THE 27th ANNUAL VISION FESTIVAL 2023 - June 12th - June 18th, 2023
Review by Bruce Lee Gallanter
I’ve been attending the Vision Festival ever since it began in 1996, every year and practically every set. I must admit that I am a music fest junkie ever since running away from home in August of 1969 (at age 15) to attend the Atlantic City Rock Festival, since my parents said I was too young to go. I’ve been to all sorts of festivals ever since: other rock fests, Newport NY Jazz Festivals, bluegrass, country, world music, Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, New Music America (in Montreal, Miami & NY), all of the Knitting Factory Jazz Fests, FIMAV / Victo Fest in Quebec (1987-2023), the Douk Fest (in Amsterdam), the NEAR (New England Art Rock/Prog) fest, plus thousands of other concerts in NJ, NY and anywhere I can get to to check Creative Music of many types. I feel a particular closeness to both FIMAV and the Vision Fest, after attending so many, watching them evolve over a long period and being friends with the organizers of each. FIMAV takes place in the third week of May each year while the Vision Fest currently takes place a month or so later in June. At one point these two fest overlapped by 1 or 2 days so it was the rare time I missed a day of the Vision Fest.
I had just gotten back from FIMAV (May 18th-21st) and finally finished my long review (now up on the DMG website) a couple of days before the 27th annual Vision Fest began on June 13th. The theme of this year’s Vision Fest is “Improvising the Future” which is something that I often consider as I continue to check improvised music gigs all the time, ever since I discovered Creative Rock Music in the sixties and studied the history of jazz starting in 1972. I’ve attended 1000’s of jazz, rock, folk, blues, country, world music concerts & avant concerts and discovered & befriended members of the early Downtown Scene in the late 70’s/early 80’s. One of the things that is common throughout are Creative Music is the ability and practice of improvising, taking a musical idea and then stretching it out to an unexpected place. We all have the ability to improvise in a variety of situations yet we are often stifled due to the expectations or rules which are placed upon us at school, in society… Creative Musicians often excel at improvising, they are an example of Democracy/Freedom at work. When it does work, it feels like magic, like we are transcending whatever holds us down too much.
This year’s Vision Fest’s live music ran for six nights with around 5 sets per night, usually from 7pm to 11:30 or so. I know this is quite a bit of music to take in every night but I feel exhilarated since so much of the music was wonderful, challenging, fascinating, unexpected and often inspiring. The opening night for live music was June 13th and it was a tribute to French master contrabassist Joelle Leandre, someone I’ve long admired for her powerful playing and commitment to Creative Music for her entire career. The first two days of the Vision Fest were filled with discussion groups, workshops, films and artwork, which I would’ve love to attend but I had to work at the store.
The first set of Day 3, the first night of live performances, began with the Tiger Trio, three incredible women: Myra Melford on piano, Nicole Mitchell on flutes and Ms. Leandre on contrabass. The Tiger Trio have two discs out on the Rogue Art label, both are great and I’ve seen them live just once. All three women are master improvisers and I’ve caught each of them many times in different situations. The set started out quietly with each musician slowly interweaving their playing. A number of the mid set pieces started off as duos and evolved from there. Ms. Leandre’s bowed bass is often deep and spiritual sounding and at times she will also add some occasional vocal parts to enhance what is going on. Nicole Mitchell’s flute playing is often riveting, at time she will sing a note while playing to make a chord appear from thin air. Myra Melford often sounds like she used to play the blues earlier on her live or in a previous life. She can play freely and forcefully yet her (inner) soul always seems to come through. Nicole Mitchell is great composer, multi-bandleader and an incredible flutist. She pulled off a number of incredible flute solos here, especially wowing us when she adds vocal bits to her playing, creating chords that few flutist can bring off. This was an incredible set and a great way to begin the live music part of this festival.
The next set was a duo with Ms. Leandre and poet Fred Moten. Mr. Leandre has long worked with poets and singers: Steve Dalachinsky, Laura Newton & Maggie Nicols to name a few. Fred Moten teaches at NYU and has a fine trio effort out from last year (2022) with Brandon Lopez & Gerald Cleaver. Mr. Moten is also a great poet whose words often speak truth to power. Mr. Moten brought up a good deal of interesting points throughout the set. He talked about the history of jazz and how Ken Burn’s documentary about jazz left out too much of what modern jazz in. As a black man with an informed sense of justice and humor, he talked about a number of observations that many of us Freedom Fighters are trying to better understand and fix, as our so called Civilized World becomes more hostile to the Enlightened Woke Mob/subculture. As a longtime, half a century or so, improviser, Ms. Leandre has learned how to work well with everyone she chooses to improvise with so there well many moments when these improvisations provided inspiration for those who were listening closely.
The Judson Trio consists of Mat Maneri on viola, Craig Taborn on piano and Ms Leandre on bass. The Judson Trio used to feature Ms. Leandre, Mat Maneri & Gerald Cleaver on drums. They have two discs out on Rogue Art. Earlier this year the new Judson Trio with Leandre, Maneri and Craig Taborn had a new disc out also on Rogue Art. Ms. Leandre has been working with Mat Maneri for many years, their first recording by the Stone Quartet was recorded in 2006 at the Old Stone. Mr. Maneri and master pianist Craig Taborn have also been working together for many years, in the Ches Smith Trio and in several Maneri and Gerald Cleaver projects. Mat Maneri is a microtonal specialist who plays certain notes which sound out of tune to others yet someone work with other players who also like to bend notes in their own way. Mr. Maneri has a way of pushing the current into darker, key-shifting depths which take some time to get used to to. Maneri and Taborn were once members of the the Ches Smith Trio, whose ECM CD was an under-recognized gem. This trio doesn’t quite sound like any other trio so we had to listen close to hear the way they connected. There was some magic going one below the surface here which took us to somewhere else unexpected and compelling. Ms. Leandre and Mr. Maneri sound like kindred spirits as they break the boundaries by shifting through different keys or modes.
The last set of the first night was called the Atlantic Ave Septet, named after one of the streets where Roulette (home to the Vision Fest in recent years) is located. This was an all-star septet with Ingrid Laubrock on tenor & soprano saxes, Steve Swell on trombone, Mat Maneri on viola, Jason K Hwang on violin, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello, Joe Morris on guitar and Ms. Leandre on bass & composition. Ms. Leandre rarely organizes groups of this size, I can remember only once of seeing her do something like this many years ago (opening for the ICP Orchestra up at Columbia University). Ms. Leandre composed & directed this piece, another rarity for her. She chose all of the members of this septet for good reasons as they all had to be flexible, balancing between the occasional written parts and the wealth of improvised sections. Several duos emerged from the ensemble sections and each one was fascinating. The first one was a duo of Ms. Laubrock and Ms. Leandre, who worked together extremely well. Since moving to NY, Ms. Laubrock has become one of the best composers, bandleaders and musicians to emerge from the Downtown Scene for over a decade. The interplay between Laubrock (on soprano) and Leandre was extraordinary. The rest of the ensemble kept shifting through keys and dynamics as different duos or trio would erupt. I recall that I had to listen closely as different subgroups and interaction kept evolving throughout. What I found most interesting is this: certain members played different than I was accustomed to. Guitarist Joe Morris is someone I’ve long admired for his playing as well as different musicians he plays with. Since there was no drummer here, certain players, especially Mr. Morris, would focus the rhythmic shifts as they occurred. At one point, I thought I heard a long tuba blasting from the back stage area but there was no tuba up there. Hmmmmm. I finally figured out that it was Mr. Morris hitting or rubbing his guitar strings in a more rhythmic way which sounded like a low-end blast. This set was the best set of Day One and one of the best sets of the entire fest. I was glad to Joelle Leandre had the opportunity to do something like this, a true gem of a set and one of the best sets I’ve heard her do ever.
Music Night Two (6/14/23) began with Gerald Cleaver’s Black Host, a band I haven’t seen in several years. Black Host consisted of Cooper-Moore on piano & synth, Darius Jones on alto sax, Brandon Seabrook on el guitar, Brandon Lopez & Dezron Doubles on basses and Gerald Cleaver on drums & compositions with video art by Miriam Parker. I’ve caught this band several times in the past and thought that they often had great moments yet needed to refine some of the sharp edges. The sextet started out blasting away in powerful waves with Darius Jones, Brandon Seabrook and Cooper-Moore all wailing together, the sound closer to free/rock/jazz than anything else. Both Darius Jones (on alto sax) and Brandon Seabrook (on el guitar) are strong improvisers and both got to take long, sprawling solos, as the waves around them kept crashing higher and higher. The opening piece was some 20 minutes long and kept going on… I felt it went on for a bit too long. Finally things slowed down for the next piece, which broke into a more funky groove and featured a colossal piano solo from occasionally underrated Cooper-Moore. Both bassists, Brandon Lopez and Dezron Davis, are very different players but played together well for a double bass duo section here. The energy kept building throughout the long set, often with wave upon wave crashing town on us all. Both Darius Jones and Brandon Seabrook took a couple of truly inspired solos throughout. My main problem was that this set seemed a bit too long and I was exhausted when it ended as it was the first set of a long night.
The next set was supposed to be the Karen Borca Quartet with Karen on bassoon, Rob Brown on alto sax, Hill Greene on bass and Jackson Krall on drums & metal sculptures. Karen Borca is one of the finest free-blowing bassoonists in avant jazz and I always look forward to her yearly sets at the Vision Fest. I had heard that she’s had health problems over the past few years and recall her struggling somewhat to play at the store several months ago. Hence, she had hurt her hand recently and couldn’t play the night of the Vision Fest. Instead we were treated to Rob Brown/Hill Greene/Jackson Krall Trio. Mr. Krall has been making (often large) metal sculptures for a long while and using them to play over the past few years. They are quite striking to look as as well as play. The set started off with four drummers (Hamid Drake, Gerald Cleaver, Patricia Brennan & J Krall) all playing the sculptures together, a great way to kick things off. I didn’t recall hearing that someone announced that Ms. Borca wouldn’t be playing so I was surprised when the set started off without her. Rob Brown remains one of the best Free Jazz alto saxists alive and was in fine form that night. Although Mr. Brown has his own tone and touch, I can still hears bits of Ornette Coleman or Eric Dolphy in his playing. This was indeed a strong, spirited trio! Bassist Hill Greene (who has worked with Daniel Carter, Marc Edwards & Patrick Brennan) and drummer Jackson Krall (played in the Cecil Taylor Trio for a decade), are masters of the free-blowing thing. Hence this trio was extraordinary, focused and free and in your face! I hope Ms. Borca gets well soon so we can hear her once more.
For myself, one of the most anticipated sets was Hamid Drake’s Turiya - Honoring Alice Coltrane. The group featured James Brandon Lewis on tenor sax, Jamie Saft on organ, el & acoustic pianos, Patricia Brennan on vibes, Josh Abrams on bass & gimbri, Hamid Drake on drums, percussion & vocals and Patricia Nicholson on dance & voice. Alice Coltrane was indeed a well respected musician (on harp, piano & organ) long before she met, married and had a family with master-saxist John Coltrane. She is often overshadowed by her husband, although she went on the produce a dozen of her own great/spiritual jazz/religious music albums after his death in 1967. It turns out that Hamid Drake, the favorite drummer of many of us, met with and was long inspired by Ms. Coltrane, her music and her Spiritual Energy. Hamid put together an extraordinary all-star quintet for this set, each member a master and a bandleader on their own. I’ve noticed over the long haul, that many listeners that can’t deal with some of the freer ends of jazz, still love/appreciate what we call Spirit Jazz. This set had that vibe flowing throughout. Although James Brandon Lewis has been in town for just a decade, he has risen above the herd of fine saxists to be at the top of the Spirit Jazz sax heap. His tone and his playing is consistently inspired. Jamie Saft, he of the giant beard, spent a decade collaborating with and playing the music of John Zorn. Mr. Saft here played Hammond organ, electric piano & concert piano, each one utilized just right. Joshua Abrams leads to the Natural Information Society and plays a gimbri, a North African bass-like instrument often used in Moroccan Trance music. The music often had a transcendent vibe which washed over all of us in the audience. A relative newcomer to town is vibes-player Patricia Brennan. She played a long duo with Hamid, in which both players kept intertwining their lines and pushing each other higher and higher. Vision Fest founder Patricia Parker Nicholson is also a great dancer and added to this set by dancing and vocalizing at times. Patricia’s daughter Miriam did the video for this set as well, placing a silhouette of her body dancing amongst several layers of images flickering on the big screen throughout the entire set. My favorite part of the set was a long spoken word section by Mr. Drake, talking about meeting Alice Coltrane and explaining that Ms. Coltrane’s words on encouragement to him had changed his life forever. The Spirit/Jazz vibe flowed throughout this set and was like some Cosmic Medicine which helped all who listened and watched closely.
The last set of Night Two featured the Mark Dresser 7 which consisted of Nicole Mitchell on flute, Marty Ehrlich on reeds, Michael Dessen on trombone, Keir GoGwilt on violin, Joshua White on piano, Mark Dresser on contrabass & compositions and Michael Sarin on drums. Mark Dresser is a master contrabassist, composer and professor at UC San Diego. Some of the members of the septet have been worked with Dresser when they were in San Diego like Mr. Dessen, Mr. GoGwilt and (possibly) Mr. White. This group has two discs out on the Clean Feed label. Mr. Dresser’s music is closer to Third Stream or chamber jazz than anything so far at the Vision Fest this week. Mr. Dresser wrote some challenging charts for the septet to play so it took some time to figure out what was going on at times. Nicole Mitchell took the first great flute solo while a subgroup of trombone, clarinet & piano played a written section. Marty Ehrlich kicked off the second piece with a long, inspired, unaccompanied bass clarinet solo before the rest of the group joined him. Mr. Dresser’s music takes some time to adjust to since it often has several layers in interconnected lines going on and doesn’t swing as much as it flows from section to sections. It was great to see & hear some old friends like Michael Sarin, who played in the Thomas Chapin Trio for 5 years, Mark Dresser and Nicole Mitchell. Plus violinist Keir GoGwilt moved here in recent times and has played at DMG on a couple of occasions. It seems like its time to go back to that last Mark Dresser 7 CD and listen to it again since their are so many interesting things going on that will take some time fully absorb.
Day Three began with Devin Brahja Waldman’s Watermeloncholia. Devin Brahja Waldman is the nephew of famed Beat poet Anne Waldman and a fine saxist who plays/works in both NYC and in Montreal. I’ve been checking him out in different projects like Heroes are Gang Leaders and a current band with Abiodin Oyewole (from the Last Poets) & Ava Mendoza. Devin also has a few of his own records out with either his Montreal or New York collaborators. His recent is called ‘Watermelancholia’ has been getting rave reviews but I haven’t heard it yet. For this concert which has the same title as the album, the personnel is different and includes 4 saxes: Ras Moshe, Lee Odom, Watson & Mr. Waldman. Both Ras Moshe and Lee Odom play in the Charles Waters Sax Quartet. The rest of the band includes Damon Hankoff on piano, Luke Stewart on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums. I hadn’t heard of saxist Watson or pianist Hankoff before this set took place. Devin’s music has a swirling, repeating, spirit jazz line which runs throughout each song, giving it an infectious, hypnotic vibe. All of the saxes got a chance to solo and each solo was special, inspired and directly from the heart. I especially dug a fine solo on soprano sax from Lee Odom, someone I rarely get to hear live as well as astonishing solo from Mr. Waldman and my good pal Ras Moshe. What I dug about this music was that it seemed to be rooted on gospel and blues themes as well as Spirit Jazz magic. There was some sort of inner turbulence going on here that was pumping below the surface. I found the overall vibe to be most enchanting.
I missed the next set due to exhaustion and having to get some food since I hadn’t eaten much that day. The following set was the Ted Daniel International Brass & Membrane Corps (IBMC). The name of the band made me think that this might be a larger ensemble but it was a quartet with Ted Daniel on trumpet & compositions, Marvin Sewell on guitar, Jose Davila on tuba and Michael Wimberley on drums & percussion, plus two spoken word artists. Ted Daniel was one of the original Loft Jazz trumpeters whose career stretches back to the mid 1970’s. He seems to work on projects one at a time, hence he take his time to let things simmer and evolve over of periods of time. This set featured two spoken word artists who would switch off reading the words of Civil Rights activists like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Frederick Douglas. The music was often low-key and bluesy with some fine guitar from Mr. Sewell and heartfelt trumpet from Mr. Daniel. The four speeches that were read by the two men were often startling as they described different aspects about the way black people have been treated throughout their history in America. There was little or no soloing going on here so we could concentrate on the words that were spoken, giving those in attendance a chance to think about all of the terrible things that black folks have had to deal with in our so-called “Free Country”, where everyone is supposed to be treated fairly.
The last set of the night was Mike Reed’s Separatist Party which featured Ben Lamar Gay on trumpet, Rob Frye on tenor sax & flute, Cooper Carin on guitar & synth, Dan Quinlivan on keyboards, Marvin Tate on vocals and Mike Reed on drums, synth, percussion & compositions. Chicago drummer/composer Mike Reed has led a number of fine bands like People, Places & Things and Loose Assembly, each one with revolving personnel. Each of these projects seems to have a concept in mind. Both frontline instrumentalists, Ben Lamar Gay and Rob Frye play in a number of different Chicago bands including playing with Nicole Mitchell and the Natural Information Society, with recordings on the International Anthem & The Bridge Sessions labels. Although vocalist Marvin Tate has several of his own records out, I hadn’t heard of him before we got in a CD he is on from the TBS label. This set was different from all of the other sets at the Vision Fest. It had a more electric, somewhat funky, spacey groove, not so distant from Herbie Hancock’s Headhunter’s band yet not nearly as slick or predictable. Both Ben LaMar Gay on cornet and Rob Frye on tenor sax & flute are fine soloists, adding some inspired solos to the groove fest. The keyboardist often used sequencers and rarely soloed. Guitarist Cooper Crain did take a few fine gritty solos and played the grooves just right. Vocalist Marvin Tate often yelled out his spoken words like a town cryer, his words unsettling at times and a bit oversold. Overall, I did like most of this set as it was something different than most of the more free form sets that usually occur here.
The first set of Day 4 was Patricia Brennan’s More Touch with Ms. Brennan on vibes, Kim Cass on bass, Mauricio Herrera on percussion and Marcus Gilmore on drums. Over the past few years, there have been a few new vibes players who’ve moved to New York, establishing their careers here. The one vibist who has consistently knocked me out is Patricia Brennan. I’ve caught here in several bands (like Mary Halvorson’s current one, as well as with Tomas Fujiwara & Matt Mitchell). The group here is basically three percussionists and a bassist. Aside from being a powerful, ever-inventive vibes player, Ms. Brennan has been evolving as a demanding composer. Although, Ms. Brennan was the main soloist throughout most of the set, she has the other members of the quartet playing these tight, intense interlocking rhythm lines that were were often astonishing to hear. This is taken from my review of her recent solo debut CD (11/22): Ms. Brennan adds a bit of electronics to her vibes giving them a slinky, slippery sound. Drummer Marcus Gilmore played with M-Base composer Steve Coleman for several years and still has that infectious, slamming M-Base drum sound. Ms. Brennan adds some eerie effects to her vibes on the title track, this piece is very spacious with quite a bit of space between different sections. It does erupt freely in places and overall sounds like a skeletal chamber piece with different connected sections. “El Nahualli (The Shadow Soul)” pulsates with an eerie sort of tension, reminding me of the way ghosts or spirits appear and disappear only if one takes the time to notice them. Ms. Brennan’s sprawling vibes rise above the squelchy sounds below taking us along with her on a reflective ballad dedicated to Ms. Brennan’s aunt. On “Square Bimagic”, keeps several rhythm lines moving tightly around one another, while the drummer speeds up and slows down, the vibes continue to pulsate and repeat certain hypnotic lines. “Robin” has a great triumphant melody/vibe recalling a fairytale or Saturday morning cartoon show that made us feel good when we were young.” If you get a chance to hear Ms. Brennan’s band, I urge you to do so. They are one of the best under-recognized treasures of the current Downtown Scene.
Mayan Space Station was/is a new trio featuring William Parker on bass, Ava Mendoza on guitar and Gerald Cleaver on drums. They have an amazing CD & LP out on Aum Fidelity. They ended up playing a last minute-added set at FIMAV in 2022, which turned out to be one the best sets of that year’s fest! For this occasion William Parker decided to add Jason Hwang & gabby fluke-mogul on violins and Lee Mixashawn Rozie on el mandolin & flute. If you haven’t heard/caught guitarist Ava Mendoza play yet and you are a big electric guitar fan, please do check her out as she is one of Downtown’s most consistently creative & diverse pickers. Native American avant/jazz pioneer, Lee Rozie, is often known for playing sprawling free/jazz sax, but is also a longtime multi-instrumentalist. The set started out with the original guitar/bass/drums trio launching off in waves, getting more turbulent as they evolved. They were soon joined a chorus two great violinists weaving a web of string interaction while Mr. Rozie added some bluesy electric mandolin lines backed by and connecting with the rhythm team. William Parker and Gerald Cleaver have been working together as a team for more than a decade (in Farmers by Nature and for James Brandon Lewis) and it sounds like they are connected at the hip. A few times during the set, Ms. Mendoza played some guitar solos which showed off her prowess as one of the best guitarists in the current Downtown Scene. Both violinists, Jason Hwang & gabby fluke-mogol are gifted violinists and have much different sounds/approach. Both got chances to stretch our here and both played a couple of stunning solos. William Parker pumping, churning, powerful contrabass was often at the center of the storm here, another plus to this already incredible set. This was a remarkable set on several levels, the interplay through out was often explosive and consistently inspiring.
The following set was called Shamanic Principle and it featured Val Jeanty on percussion & electronics, Patricia Nicholson on dance & voice and Miriam Parker’s videos. I had heard Ms. Jeanty on a couple of occasions previously and wasn’t too sure what all of the fuss was about, her electronics left me cold. But this set was completely different and another of the highlights of this year’s fest. For this occasion, Ms. Jeanty had a unique drumset at her disposal as well as a table of electronic devices. On each piece Ms. Jeanty would set up a different rhythmic pattern, many were tribal or ritualistic sounding, each one would evoke a different spirit or organic idea while she added subtle electronics to enhance whatever piece or set of percussion she used throughout. Ms. Nicholson-Parker wore a headdress designed by Amir Bey (a mixed media sculptor) and danced her way across the stage, adding occasional vocal bits. At times she would chant, one of the chants said, “The Earth is Crying”, something many of us also feel as one Climate Disaster after another hurts Mother Nature in ways which may never be healed. Ms. Jeanty’s playing on both percussion and electronics had a somewhat mysterious, ritualistic vibe at center. Miriam Parker’s videos were also probing with layers of dancing or gliding symbols swirling around another. So glad to hear Val Jeanty in this context, an immensely rewards experience throughout the entire set.
The following set was called the Mississippi to NY Freedom Band and featured Dick Griffin on trombone & direction, Dave Sewelson on alto & bari saxes, Michael Wimberly on piano, Luke Stewart on bass and Tscheser Holmes on drums. Elder statesman trombone hero, Dick Griffin, played with the Sun Ra Arkestra in the early days (late 1050’s) and still shows signs of drawing from Sun Ra’s futuristic space music. Michael Wimberly is most often known for playing drums & hand percussion for many different projects but here he played mostly piano and sounded fine at doing that. The rhythm team of Luke Stewart & Tscheser Holmes used to work with James Brandon Lewis and work together quite well. The music was often stripped down with Mr. Griffin and Dave Sewelson being the main soloists with Sewelson taking a fine alto sax solo midway through the set. Both Mr. Wimberly and Mr. Griffin switched off on piano and both did a fine job of leading the band and/or providing spiritual support from the piano. The group played a couple of Sun Ra themes which are always memorable, especially their version of “Interplanetary Music”, with both mysterious and lovely with delightful chanting vocals from all members of the band.
The final set of Day Four was the Matt Shipp Quartet which featured Mat Walerian on mostly clarinets, Matt Shipp on piano, Michael Bisio on contrabass and Whit Dickey on drums. Over the past decade, Downtown pianist Matt Shipp has been working with a young Polish reeds wizard named Mat Walerian, someone I had never heard of until those CD’s on ESP were released (5 released so far). Mr. Shipp has been working with bassist Michael Bisio for many years now as well as with drummer Whit Dickey even longer. Mr. Walerian rarely comes to NY and I think I caught him just once previously. Both Mr. Shipp & Mr. Bisio and Mr. Shipp & Mr. Dickey often sound like they’ve been working together for many years and they have! This is an organic free/form quartet whose set built up a common bond of many years of collaborating in different groups and building trust, with ideas flowing back & forth. Early in the set, a piece started off with a solo bass clarinet from Mr. Walerian. This solo was superb as Walerian took his time and built in layer after layer, another line which he would carefully stretch out and bend. Mr. Bisio is one of Downtown’s most formidable bassists and got a chance to take one of his more stunning solos here. Mr. Dickey and Mr. Shipp’s collaborations go back to 1993, when Mr. Dickey joined the David S. Ware Quartet for their ‘Third Ear Recitation’ record. Both musicians have evolved together & separately over 20 years and we can hear this in the way they work together, a common bond of free flowing ideas erupting whenever they play. This set was one of the best examples of free/form improv at its best, especially as all four are bound to be a common sense of how to build, trust and flow together as one force of nature.
Day 5 of the Vision Fest began with the Music is Mine Intergenerational Band, guided by the direction/inspiration of William Parker. Recently a young father and his younger teenage daughter have been coming to our store to buy discs, attend concerts and speak with me about this music. The father plays bass while the daughter plays drums (she is young teenager from what I can tell). They are immensely charming and make me feel good as we need to spread the word of creating Free/Music or improving to more especially younger folks, many of whom know very little about the rewards of creating spirited music out of our own sense of experience. Both are members of the MiM Intergenerational Band who opened the Saturday night set early at 6pm. The band had around 20plus musicians with William Parker giving direction up front. I recognized a few elders like Steve Swell and Dave Sewelson but most of the others were new to my view. 20 musicians playing freely can be a messy affair but Mr. Parker has obviously helped to shape these players, having certain sections of the band soloing at once or certain soloists stand up and solo by themselves. This is the next generation of players and I could hear how they were trying to and focusing what they do with moments of transcendence interspersed with some freely over-the top moments as well. Thanks to the gracious, giving and healing hands/vibe of William Parker who is inspiring us all to do better as humans by communicating on a different level.
The next set was the Sun Han Guild which featured eddy kwon on violin, voice & direction, DoYeon Kim on gayageum, Laura Cocks on flutes, Lester St. Louis on cello and Nava Dunkelman on percussion. In recent times, a handful of Korean musicians have moved to NYC to add to our already eclectic stew of multi-ethnic flavors. This quintet was led by eddy kwon, a gifted violinist who we are just starting to get to know. I’ve caught all of the members of this fine quintet in a variety of settings: Laura Cocks (who played at our outdoor series during the pandemic), Lester St. Louis (from Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die), Nava Dunkelman (with Fred Frith & gabby fluke-mogul) and DoYeon Kim (with Joe Morris & Nick Dunston). This quintet was all acoustic and reminded me of the ethnic/acoustic/avant music of the band Oregon. The music is a rich blend of varied ethnic flavors: mostly strings of the violin, gagayuem and cello plus flute, percussion and voice. The music was often a fine balance between the more sparse and occasionally dense and mysterious acoustic, ritualistic vibes which flowed organically throughout.
Two well-loved elders, pianist Dave Burrell and saxist Joe McPhee were next and I wasn’t sure how much either of them had played together previously or at all. After Cecil Taylor & Sun Ra, the next pianist historically to embrace the Free Thing was Dave Burrell, who played with Sunny Murray in the mid-1960’s. The thing is this, Mr. Burrell is much more diverse then some might imagine as he also draws from Dixieland, other early jazz and a variety of jazz streams. World-traveling saxist & brass player, Joe McPhee has also been drawing from a diverse cauldron of diverse streams since his first recordings in the late 1960’s. Mr. McPhee is a restless improviser who has worked with a large variety of musicians from different scenes & cultures: Brotzmann’s Chicago Tentet, The Thing, Decoy, Deep Listening and man, many more. This duo started off quietly, taking their time to get to know one another’s sound/playing. McPhee has a strong, warm, probing tone on his tenor sax and slowly shaped his notes for the most dramatic effect with Burrell matching his fragments with equal layers of colors and shades. What I liked about this set was that there were few fireworks and more of that tender, ballad-like, slow-burning vibe that both men shared. Mr. McPhee did let go in the last section, screaming out his notes on his sax in a couple of well-placed crescendos. The duo ended up with what sounded like a solemn ballad which really touched me and no doubt, members of the audience.
I missed the set with Yasmine Lee (dancer) and Michael Wimberley (drums) since I needed to go out and have some tasty Indian food from around the corner. The next set by Brandon Lopez’ “The Gospel of Sans”, an all-star septet led by one of the best bassists/composers to move to NYC over the past decade-plus.The instrumentation featured Brandon Lopez on contrabass & direction, Zeena Parkins on el. harp, Mat Maneri on viola, DoYeon Kim on gayageum (Korean zither-like instrument), Cecelia Lopez on electronics and both Gerald Cleaver and Tom Rainey on drums. Over the past few years, bassist Brandon Lopez has come into his own playing with a variety of Downtown’s best musicians. This set began very softly and spaciously with Maneri’s viola, Kim’s gayaguem and soon Zeena’s electric harp, all were buzzing eerie, spacious sounds together with the other members cautiously moving in and out of the simmering undertow. Cecilia Lopez was at a table in the middle of the band and playing electronics. I couldn’t hear what she was doing until midset since either her sounds were too low in the mix or she was just taking her time to add her subtle electronics. Both drummers Gerald Cleaver and Tom Rainey are known for their unique styles of playing and have rarely (ever?) worked together. Both percussionists also took their time to weave in their own approach, never pushing things too hard. What I noticed and liked about this set was that all of the members spent much time listening closely to what the others were doing, carefully adding their own sound/language when they felt it necessary. It took some patience to appreciate the overall effect or flow. There were very few solos going on here since this was more about the way the ensemble works together. Mat Maneri’s slightly bent (microtonal) viola did stand out at times as he nudged the tonalities into his own world without really taking over. This was another particularly strong set although it took some time to get used to its more subtle moving/playing.
The final set of Day 5 was another unexpected gem. It featured a trio called Hear in Now which featured three women from different scenes who have been together since 2012. The original trio featured Mazz Swift on violin, Silvia Bolognesi on contrabass and Tomeka Reid on cello with two discs out. Pianist Angelica Sanchez replaced Mazz Swift in the trio and this is the trio that played here. During the soundcheck, one of the women went up to American-born, Dutch-based drummer, Michael Vatcher, who was working in the kitchen for the fest, and asked if he wanted to join them. He was more than willing to do so. All four of these musicians are gifted improvisers and hence were sure to make this set work. The music was often subtle and took its time to unfold, all four listening closely and interweaving their unique magic. Ms. Bolegnesi once studied with William Parker and has become one of Italy’s best bassists, she was in fine form here. Cellist Tomeka Reid moved back to Chicago (from NYC) a couple of years back and has gotten married. When I talked to her after the set she said that she was in good spirits and that her marriage was a great thing for her (mazel tov to her). She is an amazing, gifted cellist who I always look forward to hearing and she played superbly here. Angelica Sanchez is one of Downtown’s best pianists and rarely gets the recognition she well deserves. Check out her last two trio efforts on Sunnyside & Rogue Art, both of which are great in different ways plus she has a large group disc coming out soon on Clean Feed. She also worked her own magic/sound into the trio/quartet’s palette. Michael Vatcher is another completely unique drummer in a town filled with many greats. He has an odd approach to the drums which you would have to see to best appreciate. He also plays a few of his own hand-made invented percussion instruments which he did here as well. He knows how to lay back as well as when to push things further out. Although this was the first time that all four of these musicians played together, they've evolved into having a fascinating group sound. This was an extraordinary quartet and considering that this was the first time that these four musicians played together, their set was yet another deep treasure of Free Music at its best.
Day 6 was the final night of this year’s Vision Fest and it looked to be one of the best night’s of the week. It began with 75 Dollar Bill Altered Spaces. 75 Dollar Bill began as a duo with Che Chen on guitar and Rick Brown playing a large box that he sat on and played with sticks. The duo started out around 2013 and have evolved quite a bit since then, with some 11 releases out by now. I’ve known drummer Rick Brown since around 1980 when he was in V-Effect & Blinding Headache. He has also worked/played in Timber, Fish & Roses, Run On and many others. I know of guitarist Che Chen for less time but have heard him with Tetuzi Akiyama, Robbie Lee & Patrick Shiroishi. It seems that every gig that 75 Dollar Bill does over the past few years, with each performance, they add guests. For this set they were joined by Rick’s wife Sue Garner (also from Fish & Roses & Run On) on bass, Jason Hwang on violin and Talice Lee on organ & violin. I’ve caught this band a half dozen times and have enjoyed whatever they do. The version of the band here was more expansive and groove oriented. Their long songs or james were open-ended and based on long, organic grooves. Guitarist Che Chen is more of a groove-master, churning out repeating licks which always get that hypnotic vibe going. The main soloists was Jason Hwang who did numerous solos through most of the long set. The music here was often joyous, uplifting and had a communal, infectious glee to it. You should check out this band live as they do not sound quite like anyone else.
The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is/are from Chicago and have been around for more than 40 years with some 18 records under their belt. Their leader and only original member is Kahil El’Zabar, who plays multiple percussion instruments, including thumb piano. The personnel has always changed over time and for this set they featured Corey Wilkes (formerly from the Art Ensemble of Chicago) on trumpet, Alex Harding on baritone sax, Justin Dillard on piano and Dwight Tribble on vocals. What I’ve always dug about the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble is that they always have an organic, ethnic, acoustic and spiritual sound. Kahil El’Zabar started off on thumb piano (a/k/a sanza or mbira), creating a fine hypnotic groove while the rest of the quintet slowly joined him. This set was dedicated to the late trumpet master Don Cherry and during the first piece the band was chanting his name, which is the opening song from the recent CD by this band which actually included Mr. Cherry’s son David Ornette Cherry amongst its ranks. David O. Cherry actually passed away in November of last year (2022). The Ethnic Heritage Ensemble always has a certain Spirit Jazz groove at the center of whatever they do and this was present throughout this entire set. Both trumpeter Corey Wilkes and bari saxist Alex Harding took a number of inspired solos throughout the set. I am a longtime fan of L.A. free/jazz vocalist Dwight Twibble, who used to work with Horace Tapscott and whose ten albums are under-recognized gems just waiting for the recognition they well deserve. Dwight Tribble is a completely unique jazz vocalist who doesn’t sound like anyone else and remains in a class of his own. He was really shining here both in the way he sang and the way he looked as he conjured up spirits from our collective pasts. The last song was a version of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and a perfect way to bring this incredible Free/Jazz Cosmic Music music to a righteous close.
The following set was Melanie Dyer’s We Free Strings with Ms. Dyer on viola & compositions, Gwen Laster on violin, Alex Waterman on cello, Ken Filiano on contrabass and Newman Taylor Baker on drums. I caught this band several months ago at the former Studio Rivbea space for an ArtsForArt concert and I reviewed their disc for the DMG newsletter. They are one of my favorite current Downtown ensembles. You should know most/all of the names here as each have long resumes. Melanie Dyer is a gifted violist and bandleader, as well as an MC at the Vision Fest. Check out her recent disc with Todd Capp, one the year’s best little-known gems. Gwen Laster has worked with visionary composers: Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra. Cellist Alex Waterman has worked with an odd cast of composer/musicians: Ig Henneman, Scott Johnson & Miya Masaoka. Former west coast bassist Ken Filiano seems to be all over the place working with Jason Hwang, Vinny Golia & Marco Cappelli. Newman Taylor Baker has been working with Matt Shipp for a while now as well as for Jemeel Moondoc and Billy Harper. There is a long history of Free/Jazz legends like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler both using string players to collaborate with. The three string players here plus Mr. Filiano’s bass are often swirling together, with layers of strings all buzzing like bees in a hive making their own sonic honey for us listeners. At times the three strings are connected while Mr. Filiano provides the cosmic pulse at the center of the storm. Ms. Dyer’s themes sound like the essence of the Spirit Jazz thing and the way the violin and cello play harmonies with her is something else. I know that Free/Jazz is most often defined by sax or brass players, but this group shows that seasoned/strong string players can also play this music with the best of them.
The next set was chosen by Reggie Workman and it featured Reggie’s daughter Nioka Workman on cello with a spoken word artist named Kayo. I know of the work of Nioka Workman through the music of Anthony Braxton, James Jabbo Ware and Michael Veal. I had never heard of Kayo before this set and he was just extraordinary. Kayo spoke at length with a stream of words that he had written, he had a demanding, engrossing presence. His words were about superheroes and he told convincing stories about how superheroes or superheroines and other special people were able to do things that other normal folks can’t or won’t do. What Kayo would do is set up a premise by describing a fictitious comic book hero from a personal perspective and then expand upon it. He claimed that he was trying to lift a car with his mind, something some like Superman might be able to do. All of Kayo’s rambling words rhymed and he memorized each of his pieces except for the last one. I was reminded of the power of (spoken or written) words to stir us into imagining things that we could never actually do or create outside of our own minds. If you get a chance, search for Kayo, a spoken word artist of the highest caliber.
The final set of the Vision Fest was the Reggie Workman Celebration Band. Legendary bassist Reggie Workman worked with John Coltrane more than 60 years ago, as well as with a large part of the progressive jazz scene ever since. Mr. Workman is still playing well today and also teaches at the New School. For this special final set, Mr. Workman organized an all-star 9 piece band: Reggie Workman on bass, percussion & direction, Odean Pope on tenor sax, Jason Moran on piano, Elijah Thomas on flute, Elizabeth Panzer on harp, Tapan Modak on tables, Jen Shyu on vocals, Gerry Hemingway on drums and Harold Smith on conch shells, thumb piano & percussion. The set began with one minute of silence for the ancestors, something that Mahavishnu Orchestra also did 50 years ago when I caught them live and a great way to begin a set. The set began in soft, quiet sounds and then an odd blast (made by blowing into a large conch shell) erupted at the back of the room. It was the sound of surprise and it felt like we were submerging in a submarine of sorts going deeper and deeper into the endless ocean of Cosmic sounds. The conch shell player continued playing as he walked down the aisle and up onto the stage, soon picking up a dijeridoo and playing another cosmic sounding drone. Odean Pope is another elder and plays tenor sax, sitting in the center of the stage and playing those occasional Trane-like tenor sax lines. Both the drumming by Gerry Hemingway and the tabla playing by Tapan Modak kept the rhythmic center grounded throughout most of the set. Both percussionists are masters at what they do. They were scattered duos and/or trios throughout the set which stood out. A duo with bass flute & tablas, several inspired solos from Odean Pope, a great solo by pianist Jason Moran, a section for multiple percussionist with Mr. Workman also playing hand percussion and lost more wonderful moments. Mr. Workman even launched into a somewhat funky bass groove at one point which made me want to get up and dance. The entire set was superb and a perfect way to conclude this festival since it was the best of the many worlds of Inspired Diverse Creative Music at its very best. I remember smiling all the way home that night since I felt like I had been blessed by the True Spirit of Cosmic Music. A fitting way to bring the Vision Festival to a grand close. So much great music, so many friendly faces enjoying and being inspired by the music for a week’s worth of Music and Art created for all of attendees at the festival itself and for those who were hip enough to check it out online. Special thanks to Patricia Parker, Todd Nicholson and William Parker for blessing us all. Peace and Love to You All, Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG