Vision Festival XI, Angel Orensanz Foundation For The Arts, NYC - Day Two, 14 June 2006
For the second year the Vision Festival chose to honour a living musician: billing Wednesday 14th June as a salute to Sam Rivers Lifetime Achievement and a celebration of his life and music through an evening of performance. The importance of Rivers to the community of musicians who comprise the Vision Festival is huge. In addition to being an essential musical inspiration as a composer and improviser who has played with Billie Holliday, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Cecil Taylor, as well as BB King and Wilson Pickett among others, Rivers exerted a profound influence on avant jazz through his role as an artist/organizer with his 1970s loft space Studio Rivbea. Studio Rivbea was the venue for the Wildflowers sessions documented on Douglas, and provided an essential meeting point and platform for adventurous musicians. Rivers was very much celebrating throughout the evening and thrived on the goodwill of the audience.
Sam Rivers Rivbea Orchestra
The 16 piece Rivbea Orchestra, assembled from Rivers' current base in Orlando, Florida, blasted out the opening set. They comprised 6 saxophones, 4 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, bass and drums, all complete with mini podiums. They even brought along their own music witness, Scramble Campbell, who painted at the rear of the stage as they performed. To quote Rivers from the programme notes: "My orchestra rehearses every Wednesday, and I always have new music for them to play... - to such an extent that Rivers has composed over 400 compositions for the orchestra. The orchestra has been together now for 12 years and it shows! They were a fearsomely tight unit.
The first piece "Monsoon started with intricate lines in crisp unison. A serpentine Rivers excursion on soprano saxophone uncoiled over the top, before an eruption of simultaneous solos from trumpet, tenor saxophone and trombone over a hard driving backdrop. The orchestra are well rehearsed as there was no overt indication of who should play when, but the band clearly knew their places and combinations of three way exchanges peppered the piece throughout. Rivers conducted, but as much for his own gratification as the orchestra's, which didn't rely on visual cues. The piece ended on a high note with Rivers embroiled in a saxophone section free for all.
Next up was the swinging "Flair , followed by the punchy "Melange and finally the intersecting blocks of sound comprising "Spunk . Each piece was propelled by Doug Matthews on bass and the driving Anthony Cole on drums, and liberally sprinkled with a heady stream of concise solos from the band. Highlights for me, apart from Rivers astringent soprano, were an angular alto spot from Chris Charles, spirited tenor outbursts from Jeff Rupert and David Pate, and a wonderfully smeary trumpet solo from Tom Parmenter.
You could tell that the orchestra were really enjoying themselves, as was Rivers who good naturedly milked the audience for applause and basked in their collective warmth. They finished their excellent set after an hour of hard driving big band jazz to a standing ovation.
Grachan Moncur III Sextet
Trombonist Grachan Moncur III brought his quartet and special guests vibraphonist Khan Jamal and guitarist Bruce Edwards up next. Moncur appeared on a series of classic 1960s Blue Note albums with Wayne Shorter, Jackie McLean, Andrew Hill and later Sam Rivers. The band was completed by Richard Pearson on drums, Bruce Arkin on bass and Noriko Kano on piano.
They began at a gentle loping pace, with Moncur extemporising a mellow and graceful solo over the springy rhythms and setting an easygoing grooving blueprint for the whole 50 minute set. Some spiky piano fills turned it into a duet with the excellent Kano, who also instigated some top notch bluesy interaction with Jamal's ringing motifs on vibes. Edwards, seated at the back of the stage, contributed a relaxed flowing testimony, before Kano's highly charged pianisms out saw her bobbing up and down in her seat. Piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums together conjured a hypnotic groove and yet also managed to leave space for each other. The first piece "Blue Rondo written jointly by Moncur and Jackie McLean, was followed by a funky rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Footprints . Compere for the evening Lewis Barnes attempted to cut short the set at this point, but was thwarted by audience calls for just one more. Arkin's solo bass introduction morphed into the riff from "So What and the band dug deep into another groove, inspiring Jamal's best outing of the evening. Not your usual Vision Festival fare, but the audience lapped up that "Blue Note " feel.
Warren Smith Ensemble
Next up was the Warren Smith Ensemble who took the stage at 10.20. Master musician Smith boasts a diverse resume from Aretha Franklin to Max Roach's M'Boom, and has also worked extensively with Sam Rivers. Strung across the stage from Smith was an intriguing horn section of Mark Taylor on French horn, Jack Jeffers on bass trombone, Roy Campbell on flugelhorn, trumpet and pocket trumpet and Andrew Lamb on tenor, with Jaribu Shahid on bass behind.
A drum fanfare from Smith launched the proceedings, with the rest of the band on an assortment of shakers and percussion, before the horns intertwined in a multi voiced theme. Smith nodded to Jeffers to take the spotlight over a churning rhythm, soon abetted by a wonderfully boisterous horn chorus. A lyrical French horn excursion presaged a slow burning flugelhorn soliloquy from Campbell and a storming knotty tenor outpouring from Lamb. This first piece by Smith was called Free Form #10 (" I called it that so that I would have to write the other nine ).
Smith switched to balaphon for the next composition - "A Gift from William Parker - a reference to that very instrument which Parker needed to get rid of to free up some domestic space. A multi-sectioned head coalesced into an insistent riff with the horns falling into step, evoking a garrulous procession through the rain forest. Taylor drew out a bluesy elegiac feel over a dissonant horn choir, before Smith gave Campbell the go ahead. His muted pocket trumpet essayed long pinched tones climaxing in high register whoops before giving way to repeated flurries with an overall understated Spanish feel. Great solo. Lamb was also inspired - laying down the law with elemental lines in his meaty chewy tone, before hitting the high registers, prompting Smith and the other horns to cut loose in a raucous frenzy of support. The temperature subsided as Smith returned to the balaphon and Lamb came back out of orbit and they all concluded on a gentle riff as Smith shouted "Thank you for that gift William . A great set but too short at thirty-five minutes.
Sam Rivers Trio
Sam Rivers' current working trio, with Matthews and Cole reprised from the Orchestra, provided the conclusion to the evening. This was a much looser set than the Orchestra's, designed to showcase Rivers' instrumental prowess, in a quicksilver, though episodic, cavalcade of moods and textures. Cole initiated a hard hitting drum maelstrom, leading into walking bass with trenchant tenor declarations from the seated Rivers. Mathews swung his bass frantically from side to side as he played, while Cole smiled serenely as he lay down the pulse. Rivers' trajectory proceeded in short radiant bursts, closely shadowed by the attentive Cole. When Rivers hit a lyrical line it prompted Cole to slip into steady time, before becoming abstract, then boppish by turns and finishing with a catchy theme.
There was a celebratory vibe to the whole set and the trio enjoyed showing off their paces. Cole co-opted the piano for an outburst of slashing chords over which Rivers wailed, accompanied by high arco smears from Matthews, before morphing into a soulful tenor ballad. Cole showboated on piano before giving way to Matthews for a forceful bass solo. It was all change again for the next piece with Rivers on soprano, and Cole on tenor saxophone, initially conversing over a bass drone, until Matthews interpolated bass clarinet into what became a three way improv. Eventually an arrangement emerged with Rivers lead, Cole counterpoint and Matthews underpinning. Rivers also incorporated outings on piano and flute into the forty minute long set and they finished to a warm standing ovation, luxuriating in the affection and love emanating from the audience, friends and family. Rivers' daughter gave a short oration at the end of the set. The 82 year old Rivers, laughing and joking, clearly enjoyed the evening enormously.