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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.

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