Over forty years ago, four Chicago musicians founded the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) as a radical self-help group for nurturing, performing, recording, and teaching original music. Six years later a young trombonist named George Lewis formally joined the organization, studying composition with one of the founders, Muhal Richard Abrams, and learning through apprenticeship and performance. Some AACM members stayed in Chicago, providing guidance to successive generations of musicians, while others found acclaim throughout the world. Lewis left as well, and over the years his unique version of the AACM message of radical innovation has informed the whole gamut of Afro-American cultural tradition. The combination of a Yale undergraduate degree and AACM guidance has served him well, but his great achievements as a teacher, scholar, composer, and instrumentalist derive primarily from his voracious intellectual and emotional appetites and from his desire to continually explore new possibilities.

Lewis is one of the great trombonists in improvised music, who revels in the wide range of tonal possibilities offered by his instrument. Like many other AACM musicians, he recorded a solo album early in his career, and while his playing has developed in many directions since then, the inventiveness and imagination that sustained that debut still impress the listener today. But as good as his solo playing is, Lewis especially shines in the company of others. He seems to thrive in the give-and-take of conversation, using his voice or his trombone — you can listen to him for hours. But it is also a great thrill to have him sit down, spread his legs, offer a generous laugh, and then launch into collective free improvisations with friends or strangers. Lewis has taken a further step in his exploration of improvisatory interaction by devising a computer program named Voyager, which he defines as "a composing machine that allows outside intervention" — that is, a device that reacts with and to the input of an improvising musician.

Voyager is fascinating not only as a sound-generating machine but also as an intellectual construct. Lewis has worked at it for many years, developing it as an instrument but also as a gesture that questions and undermines many tacitly accepted conceptual oppositions: composition versus improvisation, structure and freedom, and what he terms trans-European and trans-African musical cultures. He has written essays on all of these subjects and teaches them at Columbia University, and we eagerly await his book A Power Stronger than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music, due this month.

Lewis will perform two sets as a member of the Trio on Saturday, October 20, at Kerrytown Concert House, as part of this year's Edgefest. He will be joined by two other AACM members, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonist and flutist Roscoe Mitchell.

[Review published October 2007]