For much of its 30-year history, Jazz at Lincoln Center has had an uneasy relationship with the avant-garde idioms and performers that arose during the late 1960s and throughout the ’70s. The organization has based the vast majority of its programming and presenting around swing- and blues-based fundamentals championed by Wynton Marsalis, the trumpeter, bandleader, and composer who has served as artistic director since 1987.
Now and then, though, breezes of change have buffeted the House of Swing, ushering in rare appearances by iconoclastic artists like Steve Lacy, Sam Rivers, and Misha Mengelberg, as well as programs like the two-night celebration of 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner Henry Threadgill coming this September. In 2005, Marsalis shared a bill with fellow trumpeter Dave Douglas, whose personal assimilation of a broad range of historic jazz styles has made him a potent ambassador for the avant-garde. (Full disclosure: My professional path has crossed with Douglas’s on occasion over the years; in 2000, when he was signed to RCA Victor, I was employed in the marketing and publicity department of the label’s then-parent company, BMG Classics.)
Reading down the list of collaborators Douglas assembled for the New York debut of Metamorphosis, his newest project, at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Appel Room on March 3, you instantly knew this would be no risk-averse affair. Alongside Douglas in the front line were trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and saxophonist Oliver Lake, each an iconic bandleader who hailed from one of the formidable regional collectives that fomented stylistic revolutions during the late ’60s: Smith in Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Lake in St. Louis’s Black Artists Group (BAG).
The other players – guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist Myra Melford, bass Mark Dresser, and percussionists Andrew Cyrille and Susie Ibarra – offered similarly substantial credentials. Together, the band represented a veritable constellation of key players spanning generations and inclinations. It seemed fitting, then, that Douglas based his compositional conception on “the shapes of star formations and their associated stories in Greek mythology,” as he put it in program notes he wrote to accompany a recording of the project that he is releasing on his Greenleaf Music label via subscription, issuing one movement each month.
That concept likely explained why Douglas, rather than deploying his formidable band at full force throughout, instead offered a series of smaller constellations, each revealing a distinct character and sound world. The opener, “Andromeda,” played on the contrast of Douglas’s bright declarations and Smith’s burnished contemplations, set against Dresser’s dramatic bow strokes and Cyrille’s cymbal spatters and ending with a melancholy muted coda.
“I just want to take a moment to dedicate tonight’s performance to Misha Mengelberg, who I learned a lot from and am still learning from,” Douglas said after introducing his bandmates, referring to the idiosyncratic master pianist and composer whose death had been announced that morning in the Dutch press, and with whom Douglas toured and recorded just over a decade ago. “He has been an inspiration to us all, and we will miss him dearly.”
Thereafter, the stellar permutations continued. “Boötes” featured Lake, Ribot, Melford, and Ibarra exchanging thrusts, tumbles, and gusty swells; listen closely, and you discerned simple motifs passing from player to player amid the free-floating discourse. “Febbraio,” on loan from another recent Douglas project, New Sanctuary, demonstrated anew his nonpareil skill as a composer of melancholy ballads. His muted lyricism was mirrored deftly in Ribot’s twirling-mobile figurations, Dresser’s robust low end, and Ibarra’s airy pulsations at the start and finish, surrounding a fiery display from Ribot.
Smith, Lake, and Cyrille traded fitful gestures in the icy, fragmented “Delfinus,” Melford stalking beneath and behind like a force of somber gravity; at its most animated peaks the music could recall the percolating tension Cecil Taylor conjured on his late-’60s Blue Note recordings. “Eridanus” was brash and jagged, aspects enforced by Douglas’s crumpled foil-wrapped trumpet bell, Lake’s bat-squeak soprano and squalling alto, Ribot’s surf-punk twang, and Ibarra’s eruptive barrage – out of which tumult Douglas somehow wrested a strong melodic line midway through.
Ibarra’s sonorous kulintang gongs rang briefly among the splinters and shards she chopped up with Ribot and Cyrille in “Hercules,” mustering an unruly almost-groove over which Smith flitted and soared. “Settembre,” another pensive ballad flown in from New Sanctuary, provided the set’s most extensive showcase for lyrical display by Douglas, Dresser, and Melford, whose playing was a particular joy here; Cyrille accompanied with wisdom and admirable restraint. (Melford and Dresser, it’s worth noting, are back at Jazz at Lincoln Center on March 30, performing with drummer Matt Wilson as Trio M in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.)
For “Lyra,” which closed the set after a brief exhortation from Douglas (“stay engaged, stay active… if you are at this show, I want to see you at your polling place”), the entire band finally assembled at full strength. Unsurprisingly, given all that had come before, the music was less emphatic than enigmatic, with ample space for all participants and ample evidence they were using it judiciously. In the music’s climactic all-hands clamor you heard the same joyous collaborative ethos that marked jazz from its earliest days: proof positive that whatever its avant-garde veneer, this was music steeped in historicity and tradition, right down to Cyrille’s cheek-patting, chest-thumping slap-shot finale.