In 2018, jazz is having a moment. No — jazz is having a total year. With records coming from acts as musically diverse as Mansur Brown, Sons of Kemet, and current indie-music crossover darling Kamasi Washington, it will be hard for critics to keep the current cadre of musicians, experimenters and exploratory craftsmen off of their year ends lists. That said, jazz, in all of its infinite expressions, is an often polarizing, fractious musical genre, experienced by many people in many different ways. Here in Philadelphia, that unspoken division can be seen in who partakes, experiences, and benefits from the music’s rich dichotomy. Summer days spent under shade in a park in West Philadelphia where stages are erected for neighborhood jazz concerts can attract hundreds of people of all backgrounds; in fact, Philly’s deep roots in Black jazz will be on full display at these shows that have the more familial feel of a cookout or block party than a seated, black tie affair. Still, there are oftentimes expensive concerts that feel only attainable by a few, oftentimes leaving a generation of latent Philly youth musicians on the outside.
It’s under these conditions that Ars Nova and Fringe Arts colluded to create The October Revolution, a forward-thinking music festival spanning four days with an emphasis on improvisational as well as composed works, delving into the experimental with a strong foothold in jazz. With 4-day passes ranging from $200, to some individual shows reaching up to $85 per day, the price tag could have been preventive in allowing for an audience more reflective of Philadelphia’s diverse jazz community. Fortunately, though, it was on the stage that that diversity really shone.
The OBJB Quartet, featuring wise jazz community vets, opened things with a set that seemed to fully embrace cool; long bass solos and unwieldy saxophone trips, only to develop into peppier moments where the harmonies peaked out over staccato rhythm. The set ended with an expansive tribal piece, anchored by Graham Hynes playing a traditional African instrument. Shades of films like Tree of Life or Baraka echoed through the set, as the quartet moved through jazz micro-genres deftly, showcasing a connective humanity made solid with a rousing poem from saxophonist Oliver Lake that espoused the drum as “resonating through spirits of our ancestors”. It was a somewhat political theme that would continue through many of the performances that weekend.
Tomeka Ried‘s egalitarian trio Hear In Now continued this earthbound path, weaving terse worlds from the opening notes. Often pieces would start with strange cyberpunk/neo-noir excursions, only to release that tension to find its groove after the chaos. Violin, cello and bass combined to eke out beautiful passages that felt comfortable in a glass-strewn, rough-hewn city like Philadelphia, with a sonic language that felt like folk music– cyberfolk?– while maintaining its edge. While Reid shares the songwriting with fellow members Mazz Swift and Silivia Bolognesi, it wouldn’t be any mistake on the listener’s part to be drawn into Reid’s eerie strokes and gentle plucking on the cello, sounds that resonated like lost tokens echoing off the subway floor. It was this constant pull of the floral and the metallic that emerged in the Hear In Now set until it culminated with a haunting spiritual ballad helmed by Swift.
Reid followed up her participation in HIN with an ambitious set of bebop-tinged, exploratory swing. Indeed, the night was owned by the rising star, as she and her players seemed to make up genres on the spot. Deeply infused modernist, post-fusion 2018 takes on jazz — electric guitar, a drummer unafraid to “rock out” while still being innately jazz — that often pulsed like controlled freakouts. After a rousing rendition of “Wabash Blues”, Reid allowed her players’ solos to not simply shine, but to go nova. The groove, however, never dissipated despite some challenging moments.
But jazz is a difficult music; it is as unclassifiable as it is thoroughly ingrained in our consciousness. There’s a certain expectation with jazz, especially on a muggy, Saturday afternoon in historic Old City, to only break from “easy listening” for short passages — it’s allowed its moments of “improv” after all — only to fall back into Brubeckian slumber. Dave Burrell had other plans. From the opening note ( a sort of CD-skipping, impossibly high pitched, piano lick) Burrell’s trio got about the business of not just playing something as rudimentary as music, but instead, calling to spirits. Saxophonist Darius Jones and drummer Chad Taylor‘s calm, almost stoic stride to their instruments, Burrell’s warm, fatherly smile after their introduction belied the entropy that would ensue. It was as tense an hour of music as I’ve ever seen. Loud, expansive and wrought with a sonic beauty that seemed temporally out of place. Layers of rhythm from Taylor’s absolutely locked in, eight-limbed drumming, Jone’s piercing saxophone that, for nearly an hour, searched, until finally, almost exhaustively, settled on a pulse the way a quasar finds the final light it shares with the universe, and Burrell’s hypnotic chord progressions, notes repeated with such ferocity yet somehow managed to sound totally bright, buried in strange filters. Burrell, that day, was a master of acoustic range. The impact on this writer was not unlike witnessing God fall down a stairwell. The music can only be described in visuals, and a testament to the palpable, uncompromising synesthesia of hearing this trio was the number of people who quietly left their seat 10 minutes in. With a sound similar to flashing strobe lights, Dave Burrell’s Full Blown Trio made its audience earn melodies; we payed with our hearts.
So naturally, this was followed up with Laraaji, a solo artist crafting now-age drones with an approach coming from slightly outside the mainline music community. After entrancing the audience with the sound of dripping water, Laraaji appeared in a burnt orange jumpsuit and matching beret, calmly twisting knobs and elegantly playing harpsichord. Imbuing his set with anecdotal wisdom poetry and laughing meditations (think vipassana buddhist tradition combined with actual laughter to loosen up chakras) made for a kind of innocence. One of the more popular acts at Oct Rev, Laraaji captivated with sweeping, ethereal sounds.
If there was any other prevailing theme outside of a quasi-politic, a sort of reclaiming spirit, to most of Oct Rev, it was eclecticism. This was embodied in Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids’ rousing set of genre-exposing compositions. The Pyramids are a long storied, 50 years old (!!!) jazz ensemble with Ackamoor as their leader. They entered the restless Fringe Arts side venue, where several patrons were standing up to watch their hour-plus set, in a chanting procession that felt heavily borrowed from Sun Ra. But whereas Sun Ra’s music was often blues inspired and improvisational, cosmic and alien, Ackamoor’s music is a grounded mash-up of pan-Africanism. Warm, groovy basslines alternating from electric to acoustic, sparse, airy guitar that lent a dub reggae vibe, and Idris’s own brief saxophone excursions kept things contained. The Pyramids were wildly entertaining, and their newest recording An Angel Fell will definitely make my end of year list, and I appreciated the nods to Black Power and pan-Africanism, and it was amazing to see older Black women (Sandra Poindexter on violins/vocals, Marqaux Simmons on flute– o.g. Pyramid!) but I felt like I was missing some form of wild abandoned, something that would communicate to me that jazz wasn’t safe, despite how thoroughly enjoyable their set was.
And while I thought I might have found the answer to that in the following set, a much anticipated collaboration between hipster noise influencers Wolf Eyes, and the legendary leader of Sun Ra Arkestra, Marshall Allen, it was sadly not to be found. Instead of a cohesive melding of two scenes, sounds, and communities — noise and avant garde jazz — there was only tension. The aesthetic of the two sunglasses-wearing Wolf Eyes members, reciting edgy beat poetry that seemed to erase any semblance of political relevance, dominated, with Allen struggling to find space. It was unfortunate to see one Wolf Eye playing sax — Allen’s instrument — with barely any enthusiasm for the instrument outside of its capacity to make sound. A different choice of instrument would have helped greatly, as Allen is clearly a master at the sax. The knob twiddling from the poem-spouting other Wolf Eye was unimpressive, like sounds for the HAL robot from 2001 that Kubrick would have left on the cutting room floor.
Thus, it was up to Tiger Trio, led by flutist Nicole Mitchell, to revive things. Their set was a breathy, strained, and often patient discovery. Mitchell moved like a punk rock swan, a delicate deliberateness in both sight and sound. Dedicating a song to Mike Brown that was elegiac and soaring, the Trio’s set was a palette cleanser.
The festival ended with John Zorn, a name many have heard of even if they’ve never actually heard any of his music. Zorn has an unlimited range as a musician. His collaborations with acts like the Boredoms and Mike Patton are wide and varied. However, this solo set — played on what I will assume was…organ? On a church balcony? Slightly obscured from the audience — did not display this virtuosity. His set was playful as ever, often layering heavy tones with extremely dense textures only to retreat into minimalism. At times during the set, I had to check the faces of the other audience members to make sure this wasn’t some weird, extended gag — Zorn suddenly breaking into the beginning loop of Bach’s “toccata and Fugue in D Minor” didn’t help assuage that feeling either. Despite the robust, cherubic chords, oftentimes it sounded like John Carpenter or a really angry Vangelis scrolling through some custom made keyboard looking for a patch. But the lack of cohesion was kind of beautiful in its decadence.
Through the four days of this festival, I had become enamored with jazz, and to some extent, experimental music’s capacity to be relevant, in fact progressive and futuristic, political and wild in 2018, nearly 60 years after jazz had first started making in-roads to being the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement; that this music can represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people, across multiple generational lines. It was Zorn’s set that reminded me it could also be whimsical, strange, and perfectly imperfect, too.
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