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THE 13th ANNUAL (2008) VISION FESTIVAL - JUNE 10th-JUNE 15th
by BRUCE LEE GALLANTER
The annual Vision Festival is an important gathering of free spirits from around the world, who come together in the inhospitable environment of downtown NYC for one week out of the year (recent years in June) to bathe in the sounds of avant/jazz and related art-forms like dance, painting, poetry and films. It is the one yearly festival in New York that so many of us look forward to the most. Patricia Nicholson organizes and is at the heart of this fest, doing an incredible amount of work to make this much-needed gathering succeed. We know the fest is about to begin when a number of yearly attendees make their way to DMG to splurge: buy discs, ask questions and discuss the music that we love and need to survive. I see many of these folks just once a year and it makes me smile like a happy family reunion.
This year the Vision Fest had to move once again and we found ourselves at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center at Suffolk and Rivington streets, just around the corner from where Tonic used to be on Norfolk. There is a feeling of desperation in the air, since Tonic and CBGB closed the previous year, and DMG's future is in limbo due to unrealistic prices set by realtors who are making life difficult for small business endeavors not rich enough to afford those ridiculous rents - while so many street-level spaces of every size remain empty for years! The question of the day, besides the future of DMG (asked by EVERYONE I encountered, thanks) was whether this place has air-conditioning since the we've had unseasonably hot weather this week at nearly 100 degrees. Making our way to the big room for the first set on the opening night, it was not too hot inside and there was a bit of a breeze. The vibe was just right seeing the swarm of avant/jazz lovers and the big room was just about filled for the first night. The room you first entered, is the place to buy some discs or food, with a bar room to the side. Another room was used for those in-between sets of poetry, dance, films and other assorted arts.
As has become the custom, the first set was an opening invocation with the prayer-like vocals of Patricia Nicholson accompanied by William Parker on kora and Hamid Drake on frame drum. I found this short set to be a perfect beginning and completely enchanting. Patricia sang softly about "science, sound" and other healing words while the music by William and Hamid was indeed haunting and peaceful.
The first full-length set was the Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet, with Taylor on cornet, Matt Bauder on tenor sax, Mary Halvorson & Kevin O'Reilly on guitars, Jessica Pavone on viola & el. bass and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. A number of these folks (Taylor, Mary, Jessica & Matt) are also members of Braxton's 12+1tet, hence this music was most challenging and perhaps slightly Braxtonian. Of interest was the way Taylor split the band up into two subgroups and how those groups interacted. At times, the cornet, guitar (Mary) and viola would play one idea while the sax, other guitar and drums would play something quite different. It often forced me/us to concentrate harder to hear the different layers that were going on simultaneously. The entire piece was (like) a suite with different sections. One section had an amazing tenor and drums duo that was furious and powerful. Everyone in the sextet got to take a solo or two and everyone sounded most inspired. Towards the end, the group went into what sounded like a sort of reggae groove, which felt most surprising yet it was taken over by another freer section played by other members of the band. The very last solo by Mary Halvorson was one of those unique solos that is just incredible, hard to describe and hard to believe, since it didn't sound like anyone else who plays so-called jazz guitar. I thought that the set was often dense and difficult and perhaps a bit too much for the crowd for the first set, but the audience roared with approval when it ended. Who knew...?
The always-engaging Dave Douglas was next with his new band Magic Circle, featuring Dave on trumpet, Uri [pronounced OOhree] Caine on piano and Bryan Carrott on vibes. The last time that I caught this this trio, they had a bassist instead of vibes. Dave dedicated the set to the late Jimmy Giuffre, who had recently passed away. The trio was the complete opposite from the previous set that had a different layers going on simultaneously. This trio was much more elegant, minimal, lush and at times, spooky. I dug the way Dave would have one member begin a part while another finish it. The music seemed to blend the old with the new seamlessly. Sometimes blues-like phrases would be transformed into chamber sounding sections. Dave himself is consistently charming and inventive, balancing between more modern sounds and older muted delights. There was one part where Bryan bent this note on his vibes by rubbing and holding the wood with the mallet, making for a unique sound. This is a most remarkable trio with all three members being equally important to their sound. The set ended with Carla Bley's classic "Ictus," which was once covered by the Jimmy Giuffre Trio. It is a difficult piece to pull off and seemed like a perfect ending to a great set. This fine trio has not recorded as of yet, so we can only wait ..and hold our breath.
The Nu Band features Mark Whitecage on alto & soprano saxes & clarinet, Roy Campbell on trumpets, Joe Fonda on acoustic bass and Lou Grassi on drums. This wonderful downtown all-star quartet has been around for a quite a while with three fine discs out on three labels: Clean Feed, Konnex & Not Two. This is a collective band with no leader, so each member contributes compositions. Right from the first tune, they were swinging hard and with immense spirit. First Mark on alto and then Roy on trumpet both played long, spirited solos that made us all smile. Whitecage remains one of the most overlooked, yet astonishing reeds heroes to have emerged from the loft jazz scene some thirty years ago. Mark's alto solo on "Avant Galopi" was intense, dark and completely stirring while the bass and drums with mallets created a cosmic cushion of churning rhythms underneath. Roy's muted flugel solo seemed to come from another dimension and took us all on a cerebral journey to the stars. The ever-incredible Joe Fonda took a unique solo by bowing and plucking his bass at the same time. creating strange spooky sounds that were fairly unbelievable. The spirit of Trane seemed to be at the center of much of this set with that certain spiritual essence blended within. There was also one somber song that I felt was a good way to balance the more intense moments of this consistently powerful set. The last piece, by Mr. Whitecage, had Mark reciting from the 'Declaration of Independence' which seemed most appropriate in these times of freedoms denied. Roy would answer him by sing about being 'Bush-Wacked!' It was a great way to bring this set to a grand ending.
The final show that evening featured the longtime duo of Denman Maroney on prepared piano and Mark Dresser on contrabass. This duo has worked together in different combinations for more than a decade, and you could tell by the way they explore sounds in similar ways. Denman works inside the piano with metal bowls and uses other objects to mute and manipulate the strings. Mark as well is a master of exploring odd and unique sounds on his acoustic bass. They both bend their strings in ways that make it hard to tell who is doing what without looking closely. Their set unfolded in an organic way with a variety of eerie sounds that were not always melodic, yet remained effective and fascinating nonetheless. Their set had a dream-like quality with odd twisted sounds floating in a hypnotic haze. This entire night turned out to be one of the best of the entire festival, filled as it was with so many surprises.
The second night was a tribute to the mighty New Orleans sax giant, Kidd Jordan: Kidd played all but one set. The first was already underway when I came in just a few minutes late. It featured Hamiet Bluiett on bari sax, Dave Burrell on piano and Kidd Jordan on tenor with another unnamed pianist (?) playing an old upright on the side. I loved the way these men built their free spirits from slower spooky sounds to intense, dark, screaming spirits. Dave Burrell is one of the longtime masters of free/jazz piano and knows how to push things higher and higher as he whips up a storm on that piano. The other pianist also did a great job of playing swirling notes both inside the piano and on the keyboard. I noticed that Kidd Jordan has some of the earthy, bluesiness in his tone, no doubt inspired by the trials and tribulations of his long life in New Orleans. The set evolved in waves with some cosmic vibrations raising us all higher. Towards the end, the quartet evolved into an old gospel-like standard, "Wade in the Water," which I felt was a perfect way to conclude this set after the previous eruptions, letting us all come back down to Mother Earth.
The next set was another festival highlight with Kidd Jordan on tenor, Billy Bang on violin, William Parker on bass and Hamid Drake on drums. William and Hamid are just about everyone's favorite rhythm team and always provide great grooves and multi-creative rhythms. Right from the exciting opening of the set, they blended their own hard swinging/avant-funk into a powerful storm-force that inspires Billy's violin and Kidd's tenor into some cosmic, spiritual wailing. This quartet sounds as if they were made to play together with Billy Bang providing some inspired solos, as well as accentuating the rhythm by plucking his strings like an acoustic guitar. Kidd Jordan also took a number of explosive solos, but it was the dynamic William and Hamid rhythm team that provided thrills and resourcefulness throughout the entire dynamic and uplifting set.
Kidd Jordan's New Orleans All-Stars were next but were missing a member: the great Alvin Fielder, Kidd's longtime collaborator, couldn't make it. The rest of the band? Joel Futterman on piano, Clyde Kerr on trumpet, William Parker on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. The set surprisingly began with a most suspense-filled opener, kind of like "In a Silent Way". Clyde Kerr is an elder musician who has played with Kidd for many years. He rarely comes to NY, so it was an especially rare opportunity to hear both he and Joel Futterman together. Joel has a unique approach to playing free piano and hits the keys in his own distinctive way. Sometimes his near-violent playing is scary - it is best to be prepared when he unleashes those torrents of waves. Kidd and Joel work together telepathically, pushing each other higher and higher. The William Parker/Gerald Cleaver rhythm team was also a marvel to see/hear (they just don't play in combo often enough). The set was brought to a fine conclusion with a some more subdued Trane/Pharoah-like cosmic waves that were softly meditative, washing over us and soothing our sweating bodies and souls.
The next set was the only one that night in which Kidd Jordan didn't play, but it did feature both of his sons, Marlon Jordan on trumpet and Kent Jordan on flutes. It also included a couple of other New Orleans players like Darrell Lavigne on piano and Brian Quezergue on el. bass with Gerald Cleaver once more filling in for Alvin Fielder. This set was the most straight-ahead jazz set of the entire fest and had the group playing Miles Davis standards like "Footprints." Both Marlon on trumpet and Kent on flute both provided fine solos throughout the set. Gerald Cleaver remains one of the best drummers in NY - he sounded wonderful here playing more inside than usual but no less creative. Kidd Jordan was in the audience, smiling a big grin at his two sons: he had good reason to be proud.
The final set that night was the much anticipated reunion of the amazing Fred Anderson/Kidd Jordan/William Parker/Hamid Drake Quartet. Fred Anderson is another well-respected elder avant/jazz sax legend from Chicago who rarely comes to NY and often only for the Vision Fest. Although this set started off powerfully, there were a few problems. It was too hot in the big room and everyone felt uncomfortable with the brutal heat. Once Kidd and Fred had kicked a storm with the explosive rhythm team, Kidd started having problems with his sax. It seemed to be falling apart and Kidd struggled with it to keep the energy and his sax going. Billy Bang and an unannounced Kalaparusha also were on stage, but I felt that they took away from the way the magic of the solid quartet works. There were still many good moments but overall, it seemed a bit anti-climatic. Still, the rest of the night was quite extraordinary, just that stifling air was too much at times.
Unfortunately, I missed the third night of the fest since I had to pick up my fiance at the airport. I was glad to get a break from the heat which was beginning to take its toll on everyone in attendance that I spoke with. I heard from good sources that it was a great night with strong sets from Oliver Lake's New Quintet, James Spaulding's Swing Expressions, Eri Yamamoto's Ensemble Of Possibilities and especially Hamiet Bluiett's Bio-Electric (w/ Billy Bang, Harrison Bankhead & Hamid Drake), which everyone raved about.
Friday the 13th of June was truly a night of weird extremes. The first set featured Gebhard Ullmann on bass clarinet & sax, Steve Swell on trombone, Hilliard Greene on bass and Barry Altschul on drums, and this was one truly great set! Both Gebhard and Steve Swell are both fine composers as well as players. Steve and Gebhard both lead a variety of different projects and each is engaging in its own way. The rhythm team was also marvelous and consistently creative. Barry Altschul is an amazing drummer who has worked with giants like Paul Bley, Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, John Surman, Dave Holland and many more. After a period of inactivity, he is back and in full creative force, working perfectly with bass great Hill Greene. Each piece was a different challenge; a couple of them reminded me of the exuberant spirit of the [South African] Blue Notes. This new lineup had just previously recorded as well, so we look forward to that disc.
The next set featured two veterans, Sonny Simmons on alto sax & English horn, and Bobby Few on piano. It began with some lovely English horn, an oboe-like double reed, by Sonny, with some sparkling meditative piano by Mr. Few. There were a good deal of fine moments throughout the set but something seemed not quite right. Sonny seemed to enjoy talking to the audience more than playing at times and even introduced a song by Frank Sinatra which he then sung but didn't finish. Although Bobby Few played mostly well throughout the set, the duo didn't always connect. Sonny seemed to be coming from another planet. I felt a bit confused and more than a bit hot in the third or fourth row. The heat was getting to me once again and I had a hard time concentrating on the music. Usually I am a trooper, having been to thousands of concerts and festivals from 1968 'til now. I rarely complain about conditions at gigs, but this heat and sweat was getting to many of us and some folks actually went outside for respite or left for the night. Although the sound was much better than at Orensanz Center, the heat & humidity often made things impossible to endure for an entire night.
The next set was supposed to have been Connie Crothers on solo piano, but Connie's set was postponed until later that night. Instead it was the much anticipated Sabir Mateen/Henry Grimes Quartet with Rasul Siddik on trumpet and John Betsch on drums. It began with Mr. Grimes doing interesting poetry while Betsch played mallets. This set began well with some fine freer moments. I hadn't seen Rasul Saddik before this, but was glad to hear him here, since he worked well with Sabir's various reed instruments. Rasul took a couple of fine solos, especially with John Betsch's supportive drums underneath. I generally dig Henry Grimes' bass playing, but I am not so sure about his violin playing. There were times during the set when it seemed as if Sabir had written a few themes to play with both Sabir & Rasul played those themes together. It sounded to me as if Mr. Grimes was in his own world, but it turns out that Henry was having problems with his bass as well as problems with the monitors, making it difficult for him to hear himself as well as the rest of the quartet. This was not the first musician that I heard complain about sound problems. Though I was too hot and couldn't concentrate on the music enough, I nevertheless felt that this set was a mixed blessing. At the end of it, Huguette and myself had had enough heat and frustration and were compelled to leave. I felt bad about missing Connie Crothers, who is one of my favorite pianists, as well as Wadada Leo Smith, who is also one of my heroes and friends. I did hear that the Leo Smith set featured both Don Moye & Pheeroan AkLaff on drums and they were pretty amazing. Darn!
Sadly, due to having to work here at DMG on Saturdays, I wasn't able to attend the Saturday afternoon part of the fest, which is always a good way to hear some new players or configurations. The first set of the night program was Patricia Nicholson's Celestial Moon Beams Funk with an all-star crew of Rob Brown & Sabir Mateen on reeds, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Jason Hwang on violin, Todd Nicholson on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums, with Patricia & three other fine dancers. Although I am not that much a fan of modern dance, I always find that Patricia does a great job of using stimulating dancers with engaging music. The first piece did have a funky groove and all the dancers were in fine form moving perfectly to the infectious music provided. The next piece was slower and more mesmerizing with Lewis Barnes doing some fine gospelish singing and both Sabir and Patricia scatting up a storm. Patricia had obviously put a good deal of work into this piece and the way the dance and music worked together was seamless and inspired. It was a great beginning for the night.
The Matt Shipp Trio with Joe Morris on acoustic bass and Whit Dickey on drums has been together for quite a while now. They had a new disc out last year and have been touring as well. The music is very focused since these are three seasoned veterans of out/jazz, yet it began more modestly with some somber sounds. It sounded to me like a great three way conversation that was always well-connected. Joe Morris often seems like the central figure in this trio as he pumps hard and creates waves within waves. The first solo he took was especially inspired and thought-provoking. What I dug about this set was the way it developed with one theme that was stretched out and evolved logically into other related themes. Towards the end it wound down to a quieter, calmer section that reminded me of an oasis in the desert - lovely and well-needed. My only problem was that the set felt a bit too long, but perhaps it was just that we were again too hot to deal with sweat and haze.
The next set was another highly anticipated one, with Paul Dunmall on tenor sax & bagpipes, Henry Grimes on bass & violin and Andrew Cyrille on drums. Most folks know that Paul Dunmall is one my favorite reedmen on the planet, as well as being a good friend of mine. I continuously promote his works, since he makes so many folks happy when he plays, which is not often enough here in NYC. This was a nearly perfect trio with that intense and highly creative free spirit at the center. The set developed organically with Paul breathing fire on his tenor. Henry played intense bowed and plucked bass while Andrew walked around his drum-set and still sounded great. Dunmall has a strong Trane-like tone and took his time to build into a whirlwind-like storm. Henry sounded especially great while pumping hard underneath the sax and locking in with Andrew's swirling drums. I was glad to see that Dunmall had his bagpipes, since he was unable to bring them in the last time he was here, for the DMG fest in December of 2006. Paul took a long and engaging bagpipe solo which was partially drowned out by Henry's violin. Once again this had to do with sound people not being able to mic Paul's bagpipes properly. Oh well. Mr. Cyrille took one of his customary dynamic drum solos and I was pleased to hear Dunmall do some intense blasting that had some folks screaming for more. It turns out that it was too darn hot on stage as well and Dunmall nearly fainted. A few days later Dunmall played another fine set with a different quartet at the Living Theatre. The good sound and relaxed atmosphere certainly helped us to enjoy that latter set far better.
The next set for me was the best of this year's fest with Joelle Leandre on contrabass and George Lewis on trombone, but no electronics. Some folks just can't get next to George's electronic playing, but I have no problem with it. What I did like was that this duo just played acoustically, just a double-bass and a trombone. A strong bond existed between these master musicians; they listened closely and responded sympathetically. Although it was improvised, it was a coherent conversation shared by friends, both on stage and in the audience. I loved the way this duo tossed ideas back and forth, sending messages telepathically. There was one section when both musicians did some vocals that were simultaneously enchanting and hilarious. It seemed as if Joelle would start a sentence and George would finish the sentence with no break in the flow of ideas. It made me realize that there is fine line between comedy and drama as well as between the serious and the ridiculous nature of things. I didn't realize it at the time but Joelle was unhappy with the way the performance went for her, since the heat and humidity effected the bass and bow and she struggled throughout the set. This was not at all obvious to the audience since many felt that this was Thee set! It was recorded and it might just come out on Rogue Art in the future. We sure hope so.
I again missed the final set that night due to the schedule falling behind and heat frustration. Again, many raved about those inventive Italians. I was only familiar with two members of the quartet, Alberto Braida (piano) and Fabrizio Spera (drums), who have a fine trio disc out with Lisle Ellis. The other two members included Eduardo Marraffa (reeds) and Antonio Borghini (bass). Anyone who pays attention to the DMG newsletters, will recall that we have been getting many a fine CD from great labels like El Gallo Rojo, Auand, Splasch and Amorani.
The final day was a Sunday, beginning at an earlier 6pm. The heat had finally let up, so this night was much cooler inside and easier to enjoy the great music. The first set was Lewis Barnes' Hampton Roads with Lewis on trumpet & vocal, Rob Brown & Darius Jones on alto saxes, Todd Nicholson on bass and Warren Smith on drums. Lewis Barnes has been a longtime member of many William Parker bands, but this was his first set as a leader at the Vision Fest. His writing seems influenced by Parker's and was consistently creative, focused and occasionally rambunctious. Many of the pieces were centered on the strong bass-work of Todd Nicholson, who just keeps getting better. I dug the way the the trumpet and two saxes sounded together, with strong writing provided by Mr. Barnes. I just hope that Hampton Roads gets chance to record, since this music is well worth hearing again and digging below the surface.
Another unexpected delight was Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce which featured Roy on alto sax & vocals, Curtis Fowlkes on trombone & vocals, Sam Bardfeld on violin, Tim Kiah on bass and Napoleon Maddox on vocal beat-box. Roy Nathanson & Curtis Fowlkes have been longtime co-leaders of the Jazz Passengers, originally an offshoot of an early version of the Lounge Lizards. This band was a more stripped-down version of the Passengers, with Roy's charming vocals being featured. I loved how each song told a little story with some effective film noir type of music added. Since there was no drummer, the bassist or beat-box vocalist provided the skeletal rhythms for most of the pieces. Roy told a story of his father paying him 5 cents a page to read, the band sang some infectious doo-wop harmonies along with the narration. Roy also covered many folks' favorite Rahsaan Roland Kirk song, "The Inflated Tear," adding appropriate lyrics with Roy even playing two saxes at once like Rahsaan used to do. Time to go back to that last vocal disc by Roy Nathanson that Aum Fidelity released and see if it is as good as the set was.
The next set was another pleasant surprise, Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure's Deep Sahara with special guest Kali Z. Fasteau on reeds. Nope, I hadn't heard of Mr. Toure, but his set was most impressive. It was odd to hear some fine, infectious Afro-pop at the Vision Fest, but, creative as it was in its own unique ways, it fit right in. Abdoulaye's voice and guitar were in fine form and each of his songs felt just right, making us want to sing and dance right along. Everyone in this great band played well, and there were a number of inventive solos from Kali Fasteau on ney, soprano sax and flutes. Sitting down and hearing this music made me realize the way the interlocking instruments worked so well together. Both fascinating musically and dance-worthy, a unique combination.
The final set of this night, and of this 13th annual Vision Fest, was the much anticipated William Parker's Inside Songs Of Curtis Mayfield. This was the first time that this piece has been done in William's hometown - indeed a grand occasion! I caught this piece up at the Guelph Fest in Ontario last year, but this version was even better and included a large local youth choir as an added bonus. I must admit that I have a been fan of Curtis Mayfield for many years. I recall one of my roommates from Tunisia telling me how much he loved Curtis's music when we went to school together in 1975 in England. William put together a perfect all-star band for this heart-felt tribute with Sabir Mateen & Darryl Foster on reeds, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, Dave Burrell on piano, William on bass & Hamid Drake on drums with Leena Conquest on vocals & dance and Amiri Baraka doing his poetry.
Starting with an uproarious version of "Freddie's Dead," the band was slammin'!, providing their own intoxicating version of this funky delight with Leena's earthy voice singing and Amiri challenging poems providing a good balance, a commentary on the ongoing injustices of black life in America. It was great to hear Sabir playing that funky-yet-out sax, riding on top of the groove just right. Leena sang "Another Angel Gone" and did an astonishingly heartfelt job alongside a soprano solo by Darryl Foster that brought tears to my eyes. Leena also did some crazy dancing on this song, and when everyone else started singing and screaming, it just felt so good! This piece ended with one of those free-form freak-out piano solos by Dave Burrell. The next piece was the classic "People Get Ready" with a large vocal choir added and it was something else! Hearing that massive choir singing along the band was indeed a wonderful and touching moment that made me realize the true power of music to transfer us into more loving beings. It was just perfect a perfect conclusion for a the grand finale of the 13th Annual Vision Festival.
All in all, it was a pretty great festival [did I mention the main complaint being the extreme heat at times was just too much to bear?]. I hope that Patricia Parker finds another more comfortable space in Lower Manhattan, but I know how hard it is [DMG is STILL looking for a new home...]
- Bruce Lee Gallanter at DMG