Vision Festival X, - Day Six, June 19, 2005
Karen Borca Quintet
The task of following the wonderful opening set fell to the Karen Borca Quintet, with Rob Brown, a holdover on alto saxophone, the twin basses of Reggie Workman and Todd Nicholson, and Newman Baker on drums. In the same way that it only became clear after his demise what Jimmy Lyons brought to the music of Cecil Taylor, Borca's contribution to the music of Lyons, her musical mentor and partner, perhaps becomes clearer now. Long complex themes subtended improvisations which unfurled like elongated streaming banners in the wind.
Borca was ably assisted by Brown who, while not a Lyons clone, possesses a similar capacity for inventive flowing lines which renew themselves at regular intervals, without hitting the upper register as the default option. Borca is one of a very select band of jazz bassoonists, but she surmounted any intrinsic difficulties posed by her horn to produce a marathon solo in the first piece, probably the longest solo exposition in the Festival, using elements of the convoluted theme to refresh and redirect her creative impulse. Brown supported her with choppy phrasing and alto fluttering, before his own solo.
The horns were underpinned by a dense thicket of bass and a continuous drum pulse from Baker. Nicholson, whose rich dark tone contrasted with Workman's woodier rasping sonorities, was in no way outshone by his more celebrated partner. The two worked in tandem: in the second piece a delicate pizzicato solo from Workman was underpinned by melodic arco lines from Nicholson, before leading to a bass duo. Workman doubled the time and played with a circular strumming motion, before picking out riff leading back to a theme restatement. Baker unobtrusively but adroitly kept the band moving whether by clattery clip clop textures on his snare or native American cadences, through the course of the two long satisfying pieces.
Joelle Leandre & India Cooke
The next set was from the unlikely pairing of Bay Area violinist India Cooke, who has played with Sun Ra, John Zorn and Cecil Taylor, and French improvising bassist Joelle Leandre. Their association pre-dates Cooke's 1996 recording debut "Red Handed , but they have played together many times since, including a set at last years Guelph Festival which has just been released on Red Toucan Records.
In terms of audience response, this was the set of the Festival, drawing forth standing ovations not just at the end, but after each of the six pieces, belying the usual festival dynamic of rewarding the lowest common denominator. I guess that says something about the sophistication of the Vision Festival audience. The freely improvised music in no way pandered to the audience, but it was communicated directly and with passion. They opened in a fast free unison, which unsurprisingly given the instrumentation, had a chamber feel, with unison bowing giving way to aching violin. Leandre, a fount of prodigious bass technique throughout, strummed as she bowed while Cooke introduced a bluesy edge into the neo-classical stream. Both women, eyes closed, played arco most of the time: two strands interweaving into the same fabric, until their lines subsided into inaudibility and they stopped. Cooke appeared both surprised and delighted by the enthusiastic audience response.
There was a strong sense of communication between the two women, with Cooke leaning towards Leandre with a smile on her face and eyes closed , through a passage of breakneck bowing. They shouted and encouraged each other on - Cooke's upper register squeal responding to Leandre's breathy grunts and slapped bass. Leandre's vocal antics are an important part of her armoury with her wordless shouts and more tuneful cries giving the performance a theatrical edge.
Each took the spotlight in a solo section: Cooke bowed with an abstract blues feel, interspersed with beautiful slurs where she slid her fingers down to the bridge. High thin bowing contrasted with legato strokes across the strings to sound two separate voices, but still incorporating an earthy swing.
The string tour de force finished with more arco interplay, the two talking as they played. Cooke set down a locomotive rhythm, while Leandre scraped below the bridge as she vocalised. Cooke responded in kind, Leandre screamed, both still bowing frenetically, until first Leandre and then Cooke dropped their bows to the floor and continued vocalising croakily to close mock staggering across the stage in unison. Excellent set.
Rob Brown Trio
Rob Brown certainly has stamina: he was back next for his third appearance of the evening, this time leading his own band featuring Daniel Levin on cello and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. They played initially against a video by Brown's partner Jo Wood Brown, with dance from the Nancy Zendora Dance Company, featuring Rochelle Austin, Maria Baker-Lee and Juan Merchan.