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.
While it goes without saying that all the players are accomplished improvisers, Drake and Lamb also both have that knack of being able to shape and add structure to a improvisation. Allen is a master of the instant response, and the band was at its best when extemporising around a riff, as at the conclusion of the second and final piece when Allen, on clarinet this time, introduced a bluesy feelwhich first Lamb, then Drake and Grimes, both playing time for once, picked up. They briefly donned the guise of a klezmer band before Lamb erupted with honks and squawks in an incantatory solo. At the conclusion, Grimes attempts to introduce the band were again sabotaged by the impish Allen launching another blast on EVI, until they all left the stage.
Ellen Christi Quartet
The Ellen Christi Quartet followed, with vocalist Christi joined by Hamid Drake, once again, on drums, William Parker on bass (for the first of eleven appearances in this Festival), and Daniel Kelly on piano. Kelly was a new name to me, but one who more than held his own with his more celebrated confreres. While Christi's mic arrangement (two micsone with reverb, one without) was set up, Parker had to borrow reading glasses from the audience to deal with the scores. A two part invention for bass and piano started the set, with Christi's breathy expressive singing floating on top. The piece evolved into a melodic four-way improv, with Parker playing arco, supported by Kelly on piano strings and Drake's frame drum pattering like gentle rain. Christi's voice swooped and soared, her body mirroring her voicecrouching, clutching, teeteringas she used both mics simultaneously.
The group was remarkable for its high level of interaction: Christi locked into repeated patterns which were effortlessly reflected by Kelly and Drake. These two had a particularly strong interaction, even though they were at opposite ends of the stage. Kelly's thick flowing lines with fierce clusters prompted sympathetic snare and cymbal crashes from Drake. Kelly was inspired and flailed and pummelled the keyboard with abandon as he bounced up and down, appearing likely to fall headfirst inside as he modulated the sound of the strings with cymbals.
The interplay ebbed and flowed as the spotlight shifted around the group. In one section Parker used two bows, one above the bridge and one below, extracting squeaks and overtones, as Drake fragmented the rhythm and Kelly took sticks to the piano's innards, before throwing his cymbals inside as he played. The single flowing piece drew to a close via a bluesy improv, peppered with piano crashes and drum explosions, before Christi referenced Van Morrison's "Crazy Love" for a tender conclusion to an excellent set.
There was a change of pace next for Bejewelled, a women's multi-arts ensemble featuring Terri Jenoure on violin and voice, Margo Simmons on flute and percussion, and the dance of Maria Mitchell. The set consisted of a single piece, "Lydia on the Top Floor," a retrospective sketch of Jenoure's mother integrating music, dance and a mix of poetry and prose. It was based on incidents remembered from her childhood on the fourteenth floor of the Bronx River Projects.
The piece began with Mitchell dancing silently, slowly, in front of a screen centre stage. Jenoure and Simmons conjured a violin and flute duet from opposite ends of the stage while Mitchell moved in time to the jerky improv. Jenoure talked as she plucked the violin and Simmons continued her trajectory on flute. Mitchell waved her butt, recalling a image of Jenoure's mother seen from the fourteenth floor window, before rag dolling around the stage. "Music makes my mother do thingsforget the washing up and dance salsa." The images were brought to life by the wonderful movement of Maria Mitchell. Together they painted a warm and intimate portrait of life growing up in the Bronx.
An air of expectancy preceded the debut of supergroup WARM, featuring the veteran Sam Rivers on tenor, soprano, and flute; Roscoe Mitchell on alto, soprano, and flute; Reggie Workman on bass; and Pheeroan Aklaff on drums. Sometimes such aggregations can be less than the sum of their parts, and so I was prepared to be underwhelmed, but tonight we were in luck as the group more than delivered on its promise over the course of two lengthy pieces.
The first piece kicked off with a fast unison theme, incorporating drum interludes, before Rivers took a sinuous burnished tenor solo. Mitchell followed on alto, digging in for a barnstorming excursion. Mitchell's tart ululating lines were extended with circular breathing in a virtuoso display where technique was subservient to musicality. Aklaff whipped up a storm and Workman strummed frantically with one finger. Rivers re-entered the fray and the two horns collided before Mitchell continued his solo, gradually turning up the heat with multiphonic cries, over booming bass slurs and fierce drum punctuations, before pulling to a sudden halt.
Cue an explosion of applause, and the bar was raised for everything else that followed. The piece continued with a bass/drum break, leading into an intense Aklaff solo which developed incrementally with powerful strokes on tuned drums, before the restatement of the opening theme.
Workman set up the second piece with a buzzing arco drone, over which the two horns loosely phrased a slow burning theme before giving way to soulful duets with Workman's bass. Aklaff laid down a funky groove on his cymbals, and the horns rejoined in loose tandem for some spirited interplay. Workman briefly forsook his bass to add exotic sonorities, at first bowing on a saw, then blowing on didgeridoo, while at the same time plucking his bass string with one hand. There was a lot of space in this piece which evolved into a conversational duet for Mitchell's snakecharmer soprano and River's waspish flute over broad arco strokes from Workman. The frontmen again switched, Mitchell to alto and Rivers to soprano, to match continuous intertwining lines over a powerful rhythm. Another excellent set and a deserved standing ovation from the crowd.
The switch from the intended two stages of the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center to the single stage of the Angel Orensanz Foundation inevitably resulted in more time being spent on changeovers than originally envisaged. Even though some of the sets had been curtailed, the final groupThe Gifttook the stage long after their intended hour in front of a dwindling audience.
The Gift is William Hooker on drums; Roy Campbell on trumpet, pocket trumpet, flugelhorn and flute; and Jason Kao Hwang on electric violin. The group opened with Campbell floating a swirling line on flute over plucked notes from Hwang, while Hooker prowled the stage, interjecting thoughts on "intuition." Hooker beat a soft tattoo on brushes as Campbell's muted trumpet unfurled around wah wah violin lines from Hwang. Intuition is a quality which these players have in abundance, derived from long years of experience of each others strategies in a variety of settings. The extemporised set developed from restrained beginnings via a series of duets, solos, and ensemble sections into a high-energy blowout.
In spite of its limited size, the Gift has an expansive sound: Hooker in particular has always struck me as a very composerly improvisertightly controlled and ordered, marshalling his resources in the moment into almost orchestral constructs. A Hooker wall of sound solo quietened into a duo as the trumpet returned. Campbell mined the upper registers, turning boppish as Hwang plucked a bass riff and Hooker demarcated time. Campbell rejoiced in the space and developed a masterful solo with brass smears and flurries, while Hwang bowed a fierce riff and Hooker energised both the band and the remaining audience.
They were still playing at 1:15 am, when I could no longer stay awake and regretfully crept away from what had been a great opening night, and just a foretaste of what was to come...