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THE VISION X FESTIVAL, JUNE 14TH - JUNE 19TH, 2005 - REVIEW BY BRUCE LEE GALLANTER
Considering that this was the tenth annual Vision Festival, it was indeed a most historic event. Although, the festival location had to be changed at the last minute to the Angel Orensanz Center (172 Norfolk St.), that undeniable Vision Fest spirit persevered. It worked out better anyway with a larger, more spacious room inside one of the oldest synagogues in Manhattan. It was the site of a previous Vision Fest, a number of years back. Every year I tell myself that they can't possibly beat the previous year's line-up, but every year Patricia Parker & her committee amaze me/us once more. Some years have been too long at 10 days, but this year seemed to be just right at 6 days. There were some six sets each night with a few sets also added on Saturday afternoon. The music went from about 7pm til 1am each night, sometimes a bit later. Yes, this is a great deal of music for one evening at about 6 hours per night, well worth the $25 admission per night, cheaper if you buy a festival pass. I attended all but one night with my lady-friend Huguette and we both felt that we had experienced something very special, quite magical, that transformed us all, giving us hope for a new world, a new vision.
For some of us, the festival really started a day early on Monday, June 13th here at Downtown Music Gallery with a special event. My good friend and ace trumpeter, Dennis Gonzalez & his sons, Yells at Eels, played a great free set here at DMG along with another Clean Feed group,the Ze Eduardo Quartet. Ze's group includes two women on bassoon and drums, plus tenor sax and Ze on double bass. Both groups were a marvel of inventiveness. Yells at Eels were joined by Matt Lavelle, making their set even better. A number of those annual Vision Fest attendees were present and got a chance to see, here and speak with Dennis Gonzalez & his sons, some of nicest folks we know.
Day 1 began, as usual, with an invocation from Joseph Jarman & Chris Chalfant. Peaceful sounds, chanting and words to help us stay calm in a violent world. The first set featured Jorge Sylvester's Conceptual Motion Orchestra and they were grand. Great writing, superb singing from Nora McCarthy and a number of inspired solos from Jorge on alto sax. I was only familiar with a few of the members (Curtis Fowlkes & Hayes Greenfield), but there were a number of fine solos from players unknown to me. The legendary Henry Grimes Quartet were next and included Marshall Allen on alto sax & EWI (electronic wind thing), Andrew Lamb on tenor sax & Hamid Drake on drums. The rhythm team were burning together from the gitgo with some equally crazed sax work from Marshall and Andrew. Marshall played a great deal of electronic wind thing, which has a bizarre, electronic sound, sometimes a bit too much for us earth-people. Henry Grimes bowing was a marvel to watch and hear, considering he disappeared for some thirty years, he appears to be making up for lost time by playing as if his life (and ours) depended on it.
Avant-vocalist Ellen Christie was next, she had a fine quartet with a young pianist named Daniel Kelly plus William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums once more. Although her set began with some sound problems, one of the few complaints for this year's fest, Ellen always delivers her inventive, twisted vocal antics that take us on a journey. Daniel worked at some equally strange sounds by playing inside the piano with percussion, as William and Hamid showed their own diverse approach to an ever evolving rhythm team. The next set also featured the vocals of Terry Jenoure, as well as on violin plus Margo Simmons on flute and Maria Mitchell dancing. Terry took her time and did a lot of interesting spoken words about her crazy mother. She is a great violinist, but here she played with much restraint, the haunting flute, slow moving dance and evocative vocals, told a fascinating story. The final set for us that night was an all-star quartet of avant-jazz elders that played together for the first time called WARM. Sam Rivers, Roscoe Mitchell, Reggie Workman and Pheeroan akLaff. Instead of playing totally free, they did play some pre-arranged pieces. They opened with tight written theme and Sam Rivers took a short but intense tenor solo. Roscoe Mitchell followed and took an extremely long, exhausting alto sax solo, in which he turned those notes inside-out, twisting them into tight fragments. Sam stepped back and marveled at Roscoe's assured and amazing long solo. Reggie played a couple of great solos and Pheeroan was also on the money throughout, inventing and reinventing the different percussion schemes. They even played a lovely ballad-like piece with some rich harmonies played by both saxists. Then they took things further out into outer space with some fine squeaky soprano by Roscoe and great spinning lines by Sam on flute. Word is that this marvelous quartet went into the studio soon thereafter for their first recording. I can hardly wait.
Day #2 began with that cranky old poet, Steve Dalachinsky, backed by Mat Maneri on violin and Vito Ricci on wrench guitar. Steve is an old friend and one of the most original and real poets to emerge from this scene in many years. While Vito played some laid back jazz and blues licks, Mat played strange, eerie, quietly disturbing layers of splintered violin weirdness. Steve's poem, "The Innocent Know" was both demanding and disturbing, phrases were cut-up into snippets, so that we only heard parts of the whole and had to fill in the rest to get the true meaning. "Music is Our World" Steve intones like a chant let out by those locked up and not allowed the freedom to choose what they want to hear. Steve sounds like he is about to break into "Dixie", or am I just imagining it?
The Charles Gayle Trio was next and featured Gayle on alto sax, Hill Greene on bass and Jay Rosen on drums. Jay starts out playing a funky march, as Charles plays very Ayler-like on alto sax, bending those notes sideways. Fast and furious at first. Hill is a powerhouse on bass, taking an intense solo with Jay also playing a great drum solo. Gayle starts the second piece by playing a very Monk-like theme, again bending those notes into odd shapes. Jay tells me he has no clue what direction Charles might go in on each gig. Charles switches to piano and things get very solemn, slowing building in intensity. They end with an Ayler-like spiritual thing, with some strong screaming sax, all three players wailing together.
Roy Campbell's Pyrmid Trio with Patricia Parker dancing and slides being shown is one this night's highlights. The Pyramid Trio feature everyone's favorite rhythm team of William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums & percussion. They begin quietly, with Roy on superb, free-flowing flugelhorn. William and Hamid think and soar together, always locked into one another, playing their cosmic grooves organically. They mix jazz, rock, funk and ethnic grooves into one solid evolving force. I've never heard Roy play any better than this, so well matched with this wonderful rhythm team. Roy ends with two appropriate political pieces, "Bozo's Big Time" and "Song for Amadou Diallo", both are designed to make us think and question the powers that be. All we can say is, "Right On!"
Oliver Lake's trio featured Michael Gregory Jackson on guitar and Pheeroan akLaff on drums, with Oliver on alto & soprano sax & wood flute. Both of these gifted players had worked with Oliver in the 70's for quite a long while. Jackson was one of the most creative and unique guitarists to emerge from the loft jazz scene and hadn't been heard from in many years, so it was great to hear him once again. It seemed obvious that the trio had played together for many years as they seem to anticipate each other's direction throughout. Pheeroan remains one of the most crafty drummers ever, forever spinning around the beat or structure. Both Oliver's sax and Michael's guitar(s) were constantly engaged in different discussions, throwing ideas back and forth, ever-communicating magically amongst old friends.
Another unexpectedly delightful set was from another first time quartet featuring Mat Maneri on viola or violin, Dave Burrell on piano, Drew Gress on bass and Randy Peterson on drums. I am unsure that these men were playing written parts, but there were a great deal of interconnections going on. The first two long pieces were rather minimal, with a soft yet gnarly viola solo from Mat and an off the wall piano solo from Burrell. The next piece was filled with suspenseful space, very dreamlike, with just a few notes drifting, more and more sparse... They finally erupted on the last piece, so intense and explosive and free. Incredibly intense solos from the violin, piano and drums with Drew's expressive bass creating a web that holds everything together.
The final set on Day #2 was also a complete departure from what one might expect. It was led by Wayne Horvitz on piano, with Briggan Krauss on alto sax, William Parker on acoustic bass and Billy Martin on drums. While Briggan played Wayne in Pigpen, nearly a decade ago, William worked with Wayne in the late 70's/early 80's. The group was called "Some Order, Long Understood", named after an old record by Wayne from a long time ago which featured a trio with William Parker and Butch Morris. The music dealt with long drones, notes stretched out solemnly in space. They created an somber dream-world, with each member slowly swirling around the theme. Briggan's unique tone on alto stood out in the middle, crying for help in a sad world. Billy played some magical percussion, thumb piano and other sundry little mysterious sounds. They built slowly, layering sustained textures, emerging and submerging in waves, with Wayne eventually using his fists and elbows on the piano, building to a dramatic conclusion. A sublime duo of Wayne on tranquil piano and William on bowed bass played one of those dreamy Robin Holcomb-like (Wayne's wife & often collaborator) songs, which was just so exquisite and touching. Briggan joined and played the most restrained solo I've ever heard from him, still bending those notes ever so quietly. It was a perfect conclusion for another great day at Vision X.
Unfortunately I missed day #3, which was a tribute to the legendary saxist from Chicago, Fred Anderson. Some said it was the best night of the fest. I also heard that the set by the (flutist) Nicole MItchell Trio was quite special and that bassist Harrison Bankhead was just marvelous. He certainly was the next night with Positive Knowledge! That night my mother flew up from Florida to take me and Huguette out for my birthday dinner at the Spanish Tavern in Mountainside, NJ.
The fourth night was another incredible experience. It began righteously with downtown all-star quartet Other Dimensions in Music (Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, William Parker & Rashied Bakr) collaborating with the Sound Vision Orchestra (SVO). The SVO has worked with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and Alan Silva in the past and they dig a challenge. Other Dimensions played together for over twenty years and improvise together magically. They were explosive when they began and soared throughout their magnificent set. The orchestra created a web of activity around the central quartet, different subgroups emerged and connected with each other in different layers. Steve Swell (trombone) and Stephen Haynes (trumpet) blasted out tight lines together, followed by an amazing duo of piano (Mark Hennen) and vibes (Warren Smith). What could've been one long free-for-all, showed that the orchestra has learned how to focus the chaos of free playing into some fine, connected subgroups. An experiment that turned out most successful.
Whit Dickey's great all-star quartet were next and featured Whit on drums, Roy Campbell on trumpets, Rob Brown on alto sax and Joe Morris on double bass. They played as a video was also shown, but it was the music that was incredible. Whit is one of the finest free drummers on the planet, he always has a way of holding his groups together and pushing his players higher and higher. Rob Brown sounded very Ornette like on his alto sax as the trio burned. Roy played one of those incredible solos that had folks screaming for more. They finally brought the intensity back down as Roy played some fine muted trumpet and Rob stretched those notes out mysteriously on alto. Better known as an out/jazz guitar great, Joe Morris has also become a most inventive contrabassist over the past few years as well. Joe took a marvelous bowed bass solo here as well. Whit brought it back down to the earth with a great avant-funk groove on the last piece. The entire set was suite-like and connected organically together.
Positive Knowledge is a most appropriate name for the ensemble led by west coast mystery man, Oluyemi Thomas. For the past half dozen years, Oluyemi has ventured forth from Oakland, California to finally play some gigs on the east coast, just once or twice a year for a handful of gigs. Each time I've heard/seen him perform, something magical happens. Positive Knowledge is his spiritual ensemble, sometimes just a duo with his wife & poetic vocalist Ijeoma, sometimes a trio, quartet or quintet. For this set he was joined by Kidd Jordan on tenor sax, Harrison Bankhead on bass and Michael Wimberley on drums. Oluyemi's main instrument is the bass clarinet, he also plays C melody sax, musette and hand percussion. The set started softly with spare, yet spirited playing. When "free jazz" is done just right, something very magical happens and this was a perfect example. Oluyemi's bass clarinet & musette, Ijeoma's voice and Kidd's tenor sax created a web of cosmic sounds very quickly as Harrison's intricate contrabass and Michael's drums burned quietly underneath. Huguette noticed that there were a bunch of birds gathered around one of the windows high above the stage, perhaps responding to Ijeoma's incredible bird-like voice. The set slowly built to a frenzy as Kidd's tenor and Oluyemi's bass clarinet began wailing together, reaching up for the skies. Kidd's energy playing is often unstoppable and here he completely cut loose, walked across the stage and played a frenzied duo with drummer Wimberley who stood up as he played and matched the Kidd's frenzy. Harrison Bankhead (on bass) and Michael Wimberley on drums, both took amazing solos, with's Harrison's solo being one of the festival's best moments. For those of you love this type of free/ecstatic music and haven't heard Positive Knowledge live, please check out any of the half dozen releases by this true magic band.
A fine way to bring the energy level back down to the planet earth was a splendid set by poet David Budbill, working with William Parker on bass and assorted ethnic instruments and Hamid Drake on drums and percussion. I dig David's soft spoken voice and thoughtful observations about New York from his home in the mountains of Vermont. William played gongs, shakuhachi, a kora-like instrument as Hamid played frame drum and drumset. Their set flowed together quite organically, setting a mood for quiet contemplation. What followed also took off from a more restrained type of atmosphere.
Bill Dixon is one of the most influential trumpet players and visionary composers, whose work stretches back some forty years. He is also a much respected college professor and can be rather controversial in interviews. His concert performances are quite rare, so it was a treat to hear his current quintet. The quintet featured Bill Dixon on trumpets with different mics, Steven Hornstein on baritone sax & bass flute, Tony Widoff on Kurzweil synth & mixing, Andrew Lafkas on acoustic bass and Warren Smith on tympani & vibes. There were slides of Mr. Dixon's provocative artwork displayed on the large screen behind the group. Beginning with a cautious bari sax and tympani duo, this was some of the most suspenseful music imaginable. Each instrument came is ever so slowly, a note or two at a time. All five members deal with low-end drones and ghost-like sounds. It was immensely mysterious and built very slowly. Dixon often heavily echoed or processed trumpet sounded like electric Miles at times, and like it was being played deep down in the ocean waters. It was very much like entering someone's else dreamworld, slowly loosing balance and floating in the waves.
The fifth day of the Vision Fest started with an afternoon concert that I had to miss due to working at DMG. A number of people told me that they were astonished by Tyshawn Sorey's solo piano set, which is quite surprising since most folks know him as one of the more promising young drummers in town. I was glad to see that drum wiz Tatsuya Nakatani got to play in two sets that day and heard good reports about those as well.
The evening's festivities started with the Billy Bang Quartet which featured Billy on violin & compositions, Ngo Thanh Nhan on dan tran (a small koto-like thing), Todd Nicholson on bass and Shoji Hano on drums. The quartet played music from Billy's swell new 'Vietnam: Reflections' disc. The music is a superb blend of Asian (Vietnamese) and African/American folks themes. The melodies that Bang has written are always enchanting, directly from the heart. Billy took a number of wonderful solos, sometimes just plucking his strings rather than always bowing. Billy has an infectious, positive spirit that always shines through each performance. Ngo also took a couple of sublime solos. It was also a rare treat to hear legendary Japanese drummer, Shoji Hano, who has worked with Peter Brotzmann and Haino Keiji in the past. Shoji has a unique style that draws from a variety of genres, jazz, rock and ethnic influences.
The next set featured another violinist, Leroy Jenkins and came from a much different place. Leroy played in a duo with a dancer named Felicia Norton. Mr. Jenkins, who is a founding member of the Revolutionary Ensemble, is known for being one of the most "out" string soloists, but here he had a different approach. His playing was often quite minimal. Ms. Norton was very thin and dressed in white. I am certainly more of music fan, than I am of modern dance, yet I found this duo to work very well together. Felicia's movement was often more dramatic than Leroy's quiet, fragmented violin playing, but there was also a great deal of communication going back and forth. This was another set that was the complete opposite of what was to follow...
Legendary trumpeter, Eddie Gale, played incredibly hot trumpet with Cecil Taylor on 'Unit Structures' in the mid-sixties and then recorded two classic discs for Blue Note that mixed jazz with other earthy and funky sounds. He has recorded very infrequently ever since and seemed to have disappeared, yet remains active in the bay area. His set featured his own west coast band and was thee most intense and creative set of this year's fest. Considering I had barely heard of any members of his group, this was indeed surprising. His monster sextet featured John Gruntfest on alto sax, Ismael Navarette on tenor & soprano sax, Valerie Mih on piano, special guest William Parker on bass, T. Squire Holman on drums and Mr. Gale on trumpets. They opened with a Trane tribute called "Remember John" and they were burning from the gitgo, super tight and super hot. William Parker fit perfectly and played powerfully with their dynamic drummer. There were two things about this band that made them so special, one was the writing of every tune was instantly memorable and all post-Blue Note gems. The other great thing was each and every solo was f**king amazing! I recall alto saxist John Gruntfest from a Henry Kaiser record from 20+ years ago, but never heard of the tenor saxist, pianist or drummer, all of whom were truly inspired.
Festival organizer, dancer and free-spirit, Patricia Parker-Nicholson's PaNic was next and also did a fine job. Her group features three musicians, Rob Brown, William Parker & Alvin Fielder on drums, plus four other dancers. There were projections of outdoor shot on the screen behind the dancers with the musicians on the side of the stage. The dance, projections and music worked together splendidly. The music started quietly, rather ballad-like with Rob Brown sounding very Ornette-like. The images on the screen evolved from nature shots to more political ones like soldiers, mass graves, protests, babies, an African village, weapons, disasters, money and religious themes. The trio kept building more intensely throughout the set and finally erupted near the end. It all flowed together most fluidly. Patricia's dancing is also a marvel and seems so natural.
A superb duet of Joe McPhee on alto clarinet & tenor sax and Lori Freedman on bass clarinet was next. Joe McPhee needs no intro since he is a perennial favorite here. I've caught Canadian reeds expert Lori Freedman a couple of times up at the Victo fest and was very glad to hear her here. Both she and Joe had sublime, immensely warm and expressive tones on their clarinets and worked together most creatively. It was a magic conversation between two strong spirits. The music was often melodic and quite haunting, the duo consistently tossing ideas back and forth. They both worked with those multiphonic high-end drones and squeals, always working together righteously. The Vision crowd listened closely, smiled and roared with applause at the end.
The final set that night was another extraordinary duo, but again much different from the previous duo. It featured another dynamic duo, Peter Brotzmann on tenor sax & clarinets and Nasheet Waits on drums. I've heard the legendary free/jazz saxist Peter Brotzmann dozens of times over the past few decades, but this was my first time checking out young drum great Nasheet Waits, son of Freddie Waits. I've heard Nasheet on a few discs, one by Michael Marcus, and was most impressed. They started out with some ferocious blasting by Brotzmann, I thought I heard him quoting a James Bond theme. Both of these fine players worked together magnificently, ever so tight, focused yet free. Brotzmann is always digging deep into the history of jazz and blending the bluesy, earthy tone with the freer regions. When he switches to that big clarinet (taragato), he bends those notes into odd shapes and lets those demons out. This was a perfect ending to another amazing day at the Vision Fest, with just one more day to go.
The last day (#6) of the 10th annual Vision Fest started with a colossal set by William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, with a special guest called "Juice" (Alan Glover) on tenor sax and Lena Conquest on vocals. I've heard New York's finest avant-jazz orchestra a couple of times this year, but this was the set that really took the cake. They were tighter and more focused than at Victo and really strut their stuff. William's wonderful, earthy music and powerful bass playing are at the center the explosive large ensemble. There were a number of amazing solos from local heroes like Matt Lavelle & Alex Lodico, but what is really great is the way different subgroups of horns constant shift and accentuate the internal waves of sound. Vocalist Lena Conquest was the icing on the cake and that gave this impressive beast a human factor that radiated from within. If any set at this great fest deserved to be heard again, this is the one.
Bassoonist supreme, Karen Borca's superb quintet matched the intense energy of the previous set. Her group featured Rob Brown on alto sax, Reggie Workman & Todd Nicholson on basses and Newman-Taylor Baker on drums. This unit really smoked! Both Karen's bassoon and Rob's alto sax spun furiously fast, matching their intricate lines together with astonishing speed and craft. Karen seems to have learned something special from her late partner Jimmy Lyons, both have bridged the gap between bebop and the new thing. The bassoon and alto sax were often sparring, erupting jagged lines of notes with and around one another, even answering each other's questions. Both bassists sounded great together, buzzing, bowing and plucking with the same passion and resourcefulness. Newman Taylor-Baker also seemed like the perfect foil for the daredevil quintet that rarely relented, but did finally slow down for one ballad section.
The final duo featured another fine combination: Joelle Leandre on contrabass and India Cooke on violin. I caught this marvelous duo up at the Guelph fest last year (now on disc from Red Toucan) and knew how special they could be. Many of you already know and love French contrabassist supreme Joelle Leandre, from the dozen of fine discs she has, but few seem to have heard of bay area's best, India Cooke. Both women sound classically trained and often sound as they played some scored sections, so focused in their sound. Joelle is incredibly spirited, near violent in the way she attacks those strings, bowing furiously, banging and plucking those strings ever so hard. Joelle even sings hilariously at points, sounding like Louie Armstrong one moment and like a crazed opera singer the next. India does a solo violin piece which deals with the blues and reminds of Sugarcane Harris. Later in the set the begin bowing more and more intensely, building to an intense conclusion. Joelle also performs a marvelous solo bass piece, doing all kinds of strange things to her bass. This duo also brings down the house and gets a nice encore.
Rob Brown's project included video art and dance, his trio included Daniel Levin on cello and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. I found the dancers and video to be rather distracting, the music much more interesting. Rob's trio were much different from anything I had heard him do previously. The music seemed partially charted and blended eastern influences with some funky/jazz themes. Rob played the most lyrically that I've ever heard from him, working well with Daniel's cello and Satoshi's often subtle percussion. They didn't really get a chance to stretch out too much, until the last part.
Another set that looked better in print than in actual fact was an all-star quartet featuring Matt Shipp on piano, Sabir Mateen on saxes, William Parker on bass and Han Bennink on drums. The quartet exploded right from the first note and rarely looked back. Han Bennink, who is an much a master jazz drummer as he a clown, would not let up. His steam rolling was a bit too much and made it difficult for the other members of the group to fit. Sabir wailed and sailed over the top but Matt Shipp seemed to have a hard time of navigating the intense and unrelenting current that Han forced upon the group. It felt like an intense train ride that went too fast and nearly derailed. The second half of the set was much better when they finally slowed down and worked more closely together. It ended with a lovely bit of flute, bowed bass and more restrained piano. At this point it was 1am and many folks left, since it was another long and late night.
The very last set was Dennis Gonzalez & Yells at Eels with special guest Oliver Lake on saxes began at 1:30 a.m. They performed the music from Dennis new disc on Clean Feed called 'Idle Wild', which has a different rhythm team. Yells at Eels features Dennis' two young sons, Stefan and Aaron, who are truly gifted players, well seasoned before their time. They begin a with sad, lovely poem by Dennis with gongs and other mysterious sounds. This is spiritual music, with a cosmic modal groove. With Dennis on pocket trumpet and Oliver Lake on curved soprano, we are off on an enchanting ride. Dennis loves to dedicate his songs to those who inspire him greatly, so the next piece is called "Document for William Parker" and it features some incredible bass from Aaron. Both Dennis on trumpet and Oliver on alto take incredible solos. Next is another tribute titled "Document for Kondo", another crazed player and intense spirit. This one has some manic, nearly punk energy at the center and both sons take massive solos. They also do a fine piece by their drummer, Stefan, called "Elegy for a Slaughtered Democracy", a most appropriate title for the troubled times in which we live. It is a solemn piece with a touching melody and superb solos by Dennis and Oliver on soprano. They bring their set and the festival to a close with "The Final Sunset", which is fueled by another burning bass line with a round of colossal solos by all four of these great musicians. Bravo, bravo! We all left tired, but well satisfied.
This was the tenth annual Vision Fest and it felt like the best one yet. Although it felt like some nights would never end, both Huguette and myself were exhilarated at the end of each night. This was Huguette's first Vision fest and although she comes from Victoriaville, she has only checked out about half of the 25 sets up there, we both looked forward to each night because we knew something magical would occur each night. I was glad to see that most nights were well attended and saddened at the couple of nights that weren't so well attended. A number of my regular customers didn't even check out a single night, why? Too lazy or too much into staying home and listening to CDs instead of seeing/hearing live music?!? There is a good reason why a couple of hundred folks from around the US and the rest of the world come to the Vision Fest every year. They know they will be transformed and their/our Vision will be strengthened. For me it is like a family reunion every year, everyone who attends it connected by the music. NY Times jazz critic, Ben Ratliff, mentioned in the Times that folks should support the Vision fest for its adventurous spirit and forget about the JVC Fest, since it is completely predictable and overly expensive. Right on!
Thanks once again to Patricia Parker-Nicholson and everyone in her crew for worked so hard to make this massive festival a reality. The more New York City turns into a playground for the rich and greedy, the more we all need a yearly festival with a hopeful Vision of the future. - Bruce Lee Gallanter