After September's O17 and Fringe festivals, Philadelphia's serious music lovers have a new one in quick succession: The October Revolution of Jazz and Contemporary Music, Thursday through Sunday.
The music promises to be radical, but the setting also has artistic and philosophical significance: Cutting-edge jazz in the more formal, sit-down concert setting of the FringeArts headquarters, as well as in nearby venues such as Christ Church.
"Maybe jazz doesn't belong in clubs anymore," said Mark Christman, founder of Ars Nova Workshop. "We're trying to present work that commands a listening environment where jazz masters make challenging statements … We're looking to elevate the music."
Or give it a stronger anchor on earth? The Sun Ra Arkestra, those paragons of extraterrestrial jazz, will perform the cult-classic album Space is the Place (9 p.m. Thursday at FringeArts), with music that slowly morphs into orbit. Riffs become less familiar as saxophones squeal out of control, and any ideas of musical order recede into an endless horizon of free-jazz possibilities.
The late Sun Ra was among those featured in the historic event from which the festival takes its name — not the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 but the seminal 1964 Harlem jazz concert whose ripple effects were lasting and felt well beyond New York City.
Coming from an equally far-off sphere is Across a Distance by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Luther Adams, who takes much of his inspiration from having lived in rural Alaska. Presented with 24 French horns divided into choirs, the piece has two performances scheduled, at noon and 1 p.m. Saturday, outdoors on the Race Street Pier — weather willing.
"In part, what I'm trying to do is create situations where we can rediscover where we are, not the Alaska of my imagination but the Philadelphia of our shared reality," said the composer, who hopes to visit Philadelphia for the American premiere of the 23-minute piece. He is also working on a piece for 1,000 singers to be performed in New York's Central Park.
Others in the festival who might be called "alternative classical" include flutist Claire Chase (7 p.m. Friday) and the group So Percussion (8:30 p.m Sunday), both at FringeArts. They literally rub shoulders with artists considered to be more in the jazz camp. So Percussion, for example, collaborates with the also-percussive alternative indie band Man Forever.
Composer Adams has perhaps has the most traditional reputation, having written for major symphony orchestras, and he couldn't be happier with being part of that mixture. "I love it," he said. "This is a post-genre musical world that we're living in. Open-minded listeners, or especially young listeners, don't care what you call music. Names like classical jazz and experimental don't mean much anymore."
Saxophonist Anthony Braxton (9 p.m. Friday at FringeArts), who has released roughly 100 albums, claims not to be truly jazz, has a strong mystical streak, and sometimes titles his pieces with graphics rather than with words.
Long headed by the legendary Roscoe Mitchell, the Art Ensemble of Chicago (8:30 p.m. Saturday at FringeArts) is still called "avant-garde" after nearly 50 years. Their motto: "Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future."
The Russians aren't coming, but the Norwegians are. The oil-rich country is something close to an arts utopia. "Amazing jazz scene, contemporary music festivals galore, lots of new-music commissions," said Christman. "Ars Nova has presented a lot of them over the years, and many of them are really good at what they do." One of best, a band named Cortex that plays at 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Christ Church, is supported by the Norwegian Arts Council.
Many of Christman's favorite artists are part of what might be called the ECM crowd, referring to the prestigious label known for recording Estonian classical composers such as Arvo Part, but also groups such as Tim Berne's Snakeoil, which plays at 5 p.m. Saturday at FringeArts. Saxophonist Berne has a repertoire of pieces that are up to a half hour long. Truly spare, though, is the music of another Norwegian, Paal Nilssen-Love, which can have thoughtful percussion flanked by saxophones seeming to flicker in the background. But as part of the sax/cello/percussion trio Ballister (6 p.m. Sunday at Christ Church Neighborhood House), his playing can be, to put it politely, competitive.
Beyond that, Kid Millions Duo, which plays at 1 p.m. Sunday at FringeArts, is known to clear the room with noise-based music. Their recordings, such as "The Sanguine Cadaver," sell on what is now considered the ultimate underground format — cassette tapes.
An entire festival of such music — and one that is planned to be annual — is possible thanks to a William Penn Foundation grant two years ago that allowed Christman to have more of an infrastructure — not to mention an office in the former Bok Technical High School building (as opposed to his West Philly apartment). Then came the partnership with FringeArts.
"Philly has shown a lot of love," said Christman, who is now 41 and who came to Philadelphia from the Lehigh Valley in 1996 as a Drexel student. He obviously has a gift for organizing events that the Philadelphia public doesn't yet know that it wants.
Performances Thursday through Sunday at FringeArts, 140 Columbus Blvd. and nearby venues including the Race Street Pier and Christ Church (Neighborhood House and Sanctuary).
Tickets: Festival passes, $200-$400; single tickets are $45-$95.