Vision Festival X - Day One, June 14, 2005
The stellar lineup for the tenth Vision Festival, held at the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts in New York City, was enough to get me checking budget hotel availability and booking my flight across the Atlantic. That the festival has survived to its tenth year is remarkable in the ephemeral jazz world; indeed, NYC poet Steve Dalachinsky has called it "the tenth anniversary of a miracle. Not having been before, it was a surprise just how down home and intimate the Vision Festival is, run by the Lower East Side artistic community centred around Patricia Nicholson, along with an army of volunteers, and featuring graphic art and dance alongside the music.
The first night opened with a Vision Festival tradition, an invocation from Joseph Jarman, now a Buddhist priest, once more a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though now a NYC resident of 23 years standing. Jarman was accompanied on stage by colleague Chris Chalfant, founder of the Lifetime Visions Orchestra. Over the sound of the settling audience, Jarman reminisced about the back pages of the Festival: "ten years of this incredible human event... the first one was only a tenth of this size. The pair joined in a Buddhist chant as sounds of horns practising drifted up from the basement, then presaged what was to come with an a ccapella rendition of Jarman's Lifetime Visions for the Magnificent Humans: "As we float through the Universe, we go, Let the vision of your human heart show.
Jorge Sylvester-Nora McCarthy Conceptual Motion Orchestra
The first set by the Jorge Sylvester-Nora McCarthy Conceptual Motion Orchestra was actually one of the more conventional in the Festival. This band is one of several joint projects under their dual leadership and has been going since 1999. The set started with an alto saxophone soliloquy by Sylvester, soon cushioned by broad fat chords from the nineteen-piece orchestra. A section for Vincent Chancey's French horn over a lush orchestral background led to big band and vocals from McCarthy. Sylvester conducted the imaginative and varied arrangements for the orchestra from extensive scores (which he struggled to control in the confined space) and held up cards, sometimes several at a time, signalling different sections.
The orchestra's intersecting lines, jazzy vamps, and funky riffs with freeish solos brought to my mind other past NYC aggregations, such as Saheb Sarbib's Multinational Big Band. Brief features for orchestra members included stirring moments from trumpeters Waldron Ricks and Michael C Lewis, in duet with the alto of Hayes Greenfield. For the final number, McCarthy's "Life is a Song to Sing," the songstress' lyrics gave way to impassioned scatting over inventive piano comping from Pablo Vergara. The piece was graced by a fine tenor sax solo from Salim Washington, replete with split tones and squawks, and a lyrical piano spot. A final section for orchestra and voice ended with an improvised horn cadenza before the band swung into the closing theme.
Henry Grimes Quartet
Next up was the Henry Grimes Quartet, featuring Hamid Drake on drums; Andrew Lamb on tenor sax; and maestro Marshall Allen, veteran of the Sun Ra Arkestra, on alto sax, clarinet, and EVI (electronic valve instrument). The story of Henry Grimes' re-emergence onto the jazz scene is by now well known and the roster of leading improvisers he has since collaborated with is a testament to his undimmed skill and powers of expression. His bandmates were no strangers: this concert came on the back of a ten-date "Spaceship on the Highway" tour with Allen, while Grimes has previously played and recorded with Lamb and Drake.
With the band lined up across the stage, Grimes attempted to make an introduction, but was thwarted by Allen blowing on EVI. He eventually gave up and started strumming Olive Oilthe green-tinted bass given to him by William Parker. Lamb eased forward on tenor, Drake slotted in behind, and the band blasted off on a lengthy free-flowing group improv. Lamb is a big man with a big sound, though his gruff peregrinations around the lower registers of his horn were interspersed with dog whistle frequencies. Allen cavorted in the slipstream with alto yelps, while the rhythm section lent hyperactive support. When it came to Allen's solo, he expelled molten gobbets of sound, his fingers floating and drifting over the keypads, strumming his horn like a guitar. Lamb laid down a riff in support which was picked up by Drake, driving the whole band into a frenzy.
Grimes moved to arco, his bow flying jerkily over the strings, before exploring bass harmonics. He then switched seamlessly between bow and fingers in the stream of invention which characterises his playing. Allen intervened on his EVI with a howl like a revving motorbike, Lamb blew a conch shell drone over the EVI's warbles and whooshes, Drake added propulsion to the brew, and the band took off again.