The jazz offerings in the city this month offer the opportunity to explore the music from a number of different perspectives. For a historical one, the ICA is hosting The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now through next March. The exhibition, which opened last year at the MCA in Chicago, tells the story of the influential Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and its intersections with the visual art and culture of the era. It’s a must-see, and also features a number of performances to coincide with the show. But aside from that, this month’s standout concerts provide a number of different angles.
Next Friday, September 23, would have marked the 90th birthday of iconic saxophonist John Coltrane. Though he passed away nearly half a century ago at only 40 years old, Trane’s legacy continues to cast an enormous shadow over the jazz landscape, influencing generations of musicians not only through his playing but also in his restless experimentation, never-ceasing evolution and spiritual quest.
Coltrane only lived in Philadelphia for about a decade, spending most of the 1950s in the Strawberry Mansion rowhome that is now a National Historic Landmark, but Philadelphia Jazz Project director Homer Jackson says that they were formative enough years that Philly has a valid claim on the jazz legend. “It’s important that we, as Philadelphians, recognize that John Coltrane was our neighbor,” Jackson says. “He was a person that lived in these streets, walked through this community, became a man and shaped his destiny here.”
More importantly, Jackson continues, Coltrane forged his groundbreaking sound in connection with a number of other Philly musicians at the time, only some of whom have gone on to find fame outside the city, an impressive list that includes Jymie Merritt, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, and Odean Pope. “He was part of a community of forward-thinking artists that helped shape his ideas,” Jackson says. “These folks were pushing the boundaries of what was going to happen after bebop. We think of John Coltrane as this individual voice, which is true, but he’s also the epitome of what that community was about.”
With the onset of fall comes the beginning of new artistic seasons, and several strong line-ups will kick off over the next month or two. That includes an especially thrilling Lively Arts series at Montgomery County Community College, a run of heavy-hitters at the Kimmel and Annenberg Centers, and a typically exciting run of boundary-stretching artists from Ars Nova Workshop, including a slew of AACM-related shows in conjunction with the ICA’s must-see exhibition “The Freedom Principle.”
But whether summer travels have locals settling back at home or just sheer coincidence, September is a particularly strong month for local artists and projects with local roots. Of course there’s the 90th birthday celebrations for former Strawberry Mansion resident John Coltrane, which I’ll cover at length in a later piece, but also the following string of Philly-centric shows.
When the Fresh Cut Orchestra returns to the Painted Bride, the venue that started it all, the occasion was always planned to be both homecoming and celebration, falling just one day after the release of the ten-piece ensemble’s second CD, Mind Behind Closed Eyes on Ropeadope Records. As it turns out, though, the show has also become a farewell, as trumpeter and co-leader Josh Lawrence made the move to New York City earlier this week.
On the phone from his rapidly emptying Philly place a few days ago, occasionally interrupted by movers pushing past on their way out the door, Lawrence insisted that the move wouldn’t cause any drastic changes for the FCO. “It basically means the mail’s gonna go to Jason instead of me now,” he shrugged, referring to bassist Jason Fraticelli, “but that’s really the only difference.”
Given the challenges of keeping a large ensemble together in today’s financial and musical climate, an extra couple hours’ commute is hardly the biggest hurdle that Lawrence, Fraticelli, and co-leader Anwar Marshall face in maintain the adventurous orchestra. The fact that they’ve kept the band active for nearly four years now is all the more remarkable given the fact that they were put together by Painted Bride music curator Lenny Seidman to celebrate the Vine Street venue’s 40th anniversary of presenting jazz in 2012, not by their own initiative.
Who says jazz isn’t summertime music? Sure, the pickings are generally slim with most of the institutions that present the music in off-season hibernation until next month, but the August calendar is surprisingly loaded with enticing options. And while the genre can lean towards dark, formerly smoke-filled (still so in spirit) nightclub swing or cerebral avant-garde complexity, much of what’s happening this month is seasonally appropriate – maybe not quite the musical equivalent of beach reading (we can’t quite compete with the pop world for that), but still a bit breezier than the norm.
Duke Ellington wrote “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” in 1931, heralding the dawn of the swing era a few years later. The days of the big band as popular music had long passed by the time Wycliffe Gordon was born in 1967, but the versatile trombonist has spent much of his career revisiting the music of the swing era, both as a former member of Wynton Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and fronting his own bands, which have recorded tribute albums to Ellington and Gordon’s idol, Louis Armstrong.
On Thursday, Gordon will pay yet another homage to the swing era with two shows at Mt. Airy’s Alma Mater, the second installment in the Modern Renaissance Jazz summer concert series that kicked off last month with James Carter playing boisterous tribute to Philly’s own jazz heritage, and continues in August with Living Colour drummer Will Calhoun.
July’s typically a slow month for jazz in the city, as most of the venues and presenters have closed their seasons and audiences are skipping town for the summer months. That includes jazz writers, which means that I’m putting together the first installment of this to-be-monthly jazz roundup with one eye on the beckoning road. Despite all that, there are still quite a few shows worth catching between jaunts to the Shore, including local favorites, returning hometown heroes, intriguing experiments and a community-focused entry in the city’s festival season. Watch this space in the coming months for regular highlights of the Philly jazz scene; for now, here’s a few quick tips while I pack my bags to join the temporary exodus. Continue reading →
Shortly before the finale of last Friday’s debut concert by the Arcana New Music Ensemble at the Rotunda, the group’s ten members were joined by an unexpected guest: a lightning bug flitted across the stage, blinking on and off in time with “Theme,” a piece of accumulating intensity written by Louis Thomas Hardin, Jr. – better known as Moondog. The firefly traced meandering curlicues that seemed to echo the outsider composer’s eccentric thought processes.
That late appearance was only the latest piece of synchronicity involved in bringing the Arcana New Music Ensemble to life. The project was launched under the auspices of Bowerbird, the long-running experimental and contemporary classical presenting organization, and is being spearheaded by Bowerbird founder/director Dustin Hurt in collaboration with harpist Elizabeth Huston and Curtis professor Thomas Patteson. Continue reading →
More and more, contemporary composers seem to be engaging with and drawing inspiration from early music. The ascetic beauty, stark melodicism and raw emotion of pre-Classical music seems to enjoy a particular resonance with the most modern of composers and ensembles. That bridge between future and past can’t help but appeal to The Crossing, Philly’s remarkable new-music chamber choir. Dedicated to both the newest of creative music and the oldest of instruments (the voice), The Crossing engages in that era-spanning dialogue every time they perform.
It’s been a little while since Philly has had the opportunity to see the Bandwagon in action. That’s understandable, given the dizzying breadth of what the trio’s leader, pianist Jason Moran, has been up to since the release of their tenth anniversary album, the aptly titled Ten (Blue Note) in 2010. In the intervening years Moran has taken on the role of artistic director for jazz at the Kennedy Center, composed the soundtrack for Selma, continued his collaboration with legendary saxophonist Charles Lloyd, and hosted a series of dance parties sporting an oversized, cigar-smoking papier-mâché Fats Waller head and playing funked-up versions of Waller songs with help from Meshell Ndegeocello.