de-Marne, France; Guelph, Ontario, Canada; Poznan, Poland; and Umbria, Italy, all featured AACM programming. In November, the organization marked its 45th anniversary with concerts at Chicago's Millennium Park and Museum of Contemporary Art. And in Philadelphia, over two weekends in June, the presenting organization Ars Nova Workshop produced five nights of concerts featuring what might be called the first and third waves of AACM membership.
Concerts and panel discussions featured Roscoe Mitchell, Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Threadgill, as well as the duo of Mike Reed and Jeff Parker. The Philadelphia series began, fittingly enough, with a conversation between Smith and jazz journalist and historian John Szwed on June 4. It was a free-ranging discussion about open-form blues, the recording industry, the AACM and Smith's own history. The trumpeter remembered being called to take the first solo at his first AACM concert and having the rest of the band walk offstage leaving him to fend for himself. It was a sink or swim lesson that some four decades later he may have called upon for his solo concert that night in the third floor room of the Philadelphia Art Alliance building.

When he approached the designated stage area an hour later the first thing he did was to pick up the music stand and set it out of the way, a clear demonstration that this would be about improvisation. He then carefully arranged his mutes and a water bottle on the red rug that marked his turf. He played a couple minutes muted then paused to remove it, carrying forth with a sequence of abruptly shifting dynamics as if he was playing with a pantomime mute, and then retrieved it again for a remarkable display of variety and subtlety in technique. He carried on with a mournful ballad—cohesive and tonal and resolving perfectly, if not taking the most direct route to get there—before giving a dramatic reading to his composition "Albert Ayler in a Spiritual Light," realized as a march, a cry and a yell.

The ideas seemed to come easily and were delivered economically: clarion calls, staccato progressions and blurred, multi-phonic phrases coexisted peacefully. Short expressions were interspersed with momentary gaps to reposition and begin again. It rarely struck as "bluesy" but did recall a statement he made during the afternoon panel during which he countered formulaic blues playing. "It's not a progression, it's an interchange between the I and the V and you can choose where you want to go from there," he said, and later, in a sense, showed. There was, as is often the case with his playing, something perplexing about it. It's always very thoughtful, cognizant music, but it's never easy to see just what's going on behind the glare of his horn.

The following night brought Threadgill's increasingly powerful sextet Zooid to the Christ Church Neighborhood House, playing a set of mostly new material. They opened with a piece called "So Pleased, No Clue," fragile but assured, with Threadgill on alto sax. The piece and the band seemed to grow in confidence together, increasing the volume, but remarkably not the speed, and then receded again, beautifully. "A Day Off" pushed harder, a wonderful rumble over which different instruments (in particular guitarist Liberty Ellman again) rose. There were events within the music that felt like solos, especially by Threadgill and Ellman, but they weren't quite that in any traditional sense. They weren't restatements or variations of themes but rather spotlights, soliloquies within the context of the piece.

A long section in the middle of the set proved to be a small revelation within Threadgillia. Incorporating the composition "Mac V" (and maybe some others) the half-hour arc opened with an unaccompanied bass solo, during which Stomu Takeishi truly seemed to be accompanying himself by rocking back and forth on the squeaky floorboards of the old church building. There was a series of unaccompanied solos—Jose Davila on trombone and two by drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee—interspersed with musical interludes, Threadgill sitting out and listening intently. Eventually Takeishi forced a groove onto the proceedings and Threadgill at last lifted his flute and played for a brief couple minutes before a third drum solo led into an unaccompanied cello section by Christopher Hoffman. It felt, at least in the moment, as if there had never been a wider gap in Threadgill's music between what the players knew and what the audience was privy to. There was no reassurance of recurring theme, but there was clear purpose and familiarity of Threadgill's style. There was also, much of the time, Davila's bedrock tuba, a sort of extended oom oom oom oom pah pah oom grounding the proceedings.

The rest of the program was achingly familiar, ramping up to ecstatic levels, and considerable volume for what is essentially an acoustic band. There's something formulaic about Henry Threadgill's music—which isn't to say it's always the same. Not at all. Or to say it's predictable or that his working methods don't change over time. It isn't and they do. It's not even to say that one can quite approach the formulae by listening. But it's always clear that there are systems at play, working methods being put to use. There is a sameness, perhaps, but it's a glorious sameness.

The second weekend brought two concerts featuring Roscoe Mitchell, and (with a little overlap) two concerts featuring AACM members as composers with other ensembles playing their works.

Mitchell performed with his longstanding Sound Ensemble at the Settlement Music School on June 12, opening with a section of a piece commissioned for the 2011 Angel City Jazz Festival in Los Angeles. Titled Angel City 2011, the piece featured the leader on whistles and wooden recorders with A. Spencer Barefield on classical guitar and Jaribu Shahid on upright bass. It was a spellbindingly spacious half hour, delicate and sterling, building steadily and dramatically, with Hugh Ragin's trumpet blasts and whispers permeating the stillness.

They were then joined by baritone Thomas Buckner for an improvisation. There's always been an interesting balance between Buckner's voice and Mitchell's horn that's hard to quite pinpoint, but it remains among Buckner's strongest partnerships. The rest of the set continued with the improvisations (interpolating Mitchell's "The Alternate Line" and "The Bad Guys") with more quiet over-blowing on the alto, leading into hard jazz pieces and the first of Mitchell's heavy alto multiphonics of the two nights. An even heavier soprano solo, climaxing in a held high note of wavering timbre and occasional upswing, which led into a brief drum solo that returned with the unified theme/outro, including gentlemanly band introductions. It was great to hear the full force of Mitchell's saxophone, at last, after the previous night's more mannered presentation.

The concert of chamber music at the German Society of Pennsylvania featured four of Mitchell's compositions ranging from solo piano to the 24-piece SEM Ensemble. Joseph Kubera opened the evening at the piano, playing the Nancarrow-like time-shifting complexities of "8/8/88" beautifully. Mitchell composed the piece for him (the title connotes the date Mitchell began work on it). He was then joined by Buckner for a setting of three E. E. Cummings' poems entitled "because it's / this / dim." Mitchell has set Cummings' verse to music before: "O the sun comes up-up-up in the opening," from the 1995 album Pilgrimage (Lovely Music) also featured Kubera and Buckner. The operatic baritone can be a controversial presence in some new music circles, but Mitchell has a particular knack for using him. The three brief Cummings' pieces were quite beautiful.

The night was given the moniker "An Evening of Chamber Works," but it was no doubt largely a jazz audience, many of whom were attracted either by Mitchell's name or the late addition of a horn duo with Evan Parker. While the two are among the finest soprano players around, and have a fair bit of shared ground in terms of technique, they went with both bigger horns and longer tones. With Mitchell on alto and Parker on tenor, they crafted layers of harmonic drone with great care and deference.

The second half of the program featured New York's S.E.M. Ensemble playing Nonaah and Non-Cognitive Aspects of the City with bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck shining through the first piece and Buckner returning to deliver Mitchell's fellow Art Ensemble Of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman's verse for the second. Both pieces had a wonderfully gradual way of building and, especially in the case of the second, came off as being informed by free improvisation even though they were through-composed. They shared a quality of running multiple streams of information, rivulets meeting and separating again.

Working as both performer and composer has been key to the AACM philosophy since the beginning, when Muhal Richard Abrams (who founded the Experimental Big Band that eventually gave birth to the organization) would require all members to bring compositions to the rehearsals. So it was nicely appropriate that Ars Nova included two features on members as composers.

The final night featured the Collide saxophone quartet playing "Background," an unrecorded work by Threadgill originally written for the ROVA sax quartet. It's an unusual piece, not immediately recognizable as Threadgill (whose is generally so enigmatic) and it features the soprano (played with finesse here by Jeff Hudgins), an instrument the composer has rarely if ever played publicly. While the layering of near repetitions bore something of the composers trademark style, it didn't have the cries and attacks so familiar in his work, and was all the more engaging for the difference.

The quartet piece was followed by an improvised set by two younger players with AACM connections, guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Mike Reed. They pushed the music consistently yet played it with ease, as if they were evaluating and ranking two dozen brands of butter. Reed was solid and full, taking some melodic turns with bowed cymbals, while Parker was consistently calibrating, trying things and reevaluating. They've played together often, but still seemed to keep daring and tugging at each other.

Prior to their set, they engaged in an open conversation with journalist David Adler, which proved to be a candid and informal report on the current state of the organization.

"It's a great old house but the plumbing hasn't been done in years and the wiring is all messed up and after a while you've patched up all you can," said Reed, who served as the AACM's vice chair from 2009 until earlier this year. "There's a difficulty with trying to re-imagine what the organization is supposed to be about and what it can be about."

There's something of a generation gap in the group, he explained, with different understandings about how to use the Internet and how and where to book performances and a general lack of agreement on the relevance of being entirely self-reliant in a very different world than that of 1965.

"A lot of older members are still fixed to that older idea and if you can't let go of that older idea, it can't grow," he said.

Much could be pulled from (or projected onto) their appearance at and placement within the festival. Following two weekends by members of the first generation, these perhaps third wave players closing the festival clearly stated a positive coda that the reigns are not being left to fall slack. At the same time, however, it would be hard to call the duo an AACM band. Parker has a long tenure with former co-chair Ernest Dawkins (next year will mark his 20th anniversary with Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble) but has never been a formal member of the organization. And Reed, although a former executive with the organization, doesn't present himself as wholly a part of it as such past members as Lester Bowie or Mwata Bowden or even Dawkins have. Which is perhaps a sign of the times.

The organization was born at a time of liberation struggle and group and party identity, when "membership card" didn't mean American Express. The current day is more about the individual than the coalition. It may be that it's a model that's outmoded: Artists can book their tours and record and distribute their music on their laptops now. But it might be just as true that the fact that these musicians, young and old, have a name recognition to bank on, that the idea of "Great Black Music" as a reference point has a place within the jazz conversation, and that an organization in Pennsylvania devotes five nights and considerable energy and resources to celebrating the AACM achievement, all are a measure of 45 years of success.

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