Vision Festival X - Day Five, June 18, 2005 (Part 2)
Billy Bang Quartet
Bang's quartet this penultimate evening of the tenth Vision Festival was part of an ongoing strand of his work exorcising the ghosts of his experiences as a combat veteran in the Vietnam war. To this end he has recorded and appeared with Vietnamese musicians alongside his regular associates. Tonight he was accompanied by Nhan Thanh Ngo on dan tranh (a sixteen string Vietnamese zither), Todd Nicholson on bass and Shoji Hano on drums. Although there was some overlap in personnel with a show I caught in Paris earlier this year, the bravura performance this evening was simply on a different plane. Never less than professional and entertaining in Paris, that set was surpassed by the addition of spontaneity, excitement and passion to the musical invention.
By way of introduction, Bang explained "I come here to challenge myself. We've never played together prior to this moment. Bang announced the long opening piece as "IWS, meaning Improvisation With Structure.
A meditative oriental feel held sway in a gradual start. Tinkling cymbals were punctuated by wallops on the snare and sparse resonant notes plucked on the dan tranh, all underpinned by a bass drone. The suspense was broken by Bang, laying down an ethereal legato line on his violin, then joining in a beautiful unison reverie with dan tranh. Bang's creative juices started to flow, and he swayed and dipped as he bowed , projecting an irrepressible joie de vivre. The improvisation developed through a series of duets, ensembles and solos, directed with compositional sensitivity in the moment by the mercurial Bang, prowling the stage, indicating who should play when.
Hano's Japanese traditional drumming sensibilities brought another layer of intrigue to the overall sound. He interjected thunderous crescendos, crashing down both sticks at once from above, with his head thrown back for emphasis. Nicholson's solid technique and resonant tone were deployed in the service of a fertile imagination, whether setting out a forceful counterpoint to Bang or expounding melodic solo lines. Ngo's dan tranh added an exotic element to Bang's brew, contributing dissonances as well as supporting textures. Part way through the improvisation, Bang stilled the ensemble to leave the dan tranh solo, then orchestrated bass/drum punctuations in support.
Bang skilfully built up the tension by overlaying the gradually intensifying rhythm with pizzicato sequences, before switching back to arco, to release the wave in overdrive, with long rhythmic sweeps and flurries of bouncing and sawing. One ensemble blow out was cut by Bang to leave him bowing in his highest register. Gradually he came down the fret board in scrapes and creaks, all the while maintaining a ferocious staccato rhythmic attack with his bow, before plucking out a riff, picked up by Nicholson and Hano and developed into a funky strut. Smiling, Bang made sure that Ngo also got on the case, and then improvised around it with wild gritty virtuosity. The audience excitement levels went into red at this point. Bang briefly returned to plucking the riff, before the band decrescendoed to silence. A standing ovation and it wasn't even the end of the set!
By way of a closer, Bang picked out a pentatonic stop time vamp, latched onto by Nicholson and then Ngo, for a dan tranh blues. Bang extemporised riotously over the tight collective then shouted "Asian African American Funk! Shit! and introduced the band over the down and dirty rhythm. What a fantastic set! And impossible not to smile afterwards, so infectious was Bang's pleasure at his triumph.
It was a hard act for another violinist to follow, yet that was the task facing Leroy Jenkins, appearing with dancer Felicia Norton, whose collaborations on live music/dance programs began in 1988. Tonight they presented a work entitled "Earth Mysteries . Norton came onto the stage alone, clad in white, holding bells and performed an invocation, rattling the bells in all corners of the space. Jenkins stood at the side of the stage, also in white, intoning a very quiet repeated legato line, without thematic development, as Norton moved gracefully between precariously held poses. Jenkins high wavering legato was echoed by the sweeping movements. For the second section, Jenkins plucked a similarly understated accompaniment against which the lithe and elegant Norton energetically criss-crossed the stage. By the third section, Jenkins had moved to the centre rear of the stage and played an expansive involved introduction with undulating lines before Norton rejoined, picking up the bells and rattling them to all sides in a more joyous revisiting of her opening gambit. A successful union, in which music and dance were integral and either would have been diminished without the other.
The Eddie Gale Now Band
A lengthy pause saw the stage set up for the Eddie Gale Now Band. Trumpeter Gale is a veteran of Cecil Taylor's 1966 classic "Unit Structures (where he appeared as Eddie Gale Stevens) and occasional appearances with Sun Ra's Arkestra from the early 1960s onwards. Gale's Now Band featured Ismael Navarette on tenor and soprano saxophones and flute, John Gruntfest (great name for a saxophonist) on alto saxophone, Valerie Mih on piano, T. Squire Holman on drums and special guest William Parker on bass. They delivered four compositions by Gale, each following a head-solos-head structure. The first, dedicated to world peace, featured an elegiac theme giving way to a mid tempo groove. Gale's mellow flugelhorn was followed by Gruntfest on alto, announcing himself with a squeal, before cutting loose in a free section. The next piece, entitled "A Meeting With Miles , was introduced with an anecdote about the extremely brief meeting which inspired the composition, by the husky voiced Gale. Navarette set out a compelling excursion on tenor, building up to high register squeals and gruff exclamations. Parker was providing an abundance of drive throughout, which carried on into one of his patented high speed torrent of notes solos. Holman soloed here too, with measured development of motifs and use of space, in a style reminiscent of the late lamented Denis Charles.
"African Sunshine, Shine on Me featuring a riff and upbeat theme appropriate to the title, found Gale complaining that his monitor wasn't working, and cutting short his solo in disgust. But the band sounded great in the audience, and in fact the sound throughout the Festival was consistently excellent. The closer, " Hi Tech Emergency (the title perhaps inspired by Gale's opinion of the sound system) was a free style crowd pleaser, which worked its magic, featuring free piano and blaring solos from the horns. Gruntfest started with an altissimo dog whistle before delving into bottom end blurts and finished, swinging from side to side, with foghorn blasts. All the horns wailed together, blazing at high volume until Gale signalled a sudden halt. Whoops of delight from the audience and a standing ovation from some.
Patricia Nicholson's PaNic
Patricia Nicholson's PaNic combined dance, music and video in a performance of "Revolution : a piece first debuted in NYC at the Visions Collaboration Nights in February. The dance of Nicholson, Kevin Bachman, Jacquiline Lorenzi and Osamu Uehara, was inventively accompanied by the trio of Rob Brown on alto saxophone, William Parker on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums, against the backdrop of a video by Nicholson.
Parker opened by beating his strings with his bow, to evoke an African rhythmic feel, as Fielder shook bells and Brown declaimed a muezzin call on alto. The dancers slowly circled, then whirled, against an image of a rising sun. The set was a winning collaboration with wonderful choreography, dance (with Bachman notably acrobatic), video and music - all of it deserving more undivided attention than it was possible to give.
The music could easily have stood alone with only some of the unforced tempo changes giving a clue that it was responding to outside influences. Brown was outstanding in this small group setting which allowed him ample solo space to spin out his fluid and resourceful runs and sweet sour vibrato heavy cries. Parker and Fielder provided buoyant support, with Parker's bass signalling changes in direction, as the moment demanded, from skipping to walking to shuffling patterns. An excellent set which demanded to be captured on video to be able to take it all in.
Joe McPhee & Lori Freedman
A hiatus followed, as the duo of Peter Brötzmann and Nasheet Waits was found to be a drummer short. Fortunately the scheduled closing act of Joe McPhee and Lori Freedman were on hand to step in. Over the years McPhee has become an accomplished master musician. Although he can express himself through both reeds and brass, here he restricted himself to alto clarinet and tenor saxophone, while Freedman blew on bass clarinet throughout their set of improvised duets.
The first piece was clarinet heaven: McPhee scribbling incredible high notes on alto clarinet, ornamented with vocal overtones and sustained by circular breathing. Freedman 's bubbling lines speared upwards into parallel falsetto cries, mixed in with multiphonic shrieks. Their careening intertwining lines developed organically, with natural pauses before the conversational dialogue resumed.
There was a deep spiritual aura surrounding McPhee's expositions, sometimes explicit when he referenced spirituals and gospel songs, but otherwise implicit in the lyrical flowering of his deeply resonant lines. Such was McPhee's gravitas that he inevitably influenced and shaped the improvisations. On tenor McPhee had a powerful burnished tone which was embellished with great juddering honks. His gob smacking technique was well integrated into the fabric of the music. He blended voice and fractured squawking tenor into a single tone, to which Freedman responded with some vocalised bass clarinet of her own.
Freedman was no slouch and strived to match McPhee blow for blow, with coughing yelps, delicate high filigrees and darkly bubbling pops and crackles. McPhee was simply magnificent - left unaccompanied on tenor, he generated smouldering intensity, building in volume and in abstractedness of line, before diverging into grace notes and curlicues of sound, then blowing long tones as he pattered his key pads. In response Freedman disconnected her mouthpiece and expounded high squeaks and duck calls, muffling it with her hand, for a duet of susurrating murmurs.
They played five pieces of increasing brevity. McPhee began the last piece with exhaling breath sounds through his tenor and making rhythmic patterns with the keys while Freedman responded with whispers, quiet burps and hushed tones. McPhee used circular breathing once again to keep his delicate repeating sequences airborne, with periodic eruptions of squawks, until his breath dissipated into silence, drawing forth another richly deserved standing ovation from the audience.
Peter Brötzmann & Nasheet Waits
At long last the duo of Peter Brötzmann and Nasheet Waits took the stage. Brötzmann's muscular tenor launched into a take no prisoners opening - and continued at that level in frenetic oratory. Waits (son of drummer Freddie Waits) laid down a polyrhythmic tumult in support. Brötzmann shook his head in full blown rapture until he gradually subsided into a reflective ballad with a wide vibrato growl. Waits was a surefooted foil for Brötzmann - a powerhouse when required - but also allowing enough air for the improvisations to breathe. At the close of one solo he expounded a bop pattern with his brushes, conjuring up the spirit of Max Roach, before Brötzmann rejoined to blast away any such resemblance, rolling multiphonics and overtones into one unique voice, as if he is striving to play all the notes at once.
But anyone who thinks Brötzmann is all sturm und drang hasn't listened properly. Sure there was copious overblown wailing and screaming, but there was also enough light and shade to demonstrate that the ferocity is only one side of the equation. The other featured quiet whimpering and delicate tracery, and the use of simple motifs, like the "Master of a Small House theme which has featured in several recent recordings and concerts, since its debut on the marvellous "Tales Out of Time set with Joe McPhee.
The third piece summed it all up: Brötzmann opened with lyrical tenor over cymbal washes, before extemporising a simple "theme , like some long forgotten hymn. Waits accompanied sparely with mallets rolled on toms and snare. Brötzmann cranked up the intensity in majestic testifying mode, amplifying the overtones with his whole body swaying from side to side, before becoming tender and plaintive once more to finish. They improvised four pieces in all and finished to a standing ovation.
An outstanding evening's music, and still the promise of yet more delights to come on the last day of the Festival...