Vision Festival — Pressing family matters kept me away throughout Memorial Day weekend, including the widely heralded return of Henry Grimes. But the annual festival got off to a strong start with the pulsating abstractions of Joe and Mat Maneri with drummer Randy Peterson, and live improv dancing by Christine Coppola. DJ Spooky and the deep-voiced poet Carl Hancock Rux followed; their provocative hip-hop aesthetic, heard to great advantage on Spooky’s recent Thirsty Ear outings, threw the audience a curve and was quite refreshing. Next came Billy Bang’s sextet, which alternated between hard-swinging modal jazz and soft-spoken lyricism, the latter courtesy mainly of pianist Andrew Bemkey. Not even Frank Lowe’s screech-style tenor or the two-drummer team of Tyshawn Sorey and Tatsuya Nakatani could match Bang’s violin in terms of sheer volume; by the end of the set the leader was cranked to excruciating levels. Finally, the moment we’d been waiting for: the return of vocalist Patty Waters, in her first New York appearance since 1967, looking a bit like Grace Slick did back in the those days. In what is now a cracked, ethereal whisper, Waters sang truly harrowing versions of “Strange Fruit” and “Don’t Explain,” as well as “Moon Don’t Come Up Tonight,” the leadoff track from her 1965 ESP album Patty Waters Sings. Pianist Burton Greene and bassist Mark Dresser provided superb accompaniment and played several invigorating duo numbers as well.
Bill Cole’s Ensemble, featuring Cooper-Moore, Warren Smith, and poet Patricia Smith, opened the second night with an uneven set. But the extraordinary David S. Ware Quartet set things aright; joined by Matt Shipp, William Parker, and Guillermo E. Brown, Ware towered over the stage and played mournful, surging melodies, the band conjuring tidal waves of sound behind him. Ware will play the Iridium in July, and on three of his six nights he’ll share the bill with the reunited Henry Grimes Trio, with Perry Robinson on clarinet and Tim Price on drums. This should be special.
Richard Galliano Trio — A rare New York appearance by the accordion master, holding court for three nights at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse. Bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Clarence Penn seemed delighted but challenged, even winded, by these flights of fancy. The gnomish Galliano (who performs standing up and speaks only French) awed the crowd with his lyricism, his harmonic finesse, and his punchy, percussive touch. Particularly breathtaking were the musettes, which swept the trio forward in a galloping 3/4. Galliano makes his blues and bop influences explicit whether he’s playing Astor Piazzolla covers or his own songs, thick with European folk references. With eyes closed one could almost imagine some of Galliano’s lines coming from Art Pepper’s alto.
Kwaku Kwaakye Obeng — An exuberant set at the Jazz Gallery, with Obeng and his eight-piece ensemble celebrating the release of their new CD, Afrijazz. Trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum led the horn section, which also included trombonists Richard Harper and Bill Lowe and bass clarinetist Paul Austerlitz. Bassist Wes Brown and kit drummer Alvin Carter underscored Obeng’s rollicking percussion and stirring vocals. Off in the corner, on guitar, was none other than Joe Morris, chording and riffing his way through the churning West African groove. Obeng’s playing wasn’t always easily heard; his unaccompanied spots, on both cowbells/woodblocks and hand drums, offered the clearest view of his gifts. The showstopper? A revelatory talking drum/bass clarinet duo with Austerlitz on “’Round Midnight.”
Peter Brötzmann’s Die Like a Dog Trio — A packed house at Tonic. Joined by William Parker and Hamid Drake, Brötzmann didn’t let up on the intensity. The first piece lasted roughly 45 minutes and found Brötzmann beginning on clarinet, switching to alto, then returning to clarinet to end. No one can make the clarinet sound the way Brötzmann does. He overblows and yet still generates a wealth of expressive detail, his legato phrases and bent notes steadily building into a misshapen yet pure sound-world, beyond the parameters of pitch. Switching to tenor sax for a brief, 10-minute epilogue, Brötzmann played a somewhat less obtrusive role as Drake tapped dancing rhythms on frame drum, while Parker plucked a simple melody on an unusual Afro-Asian stringed instrument called the sintir.
Tom Harrell — A rousing but emotionally exhausting performance at the Village Vanguard. Harrell’s is the one of the hottest working units in jazz, with Jimmy Greene on tenor, Xavier Davis on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass, and Quincy Davis (Xavier’s younger brother) on drums. But apparently this was a rough week for the great trumpeter, long a schizophrenia patient. The penultimate set of the week found his trumpet chops nearly gone and his behavior erratic, to put it mildly. Yet the music was all new and superbly crafted, thrillingly three-dimensional. If anything, Harrell’s writing continues to improve even as his playing becomes less consistent.
Harrell was in peak form just over a year ago, as a quick listen to Live at the Village Vanguard (RCA/Bluebird) will attest. Hearing him struggle in vain this time out was wrenching. Still, his fire and ingenuity peeked through, if only for a few bars per solo — until the final tune, that is, when he switched to flugelhorn and caught the wind, playing fierce and flawless lines, tapping into a well of strength buried deep within. Perhaps it was the change of instrument that helped him to clear the slate. The final sound of the set, thank goodness, was Harrell and Greene in effortless unison, vigorously nailing a tough shout chorus to the wall.
Ted Nash — An unusual split week at the Vanguard for the versatile saxophonist: first, three nights at the helm of his swinging Still Evolved quintet, then three more with his unorthodox Odeon ensemble. Still Evolved marks Nash’s debut on Palmetto Records, long the creative home of his colleagues Ben Allison (bass) and Matt Wilson (drums), both also members of this quintet. Frank Kimbrough took to the Vanguard’s new Steinway like a fish to water, playing marvelously compact and insightful solos and comping behind Nash with a passionate resolve. Trumpeter Marcus Printup told riveting, climactic stories in open, muted, and plunger contexts; like the leader, he brought a big, voracious sound to the bandstand. Nash performed much of the music from the album, beginning Wednesday’s first set with a “Stella By Starlight” variant called “Ida’s Spoons” and ending with the brooding vamp structure of “Rubber Soul.” (No Beatles tie-in here, nor were there any Aerosmith references in Nash’s “Walk This Way,” heard during the second set — although Matt Wilson did make sport of the title just before the countoff.)
The quintet also spent quality time interpreting music from other bands’ books: Kimbrough’s free-diatonic theme “Quickening,” a staple of the pianist’s trio repertoire; Nash’s “La Espada de la Noche,” an expansive piece composed for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra’s recent “Flamenco Jazz” program; “Sebago,” a poignant work composed specifically for Odeon; and “Rhyme,” one of Nash’s Double Quartet charts, heard on 1999’s Rhyme and Reason (Arabesque). Printup, in particular, did a miraculous job with the rubato tone poetry of this last one.
George Colligan — The tremendously gifted pianist appeared at the Gallery, premiering an inspired set of new works under the title “Post-9/11.” Little was offered in the way of explication, but that left more time for Colligan and his monster quartet — Gary Thomas on tenor and flute, Lonnie Plaxico on electric upright bass, Ralph Peterson on drums — to floor everyone in attendance. Colligan spent the entire set on a little, red, rich-sounding digital keyboard called the Nord Electro, which spoke with clarity and punch and gave Colligan an amplified advantage in his face-offs with the volcanic Peterson. Thomas, a near-genius in every respect but quite introverted in performance, was less commanding; the fact that he was under-miked didn’t help. Plaxico, in a role usually filled by Drew Gress, lent a booming but nuanced low end that was integral to the superheated proceedings.
Kindred Spirits — Debuting at the Gallery, this young, all-woman quartet featured Tia Fuller on alto, Rachel Eckroth on piano, Miriam Sullivan on bass, and the hell-raising Kim Thompson on drums. Each band member contributed a tune, leading off with Eckroth’s “What Is Art?”, a hard-swinging number with a quintessentially New York vibe. Next was Sullivan’s mellower, straight-eighth-based “Summer and Winter,” followed by two family-themed pieces: first Thompson’s “Mom,” with clever and well-paced modulations between six and five; then a hard-edged, swing-to-funk vehicle by Fuller called “Little Big Sis.” Still some kinks to be worked out, but burning nonetheless. Watch for them.
Lost Jazz Shrines — Bertha Hope, JoAnne Brackeen, and Francesca Tanksley gathered to honor Mary Lou Williams as well as this year’s lost shrine, Café Society. Three brief solo sets were followed by a three-piano conclave, during which musical sparks flew (as did a few synching problems). Highlights included transcriptions and well-rehearsed arrangements of “Scorpio” from Williams’s Zodiac Suite and “Glory to God” from her Mary Lou’s Mass.
Steve Coleman and Five Elements — Three nights at the Gallery, featuring the remarkable Craig Taborn on acoustic piano. First night, second set was a 90-minute blowout that flirted with abstraction but grooved the roof off the place. Joining the huge-toned Coleman were Jonathan Finlayson on trumpet, Gregoire Maret on harmonica, Anthony Tidd on electric bass, Dafnis Prieto on drums, and the astonishing Ramón García Perez on percussion. Coleman and Finlayson joined forces on a horns-only “’Round Midnight” that recalled Obeng’s talking-drum rendition from earlier in the month.
Bob Belden’s Ice — An evening of soul-jazz from Belden, playing a muscular if understated tenor sax and joined by guitarist Al Street, organist George Papageorge, and drummer Vince Ector. Drenched in blues and deep in the pocket. Among the highlights was a double-timey rendition of “Don’t Know Why,” the Norah Jones hit.
Uri Caine Trio — I keep hearing from certain quarters that playing standards is bankrupt. So why did Uri Caine sound so brilliant and fresh when he started one of his Vanguard sets with “Green Dolphin Street” and end it with “Speak Low”? This was a pivotal and well-deserved moment for the great pianist and his trio, featuring Drew Gress on bass and Ben Perowsky on drums.
Lynne Arriale Trio — A refined, swinging two-nighter at the Standard by the pianist and her regular trio mates Jay Anderson on bass and Steve Davis on drums, celebrating their new Motéma release, Arise. Arriale is a technical whiz and a strong composer; her covers of “It Don’t Mean a Thing” and “Aiko, Aiko” are well worth hearing.
Amanda Monaco — A successful night at Cornelia Street for the young guitarist and her exceptional band, with Jason Gillenwater on tenor, Eivind Opsvik on bass, and Jeff Davis on drums, all of whom dug deeply into Monaco’s edgy, well-crafted compositions.