For Ars Nova Workshop's AACM: Great Black Music Festival, we've asked several leading jazz scholars and journalists to engage performers in a series of pre-concert public discussions about the history, present, and future of the AACM. At 6pm on Sunday, June 5 at Christ Church Neighborhood Theatre, award-winning jazz journalist and author Francis Davis will talk with first generation AACM member Henry Threadgill, whose Zooid ensemble will perform following the discussion. We're pleased to share with you a short essay written on Threadgill and the AACM by Davis for Ars Nova Workshop.[NOTE: We apologize for the inconvenience, but the pre-concert discussion with Francis Davis and Henry Threadgill is cancelled. The performance by Henry Threadgill & Zooid will still begin at 8pm.]

Even now, hard on fifty years since the organization’s first stirrings in Muhal Richard Abrams’s Experimental Orchestra in Chicago in the early ‘60s, some still deny the music made by the AACM’s charter members a place in jazz tradition by virtue of it being too “European”—too infected by the procedures of such postwar classical avant-gardists as Karlheinz Stockhauen and John Cage to qualify as a logical outgrowth of Ellington, bebop, or even free jazz. (Never mind that Cage was as American as Jelly Roll Morton or Charles Ives, this peculiar strain of American exceptionalism obeys no logic but its own). Or the same body of music, occasionally even the same piece of music, is disparaged as willfully primitive, a deliberate affront to jazz’s ongoing intellectual evolution.

These criticisms would be ridiculous even if they didn’t nicely cancel each other out. Yet taken together, don’t they somehow amount to exculpatory fact? Because what was so innovative and exciting about those first albums to draw the world’s attention to the AACM—what identified this music as something more than Coltrane or Albert Ayler with a Chicago accent—was a cross-cultural bricolage, a bringing together of pan-African ritual and rhythmic primacy with something drawing on both Cagean indeterminacy and Schoenbergian post-tonality.

Presented in Philadelphia by Ars Nova Workshop from June 4-13, AACM | Great Black Music is a festival of performances and public discussions with scholars and writers celebrating the past and present work of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).

Founded in Chicago in 1965, the AACM's motto is “Great Black Music, Ancient to the Future,” and, as their mission proclaims, they've been “nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music” ever since. The self-help collective, which converged through multiple ensemble configurations including the Art Ensemble of Chicago, was formed to provide avant-garde composers and performers a platform to elevate their work within a power structure hostile to black experimental musicians.

Forty-six years after its founding, the organization continues to collectively bargain with venues and record labels, initiate music education programs in inner city schools, and carve out a unique creative identity and space of their own. Named after the AACM's motto, the festival begins June 4 with a solo performance by trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and a public discussion led by John Szwed, and over the next two weeks there will be concerts by Henry Threadgill's Zooid, a Composer Portrait: Roscoe Mitchell component with the S.E.M. Ensemble performing chamber works by Mitchell, Mitchell and Evan Parker in duo, and Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble, the Collide Saxophone Quartet performing Threadgill's “Background,” and a duo with Mike Reed and Jeff Parker. Many of these events will feature pre-concert public discussions with music scholars, writers, and educators Francis Davis, Nate Chinen, and David Adler.

A summary of the events appears below. For additional information on the artists and events, and to purchase tickets, please see the individual event pages on the ANW website.

AACM | Great Black Music | June 4 – June 13 | Philadelphia, PA, USA
Saturday, June 4 at Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S. 18th Street)
6pm | A public discussion with Wadada Leo Smith and music scholar John Szwed
8pm | A solo performance by Wadada Leo Smith

Sunday, June 5 at Christ Church Neighborhood House (20 N. American Street)
6pm | A public discussion with Henry Threadgill and music writer Francis Davis
8pm | A performance by Henry Threadgill's Zooid
[NOTE: We apologize for the inconvenience, but the pre-concert discussion with Francis Davis and Henry Threadgill is cancelled. The performance by Henry Threadgill & Zooid will still begin at 8pm.]

Saturday, June 11 at German Society of Pennsylvania (611 Spring Garden Street)
Composer Portrait: Roscoe Mitchell Chamber works by Roscoe Mitchell performed by the S.E.M. Ensemble, Thomas Buckner, and Joseph Kubera
Roscoe Mitchell-Evan Parker Duo

Sunday, June 12 at Settlement Music School (416 Queen Street)
Composer Portrait: Roscoe Mitchell
6pm | A public discussion with Roscoe Mitchell and music writer Nate Chinen
8pm | A performance by Roscoe Mitchell and the Sound Ensemble

Monday, June 13 at The Maas Building (1325 Randolph Street)
8pm | A performance by the Mike Reed-Jeff Parker Duo
9pm | A public discussion with music writer David Adler
10pm | The Collide Quartet perform Henry Threadgill's “Background”

Ars Nova Workshop's Three Nights in Philadelphia with the Instant Composers Pool Orchestra began last night. Taken from the performance, the video below shows a bird-like Tristan Honsinger conducting the orchestra. It continues tonight when, at 8pm, the tentet will take the stage with guest vocalist Fay Victor. Then, on Sunday, members of the ICP Orchestra will join jazz critic and author Kevin Whitehead for a pre-concert public dicussion at 6pm. Phawker interviewed Whitehead to talk about his new book, Why Jazz?, and he said the following about the Instant Composers Pool.

"In the late ’60s, musicians in a few western European countries started developing their own improvised music styles, informed by jazz but branching off. The Dutch contingent were the jolliest, and included pianist Misha Mengelberg and drummer Han Bennink. They started the ICP Orchestra in the 1970s but it really took off in the ’80s, when most of the present 10-tet came together. Misha wrote most of the music, which could sound very jazzy or like crackpot Mozart, and also arranged pieces by his American faves, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. Like Ellington, he saw the appeal of a band of individuals with varied backgrounds, and distinctive, contrasting styles as soloists. He also taught the musicians little games and strategies they could use to subvert his authority as bandleader.

ICP can sound like a miniature big band or a chamber group, as musicians move from rearranged Ellington into a raucous or quiet free improvisation and then a Mengelberg fanfare or a bit of spontaneous theater. It’s slippery music, walking a line between chaos and sublime lyricism, and they have the damnedest way of changing things up just before they wear out. It’s really quite amazing, and often very funny, and any fan of jazz now or new music or improvised performance would be crazy to miss them when they come to town. Philadelphia, this weekend, say."

In celebration of Jazz Month, on April 1 the ICP Orchestra invades Philadelphia, making a three-night stand at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City. A Dutch collective of improvisers and composers founded in 1967 by Misha Mengelberg, Han Bennink, and Willem Breuker, over 40 years later the ICP Orchestra continues to be at the forefront of creative music. “As swank and precise as it is rollicking, and knowingly evocative of both Ellington and the wildest and woolliest free jazz,” wrote Francis Davis about 2010’s ICP 049, which earned the number one spot on his Village Voice Annual Jazz Critics’ List.  Also created in 1967, ICP Records has since released 50 albums featuring ICP members and collaborators, including Derek Bailey, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Anthony Braxton, John Tchicai, and Alan Silva.

For Friday’s performance, the tentet will feature founding members Mengelberg and Bennink, Ab Baars, Michael Moore, Tobias Delius, Thomas Heberer, Wolter Wierbos, Mary Oliver, Tristan Honsinger, and Ernst Glerum. As their new video for “Steigerpijp” shows, this will indeed be a very pranksterish April Fool’s Day.

On Saturday night, the tentet will be joined by special guest and critically acclaimed vocalist Fay Victor. Victor has worked on several occasions with Mengelberg, Bennink, Baars, Wierbos and the ICP Orchestra, as well as with Anthony Braxton, Steve Coleman, William Parker, and Fieldwork’s Tyshawn Sorey and Vijay Iyer.

On Sunday at 6pm, before ICP take the stage at 8pm, they will participate in a free public discussion led by Kevin Whitehead. Whitehead is the longtime jazz critic for National Public Radio's "Fresh Air" and has written about jazz for many publications, including the Chicago Sun-Times, Down Beat, and the Village Voice. He is the author of New Dutch Swing – the foundational English language text on Amsterdam’s experimental jazz scene and the ICP Orchestra -  and his essays have appeared in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2006, Jazz: The First Century, and The Cartoon Music Book. In addition to discussing the past, present, and future of the ICP Orchestra and Dutch jazz, tonight Whitehead will talk about his new book, Why Jazz?

For this special three-day celebration, Ars Nova Workshop is offering a 3-concert pass for $30 and $12 tickets for individual nights. Click here to purchase a 3-concert pass, and please refer to the ANW website’s event pages to acquire single-event tickets.

Stasis and Change

On Saturday, April 9, Bobby Zankel and the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound will perform with Steve Coleman at Montgomery County Community College. Funded by the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project, this collaboration with Coleman is the second part of Zankel’s project, “The Wizards of the Saxophone Meet the Warriors of the Wonderful Sound: Creating a 21st Century Jazz Vocabulary.”

For the first installment of the series, Philadelphian Zankel’s large ensemble teamed up last May with Rudresh Mahanthappa to perform a new work composed by the New York-based saxophonist. For this final installment, Zankel’s Warriors and members of Steve Coleman’s Five Elements will perform a composition by Coleman titled “Stasis and Change.”

“I had never worked with Steve before,” says Zankel, “but I have been closely listening to him since the early-1980s, when I first heard his beautiful sound and unique approach to developing lines. His compositional ideas very much intrigued me and seemed to present a new direction for jazz music. His approach to rhythmic organization and his ideas about tonality are tremendously evolved, passing the ultimate test of being wonderful to the ears and heart. I think he’s the most important musical thinker of his generation.”

On Wednesday, March 23, Ars Nova Workshop presents a trio performance by saxophonist Wally Shoup, violinist/electronicist C. Spencer Yeh, and percussionist Ben Hall at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery. Shoup, who is also a visual artist and writer, has worked with many leading experimental musicians, including LaDonna Smith, Evan Parker, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Nels Cline, Reuben Radding, and Chris Corsano. Based in Seattle since the 1980s, Shoup helped organize the city’s first Improvised Music Festival. An early explorer of the relationships between free jazz and noise, Shoup frequently collaborates with Yeh (Burning Star Core) and Hall, two young artists who similarly traverse the margins between categories. ANW caught up with Shoup for a brief conversation about the Improvised Music Festival, improvisation as liberation, and his upcoming LP, Lunar Roulette

There has been a lot of press recently about Seattle’s jazz scene. What changes have you seen take place since your arrival in the mid-1980s?

Players are getting younger and more adventurous.

Can you talk about your involvment with the annual Seattle Improvised Music Festival? Did you play in the festival debut 26 years ago?

The Seattle Improvised Music Festival is the longest running festival of its kind in America. I played the initial fest in 1986 and continued to play and help organize the next 18 festivals. Since that time, Gust Burns has been the primary organizer. I played at the 25th Festival in 2010.

You've written about the connections between free jazz and punk music. How has punk inspired your saxophone playing?

The Stooges’s Fun House was a huge influence. It helped me hear the saxophone in a new way, equal to the electric guitar in its power.

On Monday, March 21, at the Clef Club, jazz luminaries will unite for a benefit concert to celebrate Philadelphia saxophonist and composer Odean Pope. This all-star event will help raise funds for Pope, who has struggled with Bipolar Disorder for three decades. We hope you will be able to join us for this very special night of music and to help a local hero who has been a vital fixture of Philadelphia’s jazz community for over 50 years. For more information on Pope’s battle against Bipolar Disorder, please read Friday’s Philadelphia Inquirer article by Annette John-Hall.

In addition to comedian, author, and jazz advocate Bill Cosby, award-winning poet Sonia Sanchez, and a set by the Odean Pope Saxophone Choir with Ravi Coltrane, the 13 ensembles performing will include musicians Reggie Workman, Kenny Barron, Bobby Zankel, Jamaaladeen Tacuma, Pat Martino, and Duane Eubanks, to name only a few.

For the complete line-up, please refer to the Ars Nova Workshop event page. Tickets for the event can be purchased here, and all proceeds go to the Odean Pope Fund.

On Roscoe Mitchell

On Thursday, March 17, Ars Nova Workshop presents Archer Spade and Drew Ceccato performing the work of Roscoe Mitchell, a founding member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). For this special night in ANW’s Composer Portrait series, Archer Spade, a duo of Philadelphians Nick Millevoi (guitar) and Daniel Blacksberg (trombone), will unite with Drew Ceccato (woodwinds), who is currently studying with Mitchell at Mills College. The trio will be performing four compositions by Mitchell: “Marche,” “L-R-G,” “Cards,” and “Nonaah.” In anticipation of Thursday’s free concert at The Rotunda, ANW asked each trio member to reflect on how Mitchell has inspired their work.

Nick Millevoi
The first time I saw Roscoe Mitchell perform was at an Ars Nova Workshop concert at the International House in 2005. The music played that night was most certainly some of the highest energy music I've ever witnessed. It was among a handful of concerts where I'll always remember something special and unexplainable happening in the room that can never be exactly repeated. Mitchell remained so focused throughout the concert, and at one point took an unaccompanied solo where he played patterns, while circular breathing, that truly defied any notion I had of what was possible on saxophone or in improvisation. Ever since, I've been seeking out music with that kind of purity and intensity. I feel the same energy projected from the quartet version of “Nonaah” on the Nessa release, Nonaah. While the notes in the opening five-beat pattern repeat for several minutes, the energy and force that each player brings to the piece with each repetition creates a web-like effect where each performer is pulling and pushing on the others, creating a music that seems to happen beyond the notes. Every time I've listened to this piece, I've heard something else in it, and I strive to bring this kind of energy to our own performance.

On Friday, March 11, Ars Nova Workshop’s three-day Composer Portrait: Fieldwork series begins. Following interviews with drummer Tyshawn Sorey and pianist Vijay Iyer earlier this week, today we share a conversation with saxophonist Steve Lehman. Lehman’s 2009 recording Travail, Transformation, and Flow was praised for creating a dialogue between spectral harmony and jazz - the daring work rightfully earned a spot on numerous critical year-end lists, including the top position in New York Times’ Best Jazz Albums category – and proved the young composer's deep appreciation for GZA’s Liquid Swords. He has worked with innovative artists such as Anthony Braxton and Dave Burrell, written pieces for large orchestra and chamber ensemble that have been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble and Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin, and, as an educator, taught at Wesleyan University, Columbia University, and The Royal Academy of Music in London. Following Saturday’s presentation of Fieldwork in trio, on Sunday, Lehman’s Nos Revi Nella will be performed by JACK Quartet.

You’ve said before that it’s the social aspect of making music that engages you most: who is playing is more foundational than the notes or structures created. What’s unique about the who of Fieldwork?

Fieldwork is a perfect example of that idea of "figuring out personnel" as a crucial compositional step. Both Tyshawn and Vijay have an incredibly unique perspective on performance and composition. So, as a result, every piece I bring to the group ends up being transformed in a lot of crucial ways. Even more than that, I think all three of us make a conscious effort to conceive of music for Fieldwork in a way where it can only really be executed and brought to life by this specific group of individuals. 

On Saturday, March 12, for the second night of Ars Nova Workshop’s Composer Portrait: Fieldwork, pianist Vijay Iyer, drummer Tyshawn Sorey, and saxophonist Steve Lehman will play in trio. The following night, pieces composed by Iyer and Lehman will be performed with the JACK Quartet. As Pitchfork wrote in a review of Iyer’s 2010 release, Solo, “Vijay Iyer is, simply put, one of the most interesting and vital young pianists in jazz today.” Consistently earning positions on critical year-end lists (New York Times, The Wire, Village Voice) for his work as a group leader, Iyer has also worked with Roscoe Mitchell, Amiri Baraka, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and George Lewis. For this interview, conducted last week via email while Iyer was in Europe, ANW asked him about Fieldwork’s creative risk-taking, hexis and autoscopy, and the piece he’ll be performing on Sunday with JACK Quartet.

In an article called “Uncertainty Principles,” you put out the following call to fellow musicians: “Let us all vow to put ourselves at maximum creative risk whenever possible.” Can you talk about how Fieldwork situates itself in risk?

The group overall has a composerly orientation, which means we focus on formal elements, orchestration, and ensemble dynamics rather than just foregrounding ourselves as "players" and "soloists." And yet the concept of improvisation, in the sense of making choices in real time, lies behind every sound the group makes. It's fair to say that aesthetically we all challenge ourselves, pushing our own limits of what we think music can be. Just conducting ourselves in that way - moving away from a closed or finished sensibility with the composed repertoire, and towards an open, always-developing conception - means that at some fundamental level we don't know what's going to happen in a given performance. But this is also what it means to be improvisers: to develop, refine, and execute techniques for navigating through possibilities; in other words, to perform risk.

As far as the music world is concerned - or maybe I should say specifically the music business - there's a certain risk involved in just being a collective. The system operates by singling out and lifting up individual personas and creating a "rising star" narrative around them, which can often thwart the egalitarian ideal of a collective. I'm just glad that we've made it this far with the group, which has existed in its current form for over six years.

In the liner notes for Solo you talk about two concepts: autoscopy, which I understand as providing a sort of self-reflexivity, and hexis, understood as comportment in the active moment. In short, how one holds oneself (disposition, attitude, character, etc) is accessible through the autoscopic glance. You specifically mention the hexis of composers such as Thelonious Monk and Sun Ra. Can you discuss these concepts in relation to Fieldwork, namely the hexes corresponding to Steve Lehman and Tyshawn Sorey or, if a legitimate category, the hexis of the group?

One of the traits of this band (though it is not unique to this band) is that each of us leaves traces of ourselves in the music. For each piece, regardless of who wrote it, there is the instrumental part as it is notated, and then there is the part as it is played; there is in all cases a deliberate difference between the two, and perhaps you could locate that difference in our individual hexes. That includes the ways in which each of us plays (or often in my case, doesn't play) a notated part, as well as the ways in which we elaborate and expand upon it. Each of these involves choice, and therefore personal narrative, and therefore a trace of bodily experience. For, the act of improvising is as much a bodily act as it is a purely musical one. It's easy to forget since we listen to so much recorded and otherwise disembodied music, so it bears reminding that all of these sounds ultimately come from the physical actions of people in a real-world environment! And, by design, there is an incorporation of players' bodies (or you could say "personal sound") into the aesthetics of the music.

Following the trio performance on Saturday, March 12, the next night you’ll be performing Mutations I-X with the JACK Quartet. One of your conceptual aims for the piece is to move away from a pejorative view of mutation – that which is abnormal, impure and dangerous – and toward a conception of life as being constituted by mutation. Can you elaborate on this idea and specifically talk about how these concepts are realized in the music?

In particular, the idea is that evolution consists of the situated, sustained interaction of multiple, slightly different expressions of similar genetic material, where those differences are caused by mutation. "Situated" means immersed in an environment that can include interdependent and mutually interacting (or "competing," I suppose) entities.  There's a brutality to it, but there's also an aesthetic quality to it, because it allows for the emergence of order and even beauty, often in the most unlikely places. In particular it's not only the "best" things that survive over generations; more generally, things simply persist whenever they are able to find a way to do so, for however long the situation allows.

Mutations I-X is kind of a big piece constructed out of a large number of small and disparate fragments, so these mutation concepts are reflected in multiple formal elements. For example, there are samples of a string quartet playing non-pitched, "wrong" sounds which then get incorporated into the electronic and ensemble textures. There are also musical motives and ensemble passages that transform gradually in real time into "abnormal" versions of themselves and then become "normalized" - a tactic that at least goes back to Bach, if not earlier. There are motives interacting with warped versions of themselves, as well as interactions between things that sound "human" or lyrical and things that sound "non-human" or mechanical, and transferring of the logic of one instrument onto another. There are sections in which improvisation interpenetrates notated passages, and there are sections that involve the execution of an algorithmic set of instructions. Certain ideas appear, disappear, reappear later in deformed fashion, transform, persist, and simply vanish.

In the program notes you mention humans as “embodiments of change.” Are we also agents of change, or always improvisers within structures? Is improvisation a structuring force within the piece or is it a response to structure?

It is true that we (that is, humans) generate structure as improvisers, but we are never "outside" of structure either. It's true that we build things, and we often identify traces of a human presence in remnants of built things; we act upon, transform, and often destroy our surroundings. But we are also constituted and constrained by forces and factors around us, elements that truly make us who and what we are. My point with that line was to describe our genes as a record of our ancestors' mutations, which make us literally the embodiment or "expression" of that record.

How do you think Composer Portrait: Fieldwork is important for the trio and also the larger narratives of contemporary music?

It's a landmark for us to have our ensemble considered not just as yet another avant-garde jazz band (since we usually disappoint people who come expecting that) but rather as an ensemble connected to the more specific and broader American tradition of experimental composer-performers. To me this includes artists as diverse as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Davis, Wadada Leo Smith, John Cage, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Pauline Oliveros, La Monte Young, George Lewis, Yoko Ono, Frederick Rzewski, Steve Coleman, Butch Morris, and many others. Though such artists are often discussed separately, they have much in common in terms of their approaches, methods, and influences, and neither the standard jazz narrative nor the standard "new music" narrative can fully account for them all.  So I'm grateful to Ars Nova Workshop for allowing us to complicate the picture a little and present a more thorough version of ourselves.

To learn more about Vijay Iyer and Fieldwork, please see the event pages on our website, where you can also choose between two ticket options: $12 for single events and $30 for a 3-Concert Pass. Below is a summary of the events, all of which will take place at Old City's Christ Church Neighborhood House Theatre (20 North American Street).

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork
March 11, 2011, 8pm | Tyshawn Sorey’s For Kathy Change
March 12, 2011, 8pm | Fieldwork
March 13, 2011, 6pm | Free Public Discussion with Fieldwork + The New York Times’ Nate Chinen
March 13, 2011, 8pm | An evening of chamber works by Vijay Iyer and Steve Lehman performed by JACK Quartet

Composer Portrait: Fieldwork has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through the Philadelphia Music Project with support from Chamber Music America’s Presenting Jazz Program, funded through the generosity of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.