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As lines of stylistic demarcation and old-school definitions blur in the modern moment, categories such as the “jazz avant-garde” are subject to change and redefinition. These four new releases may be considered avant-garde and beyond any accepted jazz mainstream, but each heeds its own muse and mission. And each freshens the mind and ear, which may ultimately be a common feature under the avant-garde umbrella.
After hearing maverick jazz sage Roscoe Mitchell in larger contexts for decades, as a key figure in the Art Ensemble of Chicago and as head of his Note Factory and elsewhere, it’s illuminating to catch him in spare settings in recent years. With the fascinating new solo album DOTS, Pieces for Percussion and Woodwinds (Wide Hive), Mitchell brings a painterly approach to his blend of saxophonics and subtle percussion over the course of 19 tracks, recorded at his home in Wisconsin under the pandemic hunker-down mandate. Fittingly, Mitchell’s own enchanting pointillistic folk art-inspired paintings grace the album’s liners, in organic aesthetic collusion with the sonic pointillism of his music.
Although Tyshawn Sorey seized attention in jazz circles as a ferocious and smart reckoning-force drummer with Steve Coleman, Vijay Iyer and multiple projects of his own, he has enjoyed a deepening respect (and commissions) for his work in the new music and contemporary classical orbit. And that’s the direction of his ethereal and probing new double-CD, For George Lewis/Autoschediasms (Cantaloupe Music), with noted new music chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. MacArthur Grant recipient Sorey’s compositional palette, partly bowing towards the airy temporal reinventions of Morton Feldman but with Sorey’s own voice growing ever stronger, benefits from a generous forum here: One disc is dedicated to the legendary trombonist-scholar-innovator George Lewis, while the other comprises “Autoschediasms” (improvisations) recorded live in 2019 and via video chat in 2020 lockdown times. The unique blends of structure and improvisation on the latter disc, with the composer’s “conduction” style adapted from Butch Morris’ playbook, split the differences between jazz and concert music without fanfare or excuse.
Veteran pianist Marilyn Crispell has been deftly dancing along the edges of “outside” and “inside” jazz for decades, with insight, natural musicality and disregard for courting categories. On the alluring release Streams (Not Two), she is heard in her full, exploratory glory, in dialogue with the young and ascendant saxophonist-clarinetist (and for this date, composer) Yuma Uesaka, with an ease of communication and expressiveness resulting in music of alternately meditative and restlessly creative properties. Analogues to Crispell’s past dialogues with Anthony Braxton and Joseph Jarman naturally arise, but something refreshing this way comes.
Trumpeter — and trumpet practice rethinker — Steph Richards is a prime example of a new, increasingly important figure on the current scene. Revitalizing past notions of the avant-garde and free improv ideals, with sensual-sensorial lyricism in tow, Richards in 2020 released SUPERSENSE, a quartet album that came equipped with custom-made scents for each piece. On leaner turf and with the extra-musical element of an artful video by Vipal Monga, Richards is joined on her new release, Zephyr (Relative Pitch), by an empathetic ally, pianist Joshua White, for a series of engaging, varied pieces. What starts, deceptively, with the melodic ease of the title track, stretches into more abstract regions as it progresses. Like the Norwegian Arve Henriksen, Richards extends trumpet techniques and timbral possibilities, sometimes dipping the bell into water vessels and finding tones between the cracks and echoes of jazz clichés. Water is a key element of the project, made when the trumpeter was six months pregnant and cognizant of the fluidity and fecundity of natural processes. - Josef Woodard