A couple of weeks ago I caught one of International Contemporary Ensemble's two performances of George Lewis's ambitious new operaAfterword: The AACM (as) Opera, a challenging piece based on the composer's 2008 book A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music (University of Chicago). Aside from a few sections in which current members of the AACM such as reedist Douglas Ewart and vocalist Ann Ward improvised, very little of the music resembled the early days of Lewis's career, which was spawned and inspired by his membership in the organization, beginning in 1971.
Lewis has always been a creative and deeply curious artist, traveling easily between disparate styles and approaches—a quality encouraged by the AACM. These days he rarely performs, preferring to compose, but he initially earned his reputation as a trombonist (he's one of the best improvisers of all time not only on trombone, but any instrument). He readily absorbed the full history of jazz, and all sorts of other styles, and formed a sound at once virtuosic, soulful, and joyous. He was just as at ease playing the rigorous works of fellow composer and thinker Anthony Braxton as he was exploring the overlooked repertoire of postbop pianist Herbie Nichols (alongside the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg). He excelled when he played the music of Sonny Clark in a great trio with John Zorn and Bill Frisell, but he was just as effective playing large group improvisation in Globe Unity Orchestra. Simply put, Lewis has always been able to make himself at home in every context I've ever witnessed.
One of the trombonist's most stunning recordings—and the first under his own name—was recently reissued by Chicago's Delmark label. The Canadian imprint Sackville originally issued Solo Trombone Record in 1976—made when he was only 24—and it's great to have it back in circulation. The playing is clearly rooted in jazz, but as you can hear in the opener "Toneburst (Piece for Three Trombones Simultaneously)" he was already looking ahead, not only in the use of recording technology to blend three elegant lines—coming apart, harmonizing, colliding, creating coloristic smears and whinnies, uniting for plangent melodic constellations, and more—but with long-form composing as well (it clocks in at 20 minutes). And then there's the fact that it's a solo trombone recording, a daring proposition both then and now (coincidentally, the great German trombonist Albert Mangelsdorff also released one the same year).
On the breathless "Phenomenology," which you can hear below, Lewis rips through such a rapid-fire profusion of ideas, riffs, effects, and melodies—with excellent plunger-mute manipulation and harmonics—that he could have stretched the piece out into a full album all by itself. That sort of kinetic mental activity has long defined Lewis as a thinker and musician, with concepts and conceits perpetually swarming like a cloud of gnats. At the same time, he's always presented all of that action with stunning clarity and precision. As its title might suggest, "Untitled Dream Sequence" is another shape-shifting flight of fancy, this time characterized by garrulous, fatback lower-register action reminiscent of New Orleans brass tradition. The album closes with a tender, richly lyric take on the standard "Lush Life"; in other cases I might say that choice brings the album full circle, from experimentation to tradition, but that's insufficient for Lewis, who's never followed such an obvious path. He's long embraced the AACM ethos "ancient to the future," but never in a straight line.