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October Revolution in Jazz & Contemporary Music 2017


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October Revolution In Jazz & Contemporary Music
Philadelphia, PA
October 5-8, 2017

The main venue for The October Revolution in Jazz & Contemporary Music was FringeArts, a renovated historic pumping station for Philadelphia's fire department located in the shadow of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It seats 240 with a restaurant and beer garden. As a hub for the four days of activity, it was an oasis, allowing both musicians and listeners to catch their collective breaths before diving back into the nearly twenty hours of music presented.

The festival was the brainchild of Mark Christman, founder of Ars Nova Workshop, in collaboration with FringeArts. Its inspiration was the original October Revolution. Not the Bolshevik coup (which actually happened in November 1917), but the 1964 October Revolution in Jazz organized by trumpeter Bill Dixon. Participants included Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Jimmy Giuffre, Burton Greene, and John Tchicai, to name just a few. Like the 1964 edition, Christman's intention was to pull together the creative threads working today in cutting edge jazz, free improvisation, noise, and contemporary music. Much like New York's Vision Fest and Nashville's Big Ears Music/Art Festival, OctRev showcases experimental and challenging music up front, instead of making it a sideshow to more accessible sounds.

The festival attracted a dedicated and knowledgeable audience of listeners who could be heard discussing the finer points of both Anthony Braxton's and Sun Ra's immense catalogs of recordings. The first night I sat next to a woman, a local Philadelphia Eagles fan, who tired of listening to pop music on the radio and had tried the jazz station. She didn't know Roscoe Mitchell from Marshall Allen, nor any of the performers, but listened with intoxicated ears. She came back each day, totally invigorated by the sounds. Yes, this introduction to the new and often strange music was what the 1964 event was all about, and I suspect a goal of the 2017 edition.

The big draw for the festival certainly was appearances by Anthony Braxton and Art Ensemble Of Chicago. With word that Famoudou Don Moye may be retiring soon from performance, any appearance of AEC is a reason to celebrate. Likewise, Braxton's stepping down as a professor of music at Wesleyan University has listeners excited about the prospects for even more projects and touring in his future.

The festival kicked off with Karuna, a trio of multi-instrumentalist Ralph Jones, and duo percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Drake played the role of keeper of the groove throughout as Rudolph, as a mad scientist was in constant motion, mixing every possible percussive instrument, toy, bell, piano, sintir, and electric processing into the presentation. Jones cut through the pulse best with his soprano saxophone, and towards the conclusion he blew free a masterful tenor saxophone solo that sealed the affair. Karuna acted as a travel guide taking us through Morocco, Alabama, Chicago, and the Caribbean.

Next up was a crowd favorite. Ninety-three year old Marshall Allen directing the Sun Ra Arkestra. The 18-piece ensemble entered singing before delivering a cacophony of disorder that quickly organized itself into the melee of Arkestra swing that has entertained audiences since the 1950s. The vitality of Allen is amazing. The only comparison might be to the younger (20 years) Keith Richards. He delivered his signature alto saxophone blasts which he invented and John Zorn has been copying for years. The Arkestra played most of the music from Space Is The Place (Blue Thumb, 1973), including "Discipline 33," "Rocket Number Nine," "Sea Of Sound," and the title track. If you have never seen the Arkestra, or maybe caught them opening for MC5 in the 1960s, the experience is the same. Sun Ra created a joyful noise that seemingly will never be extinguished.

Friday night began with a secret show, one available to those who bought a VIP pass. The up-charge had benefits maybe not envisioned back in 1964, but due to the woeful state of the U.S. arts climate today, a necessity. A small crowd was ushered into a rehearsal space in FringeArts for an intimate piano concert by Dave Burrell. The septuagenarian displayed a schizo attack alternating between a thunderous left hand and the gentlest of ballads. He performed "Teardrops For Jimmy" (for Jimmy Garrison), "Margy Pargy," and ended with his thunder-meets-solace rendition of John Coltrane"s "After The Rain." His command of both ragtime, stride, and avant-garde piano make him the perfect summation of the OctRev theme, a roadmap of what we were, and where we are going with creative music.

Claire Chase, a MacArthur Fellow, provided the festival's most participatory experience for the audience. After a set of flute/electronic interactions, she incorporated fifteen volunteers to play triangles, crystal glassed filled with water, and bottles at her cues, ending the set with a performance of Pauline Oliveros's "Tuning Meditation," where the entire audience was solicited to sing varying tones creating a meditation of sound.

Anthony Braxton's solo performance with alto saxophone showed great industry. Where he could have easily delivered a tempered performance, the saxophonist seemed determined to show some mettle. He quickly worked up a sweat delivering repeated patterns and some awe-inspiring upper register circular breathing. His performance begged comparisons to his pioneering For Alto (Delmark, 1969), and was evidence the master is dedicated to pushing his instrument even further. His bebop covers of "Four" and a Thelonious Monk composition gave to context to his approach, allowing the audience to connect the dots even if they had no formal training. Braxton disassembled, then recreated compositions as if writing out a mathematical solution on a chalk board.

Composer John Luther Adams presented a performance of 24 French horns divided into choirs that strolled the Race Street Pier among a crowd of festival goers and surprised Saturday morning walkers and joggers stopping to blow notes that were cued by their mobile phones. In the same spirit as the Oliveros piece, Adam's music incorporated environmental sounds, such as passing trains, barking dogs and the wind. Listeners were given not only a 360-degree sound experience, but one that was mobile.

Saxophonist Tim Berne performed with drummer Ches Smith in guitarist David Torn's Sun of Goldfinger and in his own Snakeoil, which includes Smith, reed player Oscar Noriega and pianist Matt Mitchell. Where Torn's project was a free improvisation session creating something from nothing, Snakeoil builds improvisation upon the complex composition of Berne. Both Smith and Torn gleefully fiddled with electronics and Berne muddying the sound by placing a crinkly plastic water bottle in the bell of his horn. Working with changes in ferocity, the trio incorporated a blown amplifier into the set as if it was the strategy all along. Snakeoil worked with less freedom, yet delivered a more liberating sound. Berne's writing has always unchained improvisers. Here, both Noriega and, especially Mitchell, were given the framework for soloing.

The earliest edition of The Art Ensemble of Chicago was called The Roscoe Mitchell Art Ensemble. Significant for the fact that Mitchell is the only survivor of the 1960s AEC. This was evident in Saturday's performance when all current members took their cues from and deferred to Mitchell during their performance. Trumpeter Hugh Ragin, drummer Famoudou Don Moye, cellist Tomeka Reid, and bassists Jaribu Shahid and Junius Paul performed without extravagant costumes, spoken word, or the plethora of instruments for which the original AEC was known. Nonetheless, the ensemble did not disappoint as a collective. The highlight was, of course, Mitchell's lengthy circular breathing solo. The septuagenarian has seemingly boundless energy, and he ignited the crowd with a stellar display of technique.

When the organizers booked saxophonist Jim Sauter and drummer Kid Millions, they must have had a premonition of the hurricanes that were to strike the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico and the forest fires that would rage in California. The pair were their own force of nature. Sauter of Borbetomagus performs with a tenor saxophone, but any suggestion it sounds like a saxophone is quickly dispelled, as he runs this horn through an amplifier employing six effect pedals. With Millions churning out a perpetual pulse the sound is not a subtle exercise in endurance, the words "onslaught" and "siege" come to mind. With all the noise the pair generates, time appears to slow leaving listeners feeling as though they are enveloped within a vat of Jello. Their performance was the most tactile of the weekend.

Chicago drummer/composer Mike Reed might be the most significant bandleader of his generation. While that is a bold statement, he has produced some of the finest music of this new millennium with his ensemble Loose Assembly and People, Places & Things. The latter quartet of saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman and bassist Jason Roebke, was expanded with bass clarinetist Jason Stein, trumpeter Ben Lamar Gay, and poet Marvin Tate for his new project Flesh + Bone (482 Music, 2017). It is a meditation, inspired by a skinhead riot in Czech Republic that Reed narrowly escaped, on race, politics, and the art of survival. The work picks up where Charles Mingus left off with his Impulse! recordings. The solos by the current who's who of Chicago musicians and the video production behind the ensemble accented the urgency of Tate's words, "the weight of rage will hold you down." Indeed.

The Norwegian quartet Cortex of Thomas Johansson (trumpet), Kristoffer Berre Alberts (saxophone), Ola Høyer (bass) and Gard Nilssen (drums) has the advantage of residing four thousand miles from New York. From their vantage point, they can cherry pick any jazz style or movement they desire for performance. Their music is old timey, if by that we mean the groundbreaking music of the Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler as filtered through the same lens used by John Zorn in his Masada outfit. Their performance was fused by Nilssen's drumming, some solid time keeping by Høyer and inventive horn solos. Johansson's trumpet work is modeled on that of Don Cherry, but he has no problem referencing the sound of Louis Armstrong. The quartet wowed the audience with hard bop, slowed blues with bits of nursery rhymes, and even a Spanish tinge of bullfighter music. The very definition of studying abroad.

Cortex was followed by a very brief performance from Burton Greene. The expat American, now living in Amsterdam, performed in the original 1964 October Revolution. His return performance was a showcase of two-handed facility, as he often crossed palms for dramatic call-and-response effects. Green reconfigured bebop composition from 1957 as a bit of Tin Pan Alley and deconstructed his "Tribute To Bud Powell" and "Hope" so that he could have been mistaken for Bill Evans. Green's music (and life) have perpetually been about reinvention, and it sounds as if he isn't stopping soon.

The previous two performances, and that by Ballister, were held in Christ Church (circa. 1695) the place of worship for George Washington, John Adams, Betsy Ross, and Benjamin Franklin. The significance of the Nation's revolutionaries was not lost on the performers, least of all saxophonist Dave Rempis' trio Ballister with Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello/electric guitar), and Paal Nilssen-Love (drums). Their brief, but convincing, set opened with fervor, Rempis blasting forth, Nilssen-Love and Lonberg-Holm pounding a sawing. Then the trio eased into a meditative passage, drumsticks were replaced by mallets, and a long slow blues developed. Rempis switched from alto to tenor and finally baritone saxophone as Lonberg-Holm's cello solo took on the feel of a Jimi Hendrix performance. I'm not sure the trio had predetermined where they were headed. Drumming shifted from pulse to atmosphere with brushes, then to a full out blues, electric guitar replaced cello. On baritone, Rempis exercised burly circular breathing that incorporated clicks, pops, a boat horn, and some upper register gymnastics. Playing with vibrato, it was elementary connecting his horn to that of Albert Ayler's revolution.

Vive la revolution.

Photo credit: Christopher McDonald

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