Saturday, September 5, 2009

Abrams, Lewis, Mitchell: The Trio

The Trio at the Petrillo Bandshell, Grant Park
Chicago Jazz Festival
September 4, 2009

Muhal Richard Abrams, piano
George Lewis, trombone, laptop
Roscoe Mitchell, soprano and alto saxophones, flute

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

It is unusual to hear musicians in their fifties and sixties and seventies introduced as “the cutting edge,” but the description is indeed accurate. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, of which Muhal Richard Abrams (b. 1930) is a co-founder and of which George Lewis (b. 1952) and Roscoe Mitchell (b. 1940) are distinguished members, represents still, at least to my ears, the last giant step (or two or three steps) forward in jazz composition and performance practice.

At a time when the word “jazz” is for many people synonymous with, say, Diana Krall or Wynton Marsalis, terms like “cutting edge” and “experimental” can serve to enforce artistic marginalization. I remember being told, only a few years ago, that Charles Olson was an inappropriate choice for a student of postwar American poetry: “He's not mainstream!” Well, that depends on where you’re standing. I doubt that the radio personality who introduced Messrs. Abrams, Lewis, and Mitchell as “cutting edge” last night has played their music on the air. But I’m happy that the Chicago Jazz Festival brought the trio to Grant Park and honored Abrams as the festival’s artist-in-residence this year.

The Trio played one nearly hour-long spontaneous improvisation last night. It might be more appropriate to think of these musicians as a quartet, with Lewis’s MacBook Pro as the fourth voice. The group’s performance was a matter of uncompromised concentration — no grooves, no riffs, no tunes, nothing to fall back upon beyond a resourceful attention to the moment, developed through years of practice. The performance began with a lacy piano figure. A duet for alto and piano followed, with foghorn-like accompaniment from Lewis’s Mac. A muted trombone statement followed, while Mitchell sustained notes via circular breathing. Then a open-faced trombone solo, with traffic-like sounds from the Mac. Sometime later, Mitchell repeated a single long tone on flute as Abrams and Lewis raced around him. An Abrams solo passage suggested an atonal, swirling version of boogie-woogie piano. Later still, an alto solo against jungle noises. Not long after that, a slightly raucous balladic interlude for alto, trombone, and piano. Near the end, a strange and wonderful moment in which it was impossible to tell whether faint engine and exhaust noises were the work of Lewis’s Mac or Chicago. The close was unexpectedly beautiful and apt, with the Mac producing a repeated percussion figure and what sounded like train engines, while the three musicians sat as an audience at their own performance. And then Abrams plucked a repeated high note on a piano string. The train had left the station.

A coda: on our way back to the underground municipal parking garage, we heard on Michigan Avenue the beginning of a performance by a chorus of young people representing Mennonite Innercity Evangelism. I wonder whether they too had come up to Chicago from downstate Illinois.

[Photographs by Michael Leddy.]

Further reading

About Streaming, a 2006 Abrams-Lewis-Mitchell recording (Pi Recordings)

Interpreting Avant-Garde Music (Elaine’s thoughts on the interpreter for the deaf at the side of the stage)

Muhal Richard Abrams, George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell (Wikipedia articles)

George Lewis’s A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008) tells the story of the AACM.

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