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THE 9TH ANNUAL VISION FESTIVAL “VISION FOR A JUST WORLD”
Review by Bruce Lee Gallanter of Downtown Music Gallery
Arriving back from the Victo Festival at 8 PM Tuesday night after a ten plus hour journey from Quebec, and stopping briefly at DMG, I headed over to the first night of the Vision Festival! Yes, I was a bit burnt out after a week and some 24 sets up at Victo, but the Vision Fest is another great fest that occurs just once a year and this year’s week-long 31 set schedule looked to be the best ever. And as it turned out, it was the best Vision Festival, Patricia Nicholson Parker and her staff had outdone themselves! Lucky for me, I was there for every set except for three – the opening Sun Ra Arkestra set, because I was still in transit, the Amiri Baraka set because I need a rest and the Joe McPhee set, because I had to catch that last train back to Jersey.
The first set I caught was by the Khan Jamal Quintet and it is one of the only sets I had any complaints about. Khan is an amazing vibeist and he had an amazing all-star unit: Jemeel Moondoc on alto sax, Roy Campbell on trumpets, plus a Philly rhythm team of Dylan Taylor on bass and Dwight James on drums, plus poetess Pheralyn Dove. I've dug Khan Jamal ever since hearing him with Sunny Murray’s Untouchable Factor in the 70’s. Khan had played with Matt Shipp at one of those Vision mini-fests at the Mercury Lounge and knocked us out yet again. Matt has since invited him on a couple of those Blue Series releases. The problem that I had with this set was that the poet Ms. Dove read her words over most of the music, giving Khan, Jemeel and Roy a minimum of solo space. I did dig some of her poetry, but it was a bit too much. I know that Khan could’ve pushed Jemeel and Roy into higher flights of fancy, but it only happened in spurts.
The last set that night was by James “Blood” Ulmer all-star trio with Jamaladeen Tacuma on electric bass and Calvin Weston on drums. Blood is a great guitarist, whose many recordings are pretty inconsistent. Here, he was inspired by his powerful Philly rhythm team, who pushed him to play some of his best stuff. The music was a righteous blend of funk/jazz/rock/blues with that great harmolodic complexity that Blood long ago learned from Ornette and continues to utilize. All three members of this great trio were in fine form, all took great solos. Blood whipped out the blues standard “Little Red Rooster” and sang it with righteous authority.
The second night started out with a marvelous set featuring Yagi Michiyo on kotos, Ned Rothenberg on alto sax, shakuhachi & clarinet and Mark Dresser on contrabass. It was a treat to hear koto virtuoso Yagi, since she so rarely comes to NY. She once played at our old store in a duo with Marc Sloan and I heard her do another amazing duo with Elliott Sharp at Project Issue Room two weeks ago. She had been rehearsing, composing and recording with this new trio and they sounded great together. It was an all acoustic blend of haunting sounds from Ned’s shakuhachi and alto while Yagi played lovely folkish melodies on her koto, as Mark also played spooky bowed bass which was dark and mystical. The trio played a piece they had written and recorded called “The Outer Planet Suite” and it was an incredible work which moved through sparse and eventually more violent sections. Can’t wait for that cd.
Another fine acoustic trio was next called Equal Interest with Joseph Jarman on alto sax, flutes & percussion, Leroy Jenkins on violin and Myra Melford on piano & harmonium. This all-star trio has been around for a few years now and has its own unique sound. Their sound was closer to modern classical than jazz, much of it sounded composed. Their music was made of slightly twisted fragments that were woven into a more dense tapestry as they evolved. Leroy has a most distinctive sound on his violin, unlike anyone else. He switched off on harmonica and Jarman played a small (African?) xylobox, an unusual yet successful combination. There was a beautiful song that featured Myra on harmonium, Leroy on violin and Jarman on flute, which was filled with fragile beauty. Jarman even sang nicely on one piece as well, which I recognized from a more recent Art Ensemble cd.
An historic meeting of three giants from different generations/backgrounds, was the phenomenal Henry Grimes Trio with Marilyn Crispell on piano, Henry on acoustic bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Beginning very slowly and quietly, building perfectly together, exchanging ideas and ascending to a powerful conclusion. The wonderfully dynamic Marilyn Crispell doesn’t play here often enough, so that each time she does, it is a special occasion. This was one of the festival’s highlights and during the second half of the set, they moved into a furious, stormy section that send shivers up our spines. We can only hope that this marvelous trio records sometime soon, this is manna for us free/jazz junkies.
The last set of day two was also special, being a duo of pianist Fred Van Hove and trombonist Johannes Bauer. I believe this was Fred’s first ever gig in NY. After hearing an amazing solo set from Mr. Van Hove up at Victo, it was a gas to hear him again in different, yet no less engaging a context. Johannes is the brother another trombone hero Connie (who was scheduled to play on the final day of this Vision Fest) and both played in the great Doppelmoppel, who I once heard up at Victo. Johannes worked his way through a variety of splurts, odd vocal sounds and blasts – both well-seasoned musicians tossing ideas back and forth. Van Hove made a number of magical and mysterious sounds by playing inside the piano, rubbing and banging, as well as rolling his hands across the piano in a Don Pullen-like way. This fine set illustrated how well our European brethren have advanced and evolved with modern jazz into another new thing of their own invention. This entire night of unusual mixed trios and a great Euro duo gave depth and hope that the Vision Fest brings folks together with no borders or boundaries to hold it back.
Day #3 opened with the Burnt Sugar Chamber Arkestra, which was conducted by author/concept man Greg Tate, who also likes to push the boundaries that the jazz police/purists/snobs have set up to only get credence that which swings and fits their mold. Burnt Sugar is a unique blend of many streams, with jazz just being one, and with rock, funk, blues & hip-hop influences included. Personnel changes somewhat from gig to gig, here they had almost 20 members with a few well-known downtowners like Lewis Barnes, Vijay Iyer and Matana Roberts. Butch Morris has worked with/conducted for Burnt Sugar on a few occasions and Greg Tate seems to have learned from Butch, refining his talent as a strong conductor by waving the magic wand or baton and coaxing the cosmic thread into a brilliantly woven tapestry. This was the most lyrical and sublimely laid backs set I’ve heard from Burnt Sugar with a number of well placed solos added for good measure. A lovely cello and piano duo in one section, with a number of fine, sly and snake-like solos from Matana on alto sax, a long mind-blowing Hendrix-like guitar solo from Rene Akan (?), strong male and female vocals and a great acoustic bass solo (Jason Dimatteo?). The entire piece moved slowly and organically, with Greg Tate really keeping everything focused as it swirled kaleidoscopically around.
Vermont based poet, storyteller and occasional Vision fest MC, David Budbill has established a strong and ongoing rapport with William Parker, who works as a multi-instrumentalist is this setting with gongs, ethnic percussion, double reeds, kora and that four-string African acoustic bass guitar thing (sintir?). David reads a number of short, simple yet thought-provoking poems about our current emperor, George Bush and the evil things that he has done. William did a wonderful job of creating an ongoing acoustic and organic dialogue that works perfectly with Budbill’s thoughtful poems.
Whit Dickey’s longtime trio with Matt Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass and Whit on drums erupted into deep, dark and turbulent waters, pounding hard and washing over us in dense waves. Whit, meanwhile played here with much restraint, floating over his drums and balancing the storm-force a lighter touch. Whit’s spooky spoken words opened and closed the set with, “coalesce, amalgamate, mutate and conform”, strange, yet fitting. A strong, probing and somewhat intense piano trio that does not sound like any other. I missed the set by Amiri Baraka & Blue Ark, because I needed a break and some sleep to rejuvenate.
The fourth night was Friday May 28th and attendance was down due to competition with an AACM tribute to the late Art Ensemble bassist Malachi Favors which featured a rare solo soprano sax set from Roscoe Mitchell (which I heard great things about). Day 4 at the Vision Fest was no less engaging. The first set featured the poetry and voice of Steve Dalachinsky with the drums/percussion of Tim Barnes and the dancing of Ximena Garnica. Steve is the main MC for many nights of the Vision and is both honest, cranky and lovable at the same time. He never ceases to surprise me with his barbed observations of life in NY. He asks, “Why can’t we all just get along?” and knows there are no easy answers. He sings a verse from the blues standard “See See Rider” and wails on the “Blind Joe Death” mantra, eventually screaming and letting it all out. He is not afraid to let out the pain and frustration that many of us feel, due to the mess that our country is in. Both Tim Barnes’ careful and expressive percussion and Ximena’s unique dancing also help to fill in the void that Steve’s questions and stories make out think about.
A strong quartet with Rob Brown (alto sax), Steve Swell (trombone), Joe Morris (acoustic bass) and Luther Gray (drums) was up next. The first piece had a great avant-bop theme that recalled Ornette’s great quartet from the early sixties. Both Rob and Steve took inspired solos throughout the set, but it was the diverse writing that really showed how well rounded this band really is. One tune was quite haunting with minimal bowed bass and soft mallets, the hushed horns up front were drifting by ever so eloquently. Joe Morris’ bass continues to get better all the time and works just right with Luther Gray, who also plays in Joe’s great guitar trio. The quartet burnt down the house on the last piece with both horns spinning profusely around one another like birds in flight.
Patricia’s PaNic Dance Trio and another of William’s quartets featured Rob Brown, Lewis Barnes (trumpet) and Samir Chatterjee (tables) worked together as one spirited ensemble. It began with all four musicians playing squeeze-drums and walking slowly around the stage as the three expressive dancers slowly swirl around the stage. There was a great combination of sounds when William’s quartet moved to tabla, gimbri (4 string African guitar thing), alto sax & trumpet. When William switched to bass, he and the tabla player lock into each other’s groove, as both horns dance on top. Much of this music has a rhythmic foundation, which gave the dancers some currents to navigate upon. William’s kora playing was also added a magical, ethnic, organic vibe to this set.
Another surprisingly superb set featured a solo effort from Mixashawn, a native American tenor saxist who also played flutes, electronics, berimbau, percussion and sang. The entire set was a beautifully connected suite, which unfolded with a series of stories. Mixashawn is a marvelous storyteller with a number of intriguing stories or observations, including the bizarre story of Ishi, whose brains were taken out. We all loved his echoplex berimbau song about the sad love of money and his golden tone on tenor was another delight. He put together the entire set so that it flowed together perfectly throughout.
Day 4 closed with an explosive set from Kidd Jordan’s New Orleans Band which included Clyde Kerr on trumpet, Darryl Levigne on piano (a new name for us), William Parker on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums. This was a most intense quintet with strong solos from all members. I remember the trumpeter from one earlier Vision Fest and dug the way he played with calm, well placed notes, a clear tone as Kidd shrieked and turned his notes inside-out. Kidd has a unique way of bending his notes on sax, taking a nod from the way Trane and Pharoah also twisted their sax tones. The previously unknown Darryl Levigne started with just a few notes placed here and there, taking a long time to build into a frenzy. Drummer Alvin Fielder is yet another under-recognized master, doing a fine job of helping push the quintet skywards.
Reggie Workman & Ashanti’s Message opened Day 5 with another set that transcended the boundaries of modern jazz. The line-up featured JD Parran on flute & alto clarinet, John Betty on alto sax, Kyoko Kitamura on vocals, Yayoi Ikawa on piano, Gerry Hemingway on drums and legendary bassist & professor Reggie Workman at the helm. It opened with everyone playing spooky and spacious percussion – gongs, bowed cymbals, saw, inside-the-piano sounds - other worldly and quite mesmerizing. A great piece called “Desire for Peace in the Kingdom” was next and began with more free-floating sounds, included an effective short rap section (from John Betty) and built to an explosive conclusion. JD was especially amazing on alto clarinet, Gerry the perfect percussionist for this diverse band and our friend Kyoko is becoming one of best jazz vocalists around. An extremely well balanced set with Reggie’s superb contrabass and direction guiding it perfectly.
One of the most talked about sets of this year’s consistently strong outpouring was the Vision premier of Sabir Mateen’s Quintet. This monster unit featured Raphe Malik on trumpet, Sabir on multi-reeds, Raymond King on piano, Jane Wong on acoustic bass & cello and Ravish Momin on drums. Considering this was the first Vision Fest appearance by Philly’s Raymond King and Boston’s Jane Wong, they both gained many new fans thanks to their impressive playing. Ravish Momin, who played with Kalaparush’s trio in a previous Vision fest, also wowed the audience with his slamming drum work. Sabir dedicated a touching tune called “Brother Wilbur” to the much missed bassist, Wilbur Morris, one of the two bassists to whom this festival was dedicated, and Jane played a marvelous bass solo in his memory. Sabir and Raphe are one of the hottest, fire-spitting two horn teams and spewed forth some molten blowing on a few of these furious tunes. Ravish seems to have mixed the intricate rhythms of tabla playing into a new style of trap drumming and was pretty astonishing through, fanning the flames underneath everyone else.
The legendary and warm hearted professor of healing rhythms, Milford Graves’ quartet featured two of his old cohorts Joe Rigby on nearly every sax, Hugh Glover also on saxes, William Parker back on bass & kora and Milford on that custom-made drum-set, dancing and vocalizing. Milford’s rare sets (once or twice a year) are about ritual, spectacle, audience participation and true spirit of free-jazz, sixties style, where just about anything can happen. The ritual begins with the frenzy of free-jazz blasting from both saxes, William’s burning acoustic bass and Milford’s swirling arms around his double bass drum, psychedelic hand painted and uniquely hand-made drum kit. Joe Rigby in equally impressive on alto, flute, tenor, bari and sopranino saxes, taking his time and playing inspired solos on each. Milford sings in a charming and often hilarious invented African sounding language that makes us all smile as he communicates with us on another level. Not only does Milford dance, convulse and roll of the floor of the stage, he of course, moves through the audience, picks us one of its members and carries the trusting soul up to and onto the stage, where three more dancers (students of Milford’s) are now all dancing oddly around Milford in righteous abandon. There are some great combinations of instruments (kora/flute/dijeradoo) and (sopranino/clarinet/bass/drums) that make for some more incredible sections. Plus Milford always ends each set with tasty speech about respecting the elders and reaching out for the hope of the young'uns.
Cooper-Moore’s great Triptych Myth trio was up next and I was expecting amazing things from Cooper-Moore’s piano and handmade things, Tom Abbs on bass, Chad Taylor on drums and their guest Moo Lohkenn on vocals. In recent times, Cooper had boasted at gigs that he is going outdo all those great avant-jazz piano legends, even naming a half dozen pianists of note. A tall tale you say?!? First thing, there is more than enough room to dig all of the well known greats – Cecil Taylor, Keith Tippett, Marilyn Crispell, Alex Von Schlippenbach, Matt Shipp, Borah Bergman, etc. as well as lesser known giants (you can fill this in at your leisure). There is no need to prove anything, unless you think there is that need. Cooper-Moore has invented and plays a bunch of great hand-made instruments – some sorta xylophone, a diddely bow and a horizontal harp. Instead of playing a great deal of amazing piano, he switched off on a few of his other instruments, which are interesting enough. The set also featured the strange vocals of this exotic woman that he met in Wuppertal, Germany, Moo Lohkenn. Moo mixed the extremes with some blues tunes and scary Diamanda Galas-like echoplex weirdness. Its not that I didn’t dig her singing, but it didn’t really fit with the vibe of the fest or eeven the set. The rhythm team sounded great when they had a chance to stretch out, only Tom Abbs could keep a didjeradoo attached to the center of his contrabass, so he can play both simultaneously. With Cooper-Moore’s piano, the greatness only came in spurts. I kind of expected more from that tough-talking, yet still charming son-of-a-gun.
Sadly, I had to split at 1am just as the ever-incredible Joe McPhee Quartet was about to hit. Shit, I had to can’t that last train back to Joisey or (hardly) sleep on the floor of the store. I would have loved to hear this quartet featured wonderful Rosi Hertlein on violin, the grand Dominic Duval on contrabass, Harold E. Smith on drums and Joe McPhee on sax & trumpets. Turns Mr. Smith hasn’t played with his old pal Mr. McPhee in some thirty years and he had a much bigger (grey) afro than I had in high school, and mine was pretty big. Oh well, as Fleetwood Mac might say.
Roy Campbell’s TAZ opened Day #6 with Andy Bemkey on piano, Chris Sullivan on bass and Michael Thompson on drums. Roy is completely charming as an MC and is consistently great on his 3 trumpets. Roy began with some delightful flute playing as Andy evoked cosmic sounds from inside the piano. They finally broke into a hard swinging, fat and funky Blue Note 60’s groove, with on high-flying pocket trumpet. Andy played some mighty fine & soulful piano on “Piece of Mind” and Roy played some lovely flugelhorn on an immensely touching ballad called “Where Has My Father Gone?”. Roy’s sharp-witted observations and commentary on the Bush clan are often worth the price of admission.
The most highly anticipated set of this year’s Vision Fest was the reunion of the Revolutionary Ensemble, who also haven’t played in about thirty years. The Revolutionary Ensemble was and still is Leroy Jenkins on violin, Sirone on acoustic bass and Jerome Cooper on drums. The time was ripe for this momentous return as their first and only reissue ‘The Psyche’, one of their five hard to find albums, was recently been reissued on Mutable cds. They sounded like they were coming from another dimension, it was twilight zone time. It reminded of my early loft-jazz gigs, when sets were so out, it made one question their own sanity. It was like three planets circling each other in cosmic convergence. When Leroy and Sirone bowed at the same time, they turned things inside-out. Leroy took one solo in which he scraped the bow on the violin creating a startling tension that was almost too much to bear, Since Sirone no longer lives here and Jerome Cooper does just one of those solo sets, this was an historic moment. Jerome’s drumming was the best I’ve heard him in many years, balancing his two string-playing comrades perfectly. It was true challenge to hear the intricate yet well buried inner dialogue that took some time to get used to. Jerome seemed to wince whenever the audience applauded after a solo, since this music was more about the construction and juxtaposition of three distinct voices. Brilliant or just too much? I say the former.
The other highly anticipated set was Dave Burrell’s Echo/Peace Continuum, performing both album side-long pieces from that super intense BYG free/jazz onslaught album called ‘Echoes’. Master jazz pianist Dave Burrell put together a unique cast of all strong spirits that have never played together in this situation. The personnel were Sabir Mateen & Steve Lehman on saxes, Dave on piano, William Parker on bass and William Hooker on drums. The music quickly exploded with waves of molten energy. Sabir did an awesome job of screaming and shrieking with his sax, blasting hard through most of the set. Dave himself directs the energy but plays very few notes at first, taking his time to sprinkle the occasional punctuation and navigation. It was both transcendent and way over the top!?! Invigorating or rather scary.
The final set that night was by Tri-Factor, who are Billy Bang (violin), Hamiet Bluiett (bari sax) and Kahil El-Sabar (drums, ethnic percussion). Once again, three veteran’s of the (avant) jazz scene, work so well together. Sometimes the violin and bari sax would play the theme and then each would take a long, laid back solos, as Kahil’s subtle percussion holds down the fort. Kahil opened one piece with an enchanting thumb piano solo, which was mesmerizing but it went on for too long. At times it seemed like this was a collection of inspired solos more than a group effort. But it was still pretty great and it was a blast to hear the wonderful Kahil El-Zabar for the first time.
The final night of the Vision fest was a tribute to two bassists that had passed away last year – Peter Kowald and Wilber Morris, both beautiful souls who had a most positive affect on the downtown scene as well as international avant-jazz world. Their spirits were definitely felt by those in attendance that very special night.
The first set was Lawrence 'Butch' Morris’ New York Skyscraper (Orchestra). Cornetist/Composer Butch [brother of the late great bassist Wilber] has a completely unique way of conducting and his 18-piece orchestra was in truly transcendent form. I’ve heard Butch conduct over a dozen times throughout the years, but this was the best one yet! His personnel included Okkyung Lee, Michael Marcus, Andrea Parkins, Andy Bemkey & Tom Abbs. Our old pal and cellist extraordinaire - Okkyung Lee, played the first solo and she was just incredible, thus making the first part a phenomenal intro. Butch consistently focused the energy and added layers of lines by directing different subsections of the orchestra. The music was often filled with shimmering colors, which kept shifting as it evolved. Eerie yet majestic layers of drones were in constant motion. It was a series of dreamscapes that unfolded slowly and grew organically as it became more dense.
Another unexpectedly spectacular set featured the dynamic duo of Gunda Gottschalk on violin and Xu Feng Xia (legendary FMP artist) on guzheng, which is Chinese koto-like instrument. Both of these women played with Peter Kowald in an earlier Vision fest some five years ago and Gunda also played a swell solo set at the old DMG location, as well as at another Vision Fest at the Knit. The duo began with each woman doing strange vocal sounds, Xu’s voice sounding more traditional as Gunda twisted her sounds into little knots, the piece evolved from more cautious to even scarier sounds as they also wove their instruments around and with their unique voices. Xu would hit notes on her guzheng with near violent power, bending notes with power and passion. Gunda is one of best improving violins I’ve heard in a while and constantly matched Xu’s great playing with equally fascinating layers of diverse improv magic. Another festival high point!
For many of my Euro free-improv loving pals, the next set was thee one that we will be talking about for years to come. It featured the all-star trio of Connie Bauer on trombone, Barre Philips on bass (replacing Peter Kowald who had played with this trio for many years in the past) and Gunter “Baby” Sommer on drums. What was beautiful about this set was the incredible restraint and sublime way these older musicians played. They started spaciously, built slowly and blended their talents into an animated but always subtly connected work of art. Barre had a most pure and elegant tone on his contrabass with no effects to alter it. Gunter is one of the charming and occasionally hilarious drummers to watch, using feathers and other assorted odd objects on his drums, cymbals and gong collection placed on the floor. Connie continues to be one of the best improving trombonists we know and he played a number of extraordinary solos, using multiphonics, humming into the trombone to get chords and astonishing all in attendance with his advanced ‘bone explorations. The set featured numerous solo, duo and trio sections, the balance of dynamics and resourcefulness was astonishing at times.
The final set was the William Parker Bass Quartet with Charles Gayle on alto sax. The quartet featured the amazing line-up of Alan Silva, Sirone, Henry Grimes and William Parker, all on acoustic basses. This was a truly historic meeting of four influential bassists with vast amounts of records and gigs for each. Each one has a most distinctive style and they worked together wonderfully - plucking, bowing, strumming and blending ideas into a rich and spicy soup of sound. Sometimes they created the ancient cosmic drone when two or more bassists would be bowing at the same time. There were moments of deep, dark and solemn sadness and moments of beauty and hope. They evoked a communal spirit and I got the feeling that both Peter Kowald and Wilber Morris would certainly be smiling down from the heavens. Charles Gayle also did a swell job of playing some Ayler-esque alto sax, riding the waves created by the bass storm. Alan Silva seemed to hold back and add just the right amount of spacious punctuation, which kept things more in focus and connected by an inner thread. The assorted combinations of duos and trios were always shifting within the quintet. It was a most perfect tribute to two fallen heroes, who will continue to be a source of inspiration for the future. William Parker gave a touching speech at the end of the set as he eloquently introduced each of the bassists and said that we should also remember other bassists who have passed like Malachi Favors and Fred Hopkins.
The 9th Annual Vision Fest was in many ways the best one yet and will be pretty difficult to beat for next year’s First Decade Vision Festival. It was very well attended on just about every night and at seven days, just the right length. There was also a better balance this year of music, poetry and dance. The sound in the room was mostly good throughout, with only a few bad moments on occasion. The communal spirit and extended family-like gathering of folks and musicians from around the world was what made it all the more special to just about everyone I spoke with. DMG is proud once again to have been helpful, by spreading the word and selling advance tickets. We should all thank Patricia & William Parker and their trusty staff for the immense amount of work they put into this colossal endeavor. We hope to sponsor our own night at the Vision fest next year and present some of our favorite musicians like Dennis Gonzalez, Paul Dunmall/Paul Rogers Trio, Tisziji Munoz, Mario Pavone and some John Zorn project.