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Vision Festival XIV Review by Bruce Lee Gallanter
Vision Festival 14 began on June 9th, 2009, at the Abrons Arts Center on Grand St. The previous year's Vision Fest took place at the Soto Clemente Center which had no working air conditioning during a sweltering week of June. It was a nightmare to sit through those long, hot nights for the audience and for many of the performers as well. No doubt it turned off some of the fans who were considering attending this year's fest. Their loss. Both the brisk, welcome AC and the mostly great sound made this fest a much better experience for us all.
Tuesday, June 9th got off to great start with an Opening Invocation featuring Patricia Nicholson doing voice and dance, William Parker on gimbri (4-string African bass) and Hamid Drake on frame drum. Ms. Nicholson is the Vision Fest's main organizer and the epicenter of good vibes that flow through every Vision Fest that I've attended, which is all of them. This was a perfect opening with a ritualistic vibe. Patricia chanted, "Change is Coming" and this is something we can all agree with. In the past year, we've seen things change for the worst around the world, we've seen the end of evil Bush administration and hopefully the dawn of a better day with Barack Obama. What I dig is the sound of William's four-string and Hamid's frame drum, it is a perfect blend of American and African spirits, ancient and modern at the same time.
Brass Bang was next with Billy Bang on violin, Ahmed Abdullah, Ted Daniel & James Zollar on trumpets, Dick Griffin on trombone and Russell Carter on drums. Billy Bang is a consistently inspired soloist and a fine composer. He organized quite a different band from previous years with violin and trombone on either end, 3 trumpets in the middle and a drummer in the back. Trombone legend Dick Griffin opened one piece with a stunning, multiphonic solo and often played righteous basslines throughout the set. Each of the three great trumpeters got a chance to take a couple of great solos and of course Billy Bang took a number of riveting solos as well. Billy continues to be influenced by his experience in Vietnam and still writes some fine, exotic Eastern melodies for his last few bands. Brass Bang ended with a great, unexpected version of "Take the A Train" which mixed old school jazz with some freer sections.
AACM flute sensation Douglas Ewart and his Inventions Ensemble was next and they were one of the highlights of this year's fest. Inventions featured an unique line-up with Mr. Ewart on flutes, sopranino sax, dijeradoo, percussion and voice, Joseph Jarman on flutes, soprano sax, poetry and melodica, JD Parran on bass sax, flutes and percussion, Donald Smith on piano, Thurman Barker on marimba and percussion and special guest Amiri Baraka on poetry. Longtime AACM legend Douglas Ewart doesn't come to NY very often so it seems he had to make this set special. You can tell that this was a truly an AACM set since it involved so many layers of ideas. One of the first pieces featured Ewart, Jarman and Baracka all reading texts simultaneously, much of it involving the names and qualities of many of AACM members past and present. It has most mesmerizing and thought provoking effect. All members of the sextet got a chance to shine whether through solos played separately or together. Every solo was profoundly memorable: JD Parran on bass sax, Joseph Jarman on soprano sax or flute, Donald Smith on oblique piano, Thurman Barker on marimba & drums, Amiri Baraka's poetry and Mr. Ewart on flutes, dijeradoo, sopranino and more. There were moments that were scary like when Douglas' dark dijeradoo backed Jarman's heavy recitation, screaming and singing. There were times when the sounds were quite haunting. "This music is healing" was one of the chants that went down. Amiri Baraka's final poem about children was a great way to bring this set to a close. Perhaps this set was a bit too long, it didn't matter since it was a transcendent set that no one will likely forget anytime soon.
The final set that night was Butch Morris' "Conduction No. 187, Erotic Eulogy" for a chorus of poets and a string ensemble. This was another extraordinary set! There were a few of downtown's best up there like Jason Hwang on violin, Okkyung Lee on cello and Shelley Burgon on harp. Butch Morris has been performing these conductions for more than two decades and each one is a unique event. This one in particular was mind-blowing! The eight poets were upfront across the stage and featured through most of the set. The texts that they spoke or sung dealt with various ways of looking at erotic words. One had to listen closely to hear all (some?) of different interconnected words and layers of strings. Each of the poets/speakers/singers had a different voice and approach. There was laughter, weird phrases, twisted words, repeated texts, sometimes confusing or enticing, but most often fascinating. Butch has developed his own approach to conducting and continues to evolve depending on who he has to work with. This ensemble was one of his best ever. I loved the way the strings would move in waves and currents, as if Butch were conducting a sea of (musical) fish. There were only a few solos that emerged from wonderful ensemble playing that really hit me by Okkyung Lee and Shelley Burgon. Overall this was closer to modern chamber music than to jazz, but then again only a fool of jazz critic would care. Butch received a well-deserved ovation and played a rich bodied 10 minute encore that brought this long evening to grand conclusion. "Bravo" to Mr. Morris and his incredible ensemble.
Wednesday, June 10th was the second day of Vision Fest 14 and it was a celebration of the life of Marshall Allen. Marshall Allen has been a member of the Sun Ra Arkestra since its inception in the mid-fifties, for more than a half century! Since Sun Ra's passing in 1993, Mr. Allen has been the leader/director of the legendary Arkestra, as well as keeping his own solo career going strong with numerous concerts and discs over the past decade. Considering that Marshall is 85 years young, he continues to be a marvel as a musician, bandleader and a completely possessed & positive spirit. Patricia Nicholson gave Mr. Allen a nice monetary award for "A Lifetime of Recognition" and we can think of no one more worthy than him.
The night began with a short film by Luciano Rossetti called "Vision of New York". Mostly is was a high speed collection of photos from a previous Vision Fest at the Orensanz Center with street pics of New York City interspersed. The soundtrack was provided by the Sabir Mateen Quartet and I felt that the film did a good job of capturing the adrenalin-pumping excitement that free jazz can and does offer. This was an appropriate intro to the next set, which was often frenzied free/jazz from an all-star quintet.
The first set was by the Marshall Allen All-Stars (my term) and it was good way to begin the night. This group featured Marshall Allen on alto sax & EWI (electronic wind instrument), Kidd Jordan on tenor sax, William Parker on bass, Henry Grimes on bass & violin and Hamid Drake on drums. It began with a spaced out EWI solo by Marshall. Sun Ra himself loved to experiment with various keyboards & synths and had the Arkestra once play some new instruments known as "strange strings" for an album by the same name. Marshall has continued to experiment and uses the EWI often in his solo spots, a strange square black tube with a round pitch bending device at the end. It does sound like an ancient synthesizer. So Marshall started off with a fine Sun Ra-like EWI solo with the rest of the quintet soon joining in. Like John Gilmore, another early member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and influential saxist, Marshall helped to invent those intense, bent-note and multiphonic sax sounds. Hence, Marshall still has his own unique sound on sax, rooted in the jazz tradition but always reaching for the stars or at least Saturn, Sun Ra's homeworld. When Marshall finally reached for his alto sax and began to take off for regions unknown, Mr. Grimes switched to violin and took a solo instead. Marshall waited gracefully before finally launching off and twisting his sax notes inside out. The set progressed organically with a simmering solo from Kidd Jordan while William & Hamid, who have played together for years, locked in and pushed the rhythms higher and higher. I felt that this set had some great moments but was a bit uneven. Since this evening was part of Marshall Allen Recognition Day, I felt the Mr. Grimes could've have given Marshall a bit more space to his own thing at a couple of points.
Bill Cole's Untempered Ensemble was next and were the complete opposite of the previous set. The personnel featured Mr. Cole on double reeds (musette?), Joe Daley on tuba, Shayna Dulberger on contrabass, Atticus Cole on congas, Warren Smith on drums & marimba and Althea Cole on vocals. The frontline of this ensemble was what made it unique: tuba and musette, one of the lowest toned instruments and one of the highest toned. Mr. Daley and Mr. Cole have worked together in different versions of this group and sound great together. Mr. Cole's music is a fine blend of eastern and western harmonies, exotic and desert-like at times. The music was often skeletal yet rich. Bill chose a great rhythm team, the fine young bassist Shayna Dulberger, the elder statesman drummer/percussionist Warren Smith plus Atticus Cole on congas. Everyone in the sextet got a chance to solo at least once and each solo was special and well integrated into the group's sound. Bill Cole's snake-charming double reed is something else and cast a subtle yet cosmic spell on those in attendance.
The main attraction of the night was the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of Marshall Allen and the night was sold out and completely packed. The anticipation ran high. Steve Dalachinsky read a poem by Sun Ra and this was a good intro into the unique world of Sun Ra's mysterious words. Although I have seen the Arkestra more than 30 times in the seventies through the nineties when Mr. Ra was alive, this was only the second time in the past decade that I've caught them. They were in fine form. Commencing with the controlled chaos with Marshall conducting the screams and shrieks of the other horn players, 5 saxes, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, plus 2 basses, 2 percussionists, guitarist, piano/synth player and a older style singer. After the long, crazy and intense opening section, they went into an old standard called "All You Got to Do is Dream". When they soon broke into "Discipline", I was all smiles since this is my favorite Sun Ra song/riff. What I dug about this set was that it was a classic Sun Ra Arkestra set with a great balance free jazz, ballads, chants, crazed solos, big band (Fletcher Henderson) arrangements. I recognized many of the chants from the yesteryears of Ra gigs like, "Interplanetary Music", "Don't Give That Jive Jack", "Space is the Place" and "I'll Wait for You". Of course, the Arkestra was decked out in sequined costumes and hats and a number of players did some great dance steps and acrobatics. What more could anyone want?!? The return of Sun Ra himself to the planet earth, as one heckler asked on the previous evening. No need since Mr. Ra was there in spirit anyway. If you weren't there, the new new Sun Ra Arkestra does capture the current band quite well indeed.
Thursday, June 10th was Day 3 of the Vision Fest. One of the things that makes the Vision Fest special is that it feels like a community of folks who get together for a week every year and spend some special time doing a variety of tings together, not just listening to music. There is a good deal of dance and spoken word, occasional singing and some commerce like CD's, T-shirts, posters, books, as well as home-made food and drinks. Although I don't appreciate dance so much, it was often fascinating to see it in every nook & cranny of the Abrons Arts Center. Besides the main auditorium which was air conditioned and had relatively good sound, there was also another live music space downstairs called the Experimental Theatre.
For me Day 3 began with a wonderful trio of David Budbill (voice), William Parker (bass) and Hamid Drake (snare & frame drums & 1 cymbal). Mr. Budbill is a great poet and one of the festival's better MC's. For this set he quoted many musicians about the meaning of the word "jazz." He picked many great quotes from historical figures like Art Blakey, Betty Carter & Duke Ellington, as well as many contemporary voices like his colleagues, William & Hamid. Every quote seems to have a somewhat different version of the word "jazz" and what it means to each musician. Throughout the set, William and Hamid kept a constant flow of grooves, pulses & rhythms. Hamid continues to amaze us by just using a snare or frame drum and just one cymbal. The flow of ideas between all three players was beautiful, thought-provoking and uplifting.
The next set was completely different on many levels. The William Hooker Trio with Darius Jones on alto sax, Adam Lane on contrabass and William on drums played to a rare silent movie from 1920 called 'Symbol of the Unconquered' by Oscar Micheaux. The film itself dealt with racial problems in the rural US during the depression, black folks trying to pass for whites and evil ways of the Klux Klux Klan. The movie was often poignant, riveting, disturbing and provocative. Mr. Hooker played solo drum set in the first half and did a great job of matching the music with the feeling that movie produced in the audience. Even better was when he was joined by alto saxist Darius Jones and bassist Adam Lane. The trio matched the power of the film in a most gripping way. The images of the Klan riding on horses in sheets with torches in their hands was quite disturbing and I don't think I will forget about these images anytime soon.
The Ernest Dawkins New Horizon Ensemble from Chicago was next and were fantastic. The ensemble featured Ernest on alto & tenor saxes, Steve Berry on trombone, Darius Savage on bass and Isaiah Spencer on drums. The set began with the band facing east in silence, a ritual that I've seen the Art Ensemble do a number of times. This quartet was super-tight, energetic, exuberant and intense. The frontline of sax and trombone was consistently inspired, both the writing and playing. Each solo by either horn was great and often on fire. The rhythm team, although quite a bit younger than the horn players were also outstanding. The John Coltrane Quartet seems to be a major influence here, especially when Ernest was playing tenor. Every tune, every melody was quite memorable and this was a set of all new material recorded for a future CD. They ended with an appropriate song called "Bagdad Boogie" which was rather funky with an infectious, pumping, repeating riff. This song had an anti-war sentiment and Ernest had the audience chanting, "No more war!". Another perfect set from some of Chicago's finest!
The final set that night was by the highly anticipated Sunny Murray Quartet with Odean Pope on tenor sax, Sabir Mateen on alto & tenor sax, Lee Smith on acoustic bass and Sunny Murray on drums. Although Sunny Murray helped to invent "free/jazz" drumming more than forty years ago, he loves to confound people's expectations. He started the set by playing slowly and methodically, keeping a certain subdued but cosmic flow. Although all four musicians originally come from Philly, the backgrounds and musical experiences are quite different. Odean Pope is one of the elder statesman of jazz leading bands (like his Sax Choir) and playing with legends like Max Roach. Sabir, who moved to LA and worked with Horace Tapscott's Orchestra in the eighties & nineties, is an integral part of the avant/jazz scene in New York for the past decade or so. Odean & Sabir's tones and playing are very different yet their contrast often worked with Sunny directing by setting up his own space groove. Both saxists played a handful of skeletal themes together in a harmonious way and then took inspired but very different solos. Bassist Lee Smith is one of those best kept secret legends and an extraordinary acoustic bassist. Mr. Smith is the father of bassist Christian McBride and one of the best bassists I caught in recent memory. His constant interaction with Sunny and both saxists was often astonishing. Both saxists traded solos slowly, each solo telling a different story. As the set evolved, Sunny slowly increased the tempo nudging the saxists to wail a little higher. Although the set was only 25 minutes, for me it seemed like it was just about enough, of course some folks grumbled about the length of the set. Sunny got up from the drums and talked a bit about the importance of Vision Fest and Patricia Nicholson's hard work. He also discussed living in Paris where there is socialized health care and where they treat artists better. He mentioned the way American (jazz) musicians his age (73) have been abandoned. He says to not forget that we don't have be a part of capitalist society, we too can move to France , although it is not so simple.
Day 4, June 12th, began with an interesting trio with Miriam Parker doing dance, Jason Hwang on violin and Joseph Daley on tuba. The stage was mostly in the dark with minimal lighting. I dug the way Ms. Parker danced and moved slowly around the stage since it was easier for me to comprehend than other dancers that I've seen at the Vision Fest. Jason Hwang's sound on violin was much different than in other contexts. He did a good deal of plucking the strings and manipulated these sounds with loops or delays. The high pitched plucks and bowing provided a strong contrast for the low-pitched sounds of the tuba. Joe Daley used growls, smears and assorted extended sounds on his tuba. The sounds that the duo made were very effective at creating odd yet intricate accompaniment for the dance moves.
I hadn't heard much from Charles Gayle in a while gigwise, just the occasional CD on Not Two or Clean Feed. For this set Charles played with a great bassist that he hadn't played with until recently Lisle Ellis and his old comrade Michael Wimberley on drums. Nowadays Charles plays mostly alto sax and piano when he performs. For this set Charles surprised us by pulling out his tenor, something he hasn't done in years. Although this trio did play freely, they played with more restraint than we've come to expect from Mr. Gayle. Charles gave a good deal of space over to his rhythm team. Formerly Vancouver and then California (Bay area & San Diego) based bassist Lisle Ellis moved to NY a couple of years back and has become an important part of the downtown scene. He is one of the best contrabassists around and got a chance to do a couple of superb solos in this set. Michael Wimberley also sounded great. For couple of pieces, Charles slowed to pace down to a free ballad space, stretching out each note cautiously. Charles also played some piano, another thing he just keeps getting better with. I am not sure how many times this trio has ever player together but they sounded flawless at working together, the the music flowing seamlessly.
Local saxist Ras Moshe has played at our store on the Bowery more than any other bandleader, mostly because his music is always inspiring and he is a good friend of ours. I was very glad to see Ras get a premiere set at the Vision Fest and his groups was even better than any time I've heard them in the past. The Ras Group features Ras Moshe on tenor & alto saxes, Matt Lavelle on trumets, Dave Ross on guitar, Shayna Dulberger on acoustic bass and Charles Downes (formerly Rashied Bakr) on drums. Ras' writing really stood out here as each piece had a most memorable and complex theme. After the first opening theme, Ras took a long, intense tenor solo that was truly amazing, which was followed by an equally burning trumpet solo from Matt Lavelle.The rhythm team of Dave Ross on guitar, Shayna on bass and Charles on drums was outstanding throughout. Guitarist Dave Ross is in constant motion, splaying hundreds of notes up and down the neck of the guitar, whether supporting either or both horns or pulling off an occasional astonishing solo. Although the overall sound of the band is one of being mostly free, Ras directed them and kept them tightly flowing together.
The Ayler Project are another new downtown all-star quartet featuring Joe McPhee on tenor sax & pocket trumpet, Roy Campbell on trumpets & flute, William Parker on bass and Warren Smith on drums, gongs & other percussion. The quartet are a tribute to the legendary free/jazz originals, Albert & Donald Ayler. They play a few of Ayler's own songs as well as a few songs influenced by the Aylers. Commencing with some ritualistic gongs and spoken words by Roy, it was an auspicious beginning. The first piece featured some burning solos from Roy on trumpet and Joe on tenor with William Parker bowing up a storm on bass. One song reminds of some sort of South African ballad lovely flugel and tenor harmonies. Warren Smith is a master drummer and played with astonished taste and creativity throughout the set. "Our Prayer" featured Warren on mallets and was filled with suspense with two great but restrained trumpets up front. There were times when the quartet burned like a MF and times when they sound like the cosmic sounds of the Ayler Bros. themselves.
Another great thing about the Vision Fest is when they present a new and/or under-recognized artist who turns out to be a great new discovery. This was certainly true about South African reedsman, Zim Ngqawna. There has been a buzz about Zim over the past few years and it turns out that he has a few fine discs out already, none of which I've heard. For this set, Zim's Collective Quartet featured some of downtown's best with Matt Shipp on piano, William Parker on bass, Nasheet waits on drums and Zim on soprano, alto & tenor sax & flute. The set started with a strong trio of Matt, William & Nasheet, rumbling and then soaring together powerfully with Zim soon entering on tenor. Zim's fine, dark tone and intense tenor shined as he rode on the waves provided by the rest of the quartet. Nasheet is one of the best new jazz drummers and has a distinctive style, a quiet storm who never overplays. Zim soon switched to soprano sax with Matt playing spooky sounds inside the piano while William played some haunting bowed bass. Zim then took an amazing flute solo with wonderful interplay amongst the four fine musicians. Although this set seemed to be mostly improvised, everything the quartet did was connected and successful. Everyone in the quartet got a chance to shine and solo and all four rose to the occasion. Time to search for some discs by Zim Ngqawana, a new true young giant.
Saturday, June 13th was a double-header with an afternoon series and an evening series, unfortunately due to work I had to miss the afternoon series once again. I especially would've liked to hear Darius Jones Trio with Bob Moses. Both Darius & Bob are friends of mine and Darius is one of the best new alto players to come along in recent memory. For me this night started with an incredible solo piano set from Matt Shipp. After a number of years experimenting with electronics & beats for Thirsty Ear, Matt has been concentrating on mostly acoustic piano recently with some wonderful solo & trio discs on Rogue Art & Thirsty Ear. His solo sets develop in unpredictable ways. He will often take a few melodic fragments and slowly turn them inside out, eventually adding flurries and dark clusters as the piece evolves. It took some patience and concentration in order to hear or feel the underlying themes that emerged throughout the long set. For a number of my friends in the audience, this proved to be one of the best sets of this entire festival. I found it often quite challenging and will take some time to absorb fully. I would like to hear it again a few times to really take it all in, but this is one of responsibilities of a hungry or enlightened audience to take it all in and then go on to another set a short time later.
The next set was also of this fest's best, it featured a new Rob Brown Trio with Rob on alto sax & compositions, Craig Taborn on piano and Nasheet waits on drums. At just about every Vision Fest, Rob Brown presents a new work and/or band and astounds me/us every time. This set was especially transcendent. Starting with a powerful drum solo from the great Nasheet Waits, I must admit that Nasheet (son of jazz drum legend Freddie Waits) has his own style and focus, much different from anyone who plays in a freer jazz style. He concentrates on a certain area of the drums and never wastes a note. The theme that Rob had written for the first piece was tight-knit and challenging to play, completely different from anything we've heard from Rob before. The second piece was much different, starting off spaciously and then played in slow motion. The haunting harmonies for the piano and alto sax were both rich and sublime. Rob stretched out each notes cautiously, reminding me of Lee Konitz, an unexpected delight. With Nasheet on precious brushes, Craig took a sparkling, stunning piano solo. Over the past decade, I've heard Craig Taborn play more electronic than acoustic keyboards with Tim Berne, so it was wonderful to hear him playing exclusively acoustic piano for this set. It was one of Craig's best sets, so I would hope to hear more of this from him. This piece ended with a torrential downpour of notes that really blew some minds! The third piece started with just alto & drums and was one of the difficult start & stop songs that Zorn loves to write for Masada. All three musicians had to shadow each other closely to make this piece work, it was not an easy feat. The last piece began quietly and was filled with suspense, finally building to volcanic solo from Craig before it calmed back down. This set was astonishingly great and I hope that it is released on CD so those of you who were not there can still hear it.
Legendary drummer, professor, healer and percussion innovator, Milford Graves, plays live all to rarely. He put together a new quartet just for this fest (his only NY area performance this year) and it was indeed a strong one. It featured D.D. Jackson on piano, William Parker on contrabass & d'son goni (sic), Grant Langford on tenor sax and Milford on drums & vocalizations. There are a few things that make Milford unique, his distinctive playing style, vocal sounds and his odd, home-made drumset, with pictures painted on the sides of the drums. The way Milford swirls around his set is something special to see and hear, reminding me of Ginger Baker at times, no doubt they both started out professionally around the same time (early 60's). The set started with an amazing free duo explosion of drums and piano. Before the set started I was wondering why Milford had picked DD Jackson to play with, a certainly more straight ahead jazz player. No doubt that Milford saw something special in DD and he was an important part of this set. The first piece was a frenzy of activity and astonishing to watch as well as hear. Choosing William Parker seems like an easy decision since William is indeed one of the best acoustic bassists on the planet and works well in many situations. He added to the hurricane-like force of the quartet perfectly. Saxist Grant Langford I believe was a student of Milford's and also fit well blowing some fine tenor no matter where the quartet headed. For the second piece, William switched to his d'son goni, an acoustic African instrument that Don Cherry used to play and the vibe calmed down. I dug this piece since we could finally hear some great cross communications between all four musicians, duos into trio into quartets. The final piece was more of a controlled frenzy with powerful waves crashing on other waves. It was great to see/hear DD slamming his hands on the piano in a most Don Pullen sort of way. This piece built to a grand conclusion and was a most impressive way to bring the set to close. Milford gave a little talk at the end explaining how he chose each of his collaborators and thanking Patricia and the rest of the festival organizers for an important meeting the spirits.
For as long as DMG has been around (18 years last May), we have always had a hard time selling discs by jazz singers. I am not so sure why this is, but avant/jazz fans seem to prefer instrumentalists. I have always had a fondness for the likes of Leon Thomas, Joe Lee Wilson & Eddie Jefferson, as well as Cassandra Wilson, Ellen Christie, Jay Clayton & Lisa Sokolov. I have long loved experimental singers, so the weirder the better. I was glad to see that Ms. Sokolov was on the bill for this fest, for me it was a much needed break from what we've come to expect. For this set Lisa had just a trio with Cameron Brown on bass, her son Jake Sokolov on cello and Lisa on piano & vocals. What I dig about Lisa is that she is full of surprises, she draws from different styles and genres and twists her voice into some unexpected shapes. The first piece she did reminded me of Laura Nyro, one of the soulful singers and songwriters to emerge from the sixties. The way Lisa caressed each note with her voice was a marvel, not afraid to bend certain notes or words in unique ways. Next Lisa took Aretha Franklin's "Chain of Fools" and deconstructed it, speeding it up and slowing it down in odd ways and making it fresh and new. Contrabassist Cameron Brown remains one of the best bassists around and was a perfect foil for Lisa throughout the set. His intro on "Lush Life" was enchanting and he did a splendid job of backing Lisa's voice on this song as well. Cellist Jake Sokolov also did a fine job of interweaving with Lisa's voice on a piece called "I am a Broken Wand". I loved the way Lisa took "Ole Man River" and stripped it down, adding words and transforming it into a different song. What amazed me throughout the set was the way that Ms. Sokolov was able to change the sound of her voice and alter the meaning of her songs in a variety of different ways.
The final set of the night was also an unexpected turn. It was Joe Morris' Go Go Mambo, a tribute to Prez Prado?!? Joe Morris is one of the finest avant/jazz guitarists and bassists around and consistently releases great, challenging discs with mostly trios or quartets. For this set, Joe organized a ten-piece group and played relatively straight arrangements of songs made popular by Latin legend, Prez Prado. I was familiar with some of the members of this band (from previous Morris projects) like Bill Lowe, Timo Shanko, Steve Lantner, Jim Hobbs and special guest Tony Malaby. I must admit that I not familiar with Mr. Prado or very much Latin music except for Mongo Santamaria & Dizzy Gillespie's work with different Latin musicians. The band was tight and music seemed to be well-played, but I wasn't sure why exactly Joe Morris would debut this band at the Vision Fest. There were a number of strong solos from Bill Lowe on trombone, Steve Lantner on piano and Jim Hobbs on alto sax. Perhaps it was too late in the evening and I was too tired to really enjoy this set fully. After all this was the 5th day of the Vision Fest and the last set of the night and I had a long trip home to make...
Sunday, June 14th was the 6th day of the Vision Fest and the last day at the Abrons Center. This night opened with another fine trio called Planet Dream with Rob Brown on alto sax, Steve Swell on trombone and Daniel Levin on cello. As far as I could tell, this set was completely improvised, unlike the previous Rob Brown Trio set I heard the night before. What I dug about this set was the way it unfolded, slowly and carefully with each member of the trio shifting the direction by playing, reacting and conversing with the other two. At times cellist Daniel Levin would take up the bass position by plucking his strings and providing a bass line and/or a beat underneath. For many in attendance, this was improvised music at its best. There was much focused listening and attention to detail in this trio, hence the interaction was often exciting and demanding. It felt as if a play was unfolding with different relationships between the players constantly shifting, responding and evolving into the next scene. I noticed that it took more concentration in order hear everything that was going on. Perhaps a second listen would provide even more things to consider if that is possible.
The (New) Fred Anderson Trio were next and it was great but not what some expected. This version of the trio featured Mr. Anderson on tenor sax, William Parker on acoustic bass & d'son goni and Hamid Drake on drumset & frame drum. Fred Anderson remains one of the most intense and influential of all present day Chicago jazz legends, which is pretty incredible considering that Fred just turned 80 earlier this year. Fred and younger Chicago drum wizard, Hamid Drake, have been playing together for longer than any other musician who Hamid still plays with since their families have been friends for many years. Hence there is a special connection between Fred and Hamid which was apparent throughout this fine set. The set started with Fred on tenor, William on d'son goni and Hamid on frame drum and it was a sublime beginning, subtle and building slowly to a more intense conclusion. William soon picked up his double reed (musette?) which moved the vibe in trance-like music, completely mesmerizing. The second piece started with a tenor solo which was intense yet without any screaming?!? I dug the way the rest of the trio came in (contrabass & drums) and built until the energy was boiling. William & Hamid have also long worked together and make a perfect rhythm team. When then kicked it into high gear the feeling was one of a cosmic ascension. Both Hamid and William took amazing solos during the next piece and continued to blow minds. Now this what free/jazz is really about: powerful, triumphant and uplifting for all in attendance.
A nice change of pace was the next set by Michele Rosewoman & Quintessence. Ms. Rosewoman has long led some fine multi-horned bands here in NY with a number of great discs as a leader. She always picks great musicians to work with so her new ensemble featured a stellar crew: Loren Stillman & Jacob Yoffee on saxes, Vincent Gardner on trombone, Rich Padron on guitar, Brad Jones on basses, Tyshawn Sorey on drums and Ms. Rosewoman on acoustic & electric piano. Michele has always been a gifted jazz composer and some of her music reminds me of M-Base music slowed down a bit, challenging to play but not too difficult to understand. I dug the way the piano, guitar, bass and drums played their intricate lines while the horns played other complex lines on top. Choosing Brad Jones (who sounded amazing on electric & acoustic bass) and young upstart Tyshawn Sorey (who occasionally sounds like a Tony Williams w/ Miles) was a particularly smart move since both players are so strong in different situations. Besides the consistently engaging composing, there were a number of impressive solos from Mr.'s Gardner on trombone, Stillman on alto, Padron on guitar, Yoffee on tenor and Michele on both pianos. There was one tune where Michele used that somewhat funky clavinet setting on her electric piano that recalled the 70's which I found refreshing and not so dated.
The next set was also a woman led trio featuring Eri Yamamoto on piano, Daniel Carter on multi-reeds & trumpet and Whit Dickey on drums. For more than a decade, Ms. Yamamoto has led a more straight jazz piano trio with a regular gig in the Village and a half dozen releases. Since hooking up with Matt Shipp & William Parker and recording of Thirsty Ear, Eri's playing has been getting freer and going further out. Still, none of her previous recordings prepared us for this set which was mostly free and consistently intense. It started out spaciously and cautiously with Daniel playing some sublime trumpet, slowly filling in the space with ghostlike sounds. Eri did a great job of adding phrases and occasional themes to keep the trio focused. Each time Daniel picked a different horn (soprano, tenor, flute & clarinet), the vibe of the trio would change. I've heard Ms. Yamamoto on a few occasions (once at our Bowery store) but here she was at her most impressive. There were times when she would explode into dense orchestral runs and times when she slowed things down to a ballad-like grace. She picked to other master improvisers who listened closely and responded with strong interaction on different levels. This was yet another set of free/jazz at its best with some occasional themes or melodic fragments to give the set a more organic flow.
The final set that night was the much anticipated and aptly titled Full Blast, a power trio featuring Peter Brotzmann on saxes & clarinets, Marino Pliakas on electric bass and Michael Wertmuller on drums. To say that this set was loud and controversial would be putting it mildly. This set was incredibly f**king loud, over-the-top and in-your-face! It reminded of the way the Last Exit, which also featured Brotzmann, used to piss off jazz critics and other more mellow folks. What's interesting is this: no doubt that all three of these fellows are fine players but when it is that loud you can't hear anything other than an explosive, corrosive roar. I dig their two discs where I can actually turn it down to hear their individual playing. My feeling is that Full Blast should be playing at rock or noise festivals and not at the Vision Fest. I am a longtime fan of Peter Brotzmann and would love to hear him with just about any other project but I found this set to be ultimately boring and predictable. One of my friends seemed angered by this set and said that he hated it. This a strong reaction but not completely hard to comprehend.
The final night of the Vision Fest took place at the Orensanz Center on Norfolk Street, where a number of previous Vision Fests have taken place. This room is a vast old synagogue with good but not great sound and a more spiritual vibe. The first set a special one featuring Jason Kao Hwang's Spontaneous River, which was a massive string ensemble with some 36 members. The ranks included Charles Burnham, Henry Grimes & David Soldier on violins, Ron Lawrence, Daniel Levin, seven guitars, a half dozen contrabassists (Francois Grillot, Michael Bisio & Ken Filiano) and Andrew Drury on drums & metals. Jason did a good job of conducting this large string orchestra, moving waves upon other waves. There were moments of that eerie sliding string sound pioneered by Penderecki and Xenakis. I felt that the title of the ensemble, Spontaneous River, was most appropriate since it did sound like a constantly moving river of sounds, with slow and more rapid shifts. I dug the way Jason would play a phrase or two on his violin and then direct sections of musicians to repeat and/or alter what he just played. The balance between the directed and charted sections was most often impressive and no doubt difficult to pull off. My only complaint was the piece was a bit too long and could've been edited down. Overall it was most impressive and a great to begin the final day.
One of my favorite of all free/jazz trios is of course Trio X who feature Joe McPhee on reeds & trumpet, Dominic Duval on contrabass and Jay Rosen on drums. As always, their set was one of this festival's best! They started with a most haunting, skeletal sound with Joe on alto sax slowly bending each note one at a time. Each member of the trio was wearing shades (and looking a bit foreboding), yet their sound was most poignant and touching. Each piece was dedicated to another jazz legend, from Ornette to Max Roach to Freddie Hubbard to Henry Grimes. The beginning of "Take it to the Max" for Mr. Roach had a wonderful Max-like drum solo which build organically with a great Pharoah-like tenor solo from Joe. "Little Sunflower" (for Mr. Hubbard) had a solemn bass intro with Joe on Freddie-like pocket trumpet runs which were stunning. "Remembering the Call" (for Mr. Grimes) had some superb bass and brushes from Jay. This trio has the perfect balance of the lyrical and the freer elements. This was a perfect set, the restraint and subtly were quite magical. Every set I've heard from Trio X has been wonderful and quite different.
Patricia Parker's Dance Ensemble were next and featured a trio with Jason Hwang on violin, William Parker on bass & other instruments and Cooper-Moore on two drumheads percussion. The four dancers (2 women & 2 men) were all in white and did a good job of creating their own scenes while the musicians played intensely on the right hand side of the stage. William played some haunting shackuhachi while Jason plucked his violin rhythmically, Copper-Moore creating counter-beats. It took nearly the entire set before the three musicians broke into some sort of groove. This was another strong set that would've been better if were shorter.
The final set on the final night featured the William Parker Quartet with guests. William's main quartet features Rob Brown on alto sax, Lewis Barnes on trumpet, William on bass and Hamid Drake on drums with special guests Bobby Bradford on cornet, James Spaulding on alto sax and Billy Bang on violin. They started off with one of those great grooves the William's quartets always specialize in. They gave legendary cornetist Bobby Bradford the first solo which I thought was not a good idea since he didn't know the material like the rest of the members of the quartet so it took him a while to warm up to the task. Hence by the time Lewis Barnes took his solo, the quartet was already cookin' and Lewis blew up a storm. Rob Brown took a great Dolphy-like solo but the highlight was the solo by James Spaulding, perhaps the oldest member of the group and a sixties Blue Note All-Star and longtime professor. This solo inspired Billy Bang to also reach of the heavens with his solo as well. The group eventually broke into a joyous reggae/funk sort of groove which was infectious and had all of the members taking strong spirited solos. This set was pretty great, not too long and a bit anti-climatic. The great Bobby Bradford who rarely comes to NYC got a chance to lead a jam session later that night at Local 269, but by that time I was on my way home.
Vision Festival 14 was a strong festival overall and had many great sets. I was pretty exhausted by the end since seven nights and more than thirty sets is a bit too much for this old trooper. The spirit of the festival, the feeling of a yearly family or community reunion is what always brings me back. There are a few dozen folks who come almost every year and seeing them, talking, eating and experiencing the music, dance, vocals and artwork is what connects us all to each other. Now more than ever we need a Vision to help us connect with the spirit that is inside of all of us and rarely gets a chance to be rejuvenated properly. Thanks once again to Patricia Parker and her hard working staff, to all of the musicians, dancers and artists involved and to all of the members of our extended family who come together for another joyous yearly get-together.
Love, peace & happiness ..and understanding ..from Bruce Lee Gallanter / Downtown Music Gallery