Jazz listeners are all too familiar with the controversy that surrounded "downtown" Manhattan's crossbreeding of jazz, rock, modern classical...

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Jazz listeners are all too familiar with the controversy that surrounded “downtown” Manhattan’s crossbreeding of jazz, rock, modern classical and world music during the 1970s and ’80s.

Fewer may realize this movement had a powerful, more political precursor in Europe — particularly in Rome — which dealt outright with the inherent class contradictions of calling one kind of music “classical” and another “popular.”

One of the stellar figures of that early challenge was pianist Frederic Rzewski.

After an absence of more than 25 years from Seattle, Rzewski (pronounced zheff-ski) makes a rare appearance at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Chapel Performance Space ($5-$15; 206-789-1939 or http://gschapel.blogspot.com).

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If you are remotely interested in contemporary music, you will not want to miss this concert.

Rzewski’s tour is part of a yearlong celebration of his 70th birthday, April 13.

Rzewski grew up in Massachusetts, graduated from Harvard and did graduate work at Princeton, but his musical outlook came together in Rome, in the late ’60s. Rzewski has lived and taught in Belgium since 1977.

During the ’60s period of great political upheaval, Rzewski and his avant-garde circle proposed the ideal of an art music communally created in the moment — sometimes even with audience participation. In 1966, he pioneered live-improvised electronic music with the trio Musica Elettronica Viva, with Richard Teitelbaum and Alvin Curran, and worked with jazz artists Anthony Braxton and Steve Lacy.

Like his more popular counterpart, Keith Jarrett, Rzewski also helped repopularize the notion of the composer as performer/improviser.

But improvisation is less the point with Rzewski than his stunning virtuosity and command of complex compositional strategies.

His best-known piano work is a series of variations on the South American protest song by Sergio Ortega, “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!” (1975), which became a symbol of Chilean resistance against the American-assisted overthrow of President Salvador Allende.

Rzewski’s moving 1992 work “De Profundis” dramatizes the ostracism of gays, alternating between piano and a recitation of Oscar Wilde’s letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, written from Reading Gaol, where Wilde was imprisoned for two years because he was a homosexual.

For a musician associated with the avant-garde, Rzewski’s music can be surprisingly romantic and tuneful. Some critics have even compared his passionate piano virtuosity to Franz Liszt, a style that never seems to go out of fashion (witness piano trio the Bad Plus).

But Rzewski also reflects a profoundly spare New England style, that skeptical squint at life and death sometimes called “Americana.”

“He follows along the path of Charles Ives,” explains Seattle pianist Cristina Valdés, who had a hand in getting Rzewski here. “They both absorbed a lot of the music going on around them, but somehow forged this into a completely unique voice.”

In 2002, Nonesuch Records released a remarkable seven-disc box set of Rzewski’s piano music, which begins with just such an Ivesian piece, “North American Ballads,” drawing on coal miners’ and union songs, spirituals and blues.

In Seattle, Rzewski will play “Mayn Yingele” (1988), a yearning, East European-style piece based on a poem by Morris Rosenfeld, the “poet of the sweatshops” of Jewish immigrant New York.

Rzewski’s program also includes the premiere of his recently completed “War Songs” (2008), as well as “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier” (2003), and “Four Pieces” (1977).

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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