Watching Ken Burns’ recent Jazz series on PBS, a casual observer—that is, anyone who hasn’t scoured the East Village for small-pressing slabs of feverish skronk—could be forgiven for thinking that jazz stopped moving forward about the time John Coltrane died, in 1967. Never mind that the very next decade produced such freewheeling classics as Miles Davis’ Live Evil, the Tony Williams Lifetime’s Turn It Over, and Herbie Hancock’s Sextant—genre-bending fusions as vital as the collision of country blues and European classical music that gave birth to jazz at the top of the last century.

Unfortunately, those albums’ merger of jazz with electric rock and funk—widely vilified at the time—represents perhaps the last major advancement in modern jazz. Since the ’80s, überconservatives such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and writer Stanley Crouch, who both contributed to the tightassed vision of Burns’ series, have spearheaded the neotraditionalist effort to reverse jazz’s pocket watch back to the mid-’50s, when hard bop reigned and rock ‘n’ roll was mere novelty. At the same time, blustery improvisers such as saxophonists David S. Ware and Charles Gayle—who practice what AUM Fidelity Records’ honcho Steven Joerg terms “ecstatic jazz”—have tried to relive the late-’60s glory days of free jazz by releasing a steady stream of freak-out blowing sessions. Both schools seek to place their idea of

jazz in a glass case labeled “America’s classical music.”

Free-jazz veteran Joe McPhee has been committing his alternately strident and soulful tenor sax and trumpet playing to tape ever since appearing on trombonist Clifford Thornton’s Freedom and Unity, recorded the day after Coltrane died. McPhee, who hails from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., has always gotten his fair share of props (the damn-near-peerless Swiss label Hat Hut was created in 1975 to document his work), but he’s also always been something of an outsider because of his isolation from Manhattan. Early McPhee discs such as Nation Time (1970) and Trinity (1971)—both recently reissued through writer John Corbett’s Unheard Music Series—highlight the benefits of McPhee’s seclusion from the Big Apple jazz community, combining free-jazz, fusion-funk, and classic-swing impulses. And McPhee’s ambitious and uncategorizable Hat Hut output—The Willisau Concert (1975) and Oleo (1982), for example—memorializes a brief time when it looked as if jazz might explode into any number of challenging directions instead of merely retreating into its own history.

Which is why it’s disappointing that McPhee’s latest recording, Emancipation Proclamation: A Real Statement of Freedom—five live duets with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake—is such a big nod to jazz in the past tense. From its titles—”Mother Africa (For Miriam Makeba),” “Hate Crime Cries,” “Emancipation Proclamation”—to the microtonal workouts they reference, Emancipation Proclamation feels as if it had come out on ESP or BYG 30 years ago.

Some free-improv fans might consider that a ringing endorsement, and there’s no doubt that these two guys are masters of their respective instruments: Both McPhee and polyrhythmic superhero Drake have churned out jaw-dropping displays of musical prowess here in D.C. over the past few years. However, most of the playing on Emancipation Proclamation follows the well-traveled improv trajectory of quiet-then-loud-then-quiet-again. Both “Mother Africa” and “Cries and Whispers” kick off with some beefy, melodic riffing from McPhee—the latter even includes a brief Ornette Coleman quotation—but each inevitably ascends into a noisy, guttural frenzy before fading back into quiet pointillism. Beyond the spare and beautiful rendition of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child,” notable for McPhee’s breathy tenor whispers and the presence of an actual melody, Emancipation Proclamation merely documents two musicians testing their chops.

Matthew Shipp’s New Orbit, on the other hand, has the same sort of thematic unity that has made Coltrane’s A Love Supreme such a big unit-mover. Pianist Shipp, who’s been working the New York scene since 1984, is one of today’s most prolific players. The ’90s witnessed a flood of Shipp-led product issued by everyone from Germany’s FMP to Henry Rollins’ Infinite Zero and 2.13.61 labels. During the past decade, Shipp also recorded discs as a member of Ware’s quartet, as well as one-offs with folks such as Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, guitarist Joe Morris, and violinist Mat Maneri. Apparently realizing that quantity doesn’t equal quality, Shipp recently declared a cease-fire and focused his energies.

The result: New Orbit, easily Shipp’s finest recording yet, is the disc the pianist claims he’s been trying to make for the past 10 years. Unlike most of the tossed-off ecstatic-jazz flotsam currently mucking up CD bins, New Orbit, built around variations on the title track, was clearly conceived as an album. The best free jazz has always centered around a good riff—from A Love Supreme to Albert Ayler’s calling card, “Ghosts”—and Shipp’s hooky takes on “New Orbit” place him squarely in that rarefied category. “New Orbit”‘s bluesy, impressionistic melody transcends any specific genre, jazz or otherwise, and sounds as if it could have been composed at any point after the invention of the piano, especially when played by Shipp solo.

Shipp has also assembled one of the hottest quartets in recent memory. Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians stalwart Wadada Leo Smith’s tight, crystalline post-Ornette trumpet work skitters over the top of the Shipp-less rhythm section on “U Feature.” Bassist William Parker works his arco magic on “Orbit 3,” embellishing the central theme with smears of impossibly dense low-end improv. And drummer Gerald Cleaver—who broke out the Meters-style breakbeats with Morris’ quartet at Mr. Henry’s back in November 1999—works detailed layers of polyrhythms on “Chi,” dancing around Shipp’s spacious, sustained chords. It all adds up to an expansive, transidiomatic classic of an album.

Amazingly, the chronological distance between Louis Armstrong and Ornette Coleman is roughly the same as the distance between the advent of electric Miles and the present. Yet beyond the Knitting Factory scene’s refinement of fusion in the ’80s, not much evolution has taken place since the first wave of post-Bitches Brew jazz. Although McPhee is, without a doubt, one of the finest instrumentalists in jazz today, Emancipation Proclamation joins the ranks of more than three decades’ worth of by-the-book improv records. If the jazz tradition is going to push forward, there’s going to have to be more action like New Orbit on the horizon. CP