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Philadelphia’s Ars Nova Workshop built its reputation on presenting cutting-edge jazz acts. Naturally, then, when it rolled out its October Revolution festival, one could be excused for overlooking an interesting, vital subtext of the event. The full title is: The October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music. Its purpose is to showcase music that has traditionally divided musicians into separate camps.
The festival was impressively ambitious: four days of concerts lined up back to back, with a total of 18 presenters. I sampled the Saturday lineup of six shows, jumping in at 2pm for the opener and lasting through three subsequent acts over five hours.
There was no program for the Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio; they just played an uninterrupted stream of musical consciousness for a full hour. True to their name, the ensemble quickly worked up an astonishing crescendo, blasting maximal notes, dynamics, and tonalities.
At several points, the trio threw out walls of sound at near-painful volume. Their sound pitched back and forth between the old plaster walls of Christ Church Neighborhood House.
It was good old free jazz, a term that really does not have a precise meaning but is usually characterized by raw, visceral energy untethered to traditional patterns of melody and structure. Burrell is a trained pianist who can make the piano purr like Ellington if he chooses, but on this outing he threw his hands up and down the keyboard, hammering out clusters of notes with all 10 fingers.
His partners were no less electrifying. Darius Jones, on alto sax, created sounds alternating between dynamically expansive arching wails to staccato blasts (which, at times, resembled a diatonic melody). Perhaps most impressive of all was drummer Chad Taylor, one of the great jazz drummers on today’s scene, whose imagination, riveting virtuosity, and sheer stamina were astonishing. This was one of the most exhilarating live musical experiences I have seen in a while.
The second set was a mellow, if ultimately uninspiring, interlude in an otherwise invigorating afternoon. Laraaji is a street musician turned stage performer, and he brings the sounds of the outdoors to the core of his program. A burbling brook, birdsong, and crickets formed a constant background.
Laraaji intended to evoke a gentle and mildly provocative dialogue, but his sung and spoken-word components borrowed trite New Age terminology more as decorative language than for depth. The music, which relied heavily on digital looping to create the illusion of choruses, was equally uninvolving, not much more than overinflated elevator music. But I’ll give Laraaji this: he plays a mean zither.
The Humanity Quartet presented the most straightforward jazz, with a nostalgic mid-20th-century bebop sound, as tenor sax Joel Frahm channeled his inner Charlie Parker. They played a set of six pieces, with upbeat numbers providing the most interest, probably because they showed off the quartet’s impressive chops: Leon Parker’s highly disciplined drumming, Sean Smith’s driving bass, and especially Peter Bernstein’s delightfully tasty electric guitar.
But the group’s more leisurely paced music also succeeded. Their signature song, “Humanity,” brought a dignified soulfulness that seemed inspired by spirituals.
The three women of Tiger Trio played the day’s most genre-busting material. This combination of piano (Myra Melford), bass (Joëlle Léandre), and flute (Nicole Mitchell), created an ethereal soundscape, at times enlivened by brilliant jazzy riffs, then morphing into gorgeously gauzy clouds of Mahlerlike Romanticism.
The stunning sound these intense artists invented seemed much larger than one would expect from three instrumentalists. It was a remarkable magic trick and a wonderful way to conclude an uplifting afternoon of music.
What, When, Where
The October Revolution. Dave Burrell Full-Blown Trio, Laraaji, Humanity Quartet, Tiger Trio, and more. October 4-7, 2018, at the Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia; FringeArts, 140 N. Columbus Boulevard, Philadelphia. TheOctoberRevolution.org.
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