Vision Festival XI, Angel Orensanz Foundation For The Arts, NYC - Day Five Evening, 17 June 2006
Steve Swell's Slammin' the Infinite
The opening set of Saturday evening was a killer. Steve Swell's Slammin' the Infinite, a working unit now for some two and a half years, hit the Vision Festival fresh from a European tour. This is just one of a number of regular projects for the increasingly visible Swell, but perhaps the one which showcases his writing, organisation and virtuosity to best effect. Swell has featured in a variety of settings, from William Parker's Little Huey Orchestra and the Sound Vision Orchestra, to textural improv outfit Blue Collar. Tonight's band comprised reed maestro Sabir Mateen on tenor and alto saxophones, alto clarinet and flute, Matt Heyner, a partner of Mateen in NYC free jazz collective TEST, on bass, and Klaus Kugel on drums. For this performance special guest John Blum was added on piano. Blum is one of the hitherto overlooked horde of musicians in NYC, known to me only from an appearance on Volume 2 of Perles Noire releases documenting Sunny Murray's Fall 2003 US tour. But on this showing, wider exposure will surely not be long in coming.
Swell's wah wah trombone invocation opened the set, quickly supported by an arco drone, scraped cymbals and piano rumblings. Swell's stutterings were echoed by Kugel, as Mateen murmured on flute, before accelerating into a solo, with eyes tight shut, and the slide extended first to the floor, then pointing skyward, as he expounded his unpredictably nuanced lines. Mateen interpolated cooling alto clarinet balm as Swell exhorted and whimpered to a conclusion. Mateen expanded his palette of fluent woody runs, in a roller coaster of deep brown blatts contrasting with altissimo yelps. Swell rejoined with fast slurred notes spurred on by Kugel. This trading of high energy solos, merging into exhilarating collective blowing was the group's strong suit and established the pattern for the set. You could tell they were a tight unit on the back of their recent tour: the catchy "Box Set theme erupted from the ongoing improv with an incisive high speed rendition, and the band shot into the stratosphere at the slightest excuse. Blum pounded and crashed in support relishing his free agent role with notes ricocheting in all directions. While the band didn't need any help to get over their message, Blum nonetheless added another layer of excitement and intrigue to the proceedings, and it would be a treat to hear him augmenting the ensemble on a future recording.
Swell and Mateen make a great pairing, with Swell's wailing, smoking, bobbing, super fast articulation only matched by Mateen's masterful spiralling runs, overblown squalls and high register whistles, and when they both go for broke at the same time, Wow! It was all made possible by the remorseless polyrhythmic drive of Kugel and Heyner's high speed plucking.
The near fifty minute set broke down into three sections, each one starting from an improvised introduction and morphing into one or more Swell compositions. Towards the end of the third piece, a two horn extemporisation between Swell and Mateen's tenor suddenly morphed into the magnificent "For Frank Lowe from the band's eponymous first CD, featuring an elegiac unison by both horns, before repeated run throughs of the theme alternately by Swell, then Mateen, over which the other horn seared frenetic oratory in tribute to the late tenor man. After the final unison with free piano commentary, they stilled and Kugel took the set out with a drum solo decrescendoing to a strike of a gong to finish and a rapturous standing ovation. What a way to open the evening!
Roscoe Mitchell Chicago Quartet
Roscoe Mitchell thrives on challenges, so following such an impressive opening set was no big deal. Through his participation in the AACM and a founding member of the world renowned Art Ensemble of Chicago, he has been a major voice in the post-Coltrane era, both as an instrumentalist and composer. With Mitchell tonight were Windy City compatriots Harrison Bankhead on bass, Corey Wilkes on trumpet and flugelhorn and Vincent Davis on drums.
Mitchell demonstrated his chops straight away, opening with a quiet circular breathed line on soprano. Bankhead's woody bowing, fanfares from Wilkes and pattering drums from Davis, expanded into a four-way improv which flowed on in a continuous super intense fifty minute performance, incorporating solos and occasional composed themes.
Early on Mitchell took one of his trademark tour de force soprano saxophone solos, using his circular breathing to first extend his tortured lines, then superimpose high pitched squeaks over the squiggling overblown tracery. He continued to work up a head of steam, cheeks bulging, twisting his head to achieve the desired effect, as at times a ghostly third voice was added to the other two. Amazing stamina. Wilkes held his own with lacerating trumpet in duet with Mitchell, his hand fluttering over the keys, using an effects pedal and even blowing flugelhorn and trumpet simultaneously, pitching his cooler lines against Mitchell's sour caterwauling, then swaying from side to side repeating angular figures, still on both horns.
Bankhead revels in a distinctive woody buzzing tone, almost in the cello register. He took a delicate melodic solo, in antidote to the preceding mayhem, bending notes low on the fretboard, then first plucking then tapping in counterpoint. He conveyed a notable sense of structure in his improvisations, exploring each idea thoroughly before developing the next. Davis kept his own in fast company, hitting forcefully when the moment demanded, but otherwise taking care of business with a sequence of tumbling polyrhythms.
They closed, as is Mitchell's wont, with a lightly swinging theme delivered by unison horns, with Mitchell interweaving the band member introductions between conversational choruses, in a sweet ending to a superb heavyweight set. And another well deserved standing ovation.
Joe Morris/ Barre Phillips
I didn't know what to expect from the upcoming duo of guitarist Joe Morris and veteran bassist Barre Phillips and so I was delighted to be enthralled by their intimate freely improvised dialogue. Phillips hails from San Francisco, but has resided in southern France since the early 1970s. He once played as featured soloist with the New York Philharmonic, while also becoming involved with the city's jazz scene, playing with George Russell, Marion Brown, Ornette Coleman and others. His NYC appearances have become highly anticipated events and will be all the more so after this evening's performance. His partner Joe Morris is better known on the current NYC scene and has played and recorded with a formidable assemblage of free jazz talent.
The conversationally paced improvisation was the product of close listening and prodigious technique, trading unconventional sonorities in a quiet dialogue which demanded rapt attention. Phillips is a master of the bass, whose vital playing belied his frail appearance. He bounced the bow off the neck and body of the bass or used the handle to dampen his strings. Morris responded in kind extracting detuned banjo sonorities and febrile buzzing with his light finger work. A glorious slow processional section evolved from deep arco bass and single note guitar lines blending in moments of sublime beauty, causing Morris to glance at Phillips and smile in acknowledgement of some musical felicity. There was an undercurrent of blues feeling in Morris' playing even when at its most non-idiomatic. They sometimes briefly provided a slightly warped version of a conventional jazz guitar/bass duet during the quicksilver flow of ideas between the two, but then all such allusions would be dispelled with blends of creaks and tappings which had the audience holding their breath to hear.
The forty minute set consisted of two pieces, the second forming almost a short cadenza to the lengthy opening improv. Excellent.
Jason Kao Hwang's Edge
Next up in what was proving to be an amazing evening was Jason Kao Hwang's new band Edge, featuring Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, Ken Filiano on bass and Andrew Drury on drums. Violinist Hwang has toiled on the Lower East Side since the early 1970s, appearing in loft jazz legend Commitment alongside William Parker, then the Far East Side Band and a string of more recent ensembles. He is also a composer of note, with his recently released chamber opera, "The Floating Box , on New World Records and scores for dance companies premiered at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
Four of Hwang's intricate compositions from the band's debut CD on AsianImprov provided the structures for his well-chosen confreres to explore in a forty minute set. The front line of violin and cornet formed a particularly pleasing combination and in Ho Bynum, Hwang has a master of texture and invention. Bynum, who has featured prominently in Anthony Braxton's recent peak of creativity, almost exploded into the first piece "No Myth , leaping up and down as he expelled fiery gobbets and spluttered lines. Bynum's trademark use of mutes to vary and vocalise his tone was in evidence throughout.
Hwang himself bowed and plucked electric violin, fragmenting melodic lines into microtonal shards and deconstructing into scrapings. One plucked solo even evoked a koto. Filiano was masterful, whether bowing in tandem with Hwang, riffing on march rhythms, or soloing pizzicato with ringing harmonics at the end of each phrase. Drury was a compelling texturalist, able to find the space to allow the arrangements to breathe while still propelling the band forward. The whole group was very tight and well rehearsed, navigating the complex charts with ease. They closed with "Grassy Hills - a stately piece written by Hwang in 1981 and used to close out sets with Commitment. Not your usual set closer, the piece boasted a stately unison theme, evolving into a convergence of trumpet and violin interweaving abstract lines. Another superb set.
By Any Means
The headline act for Saturday evening was a reunion of the trio responsible for the classic "Touchin' on Trane recording on FMP, and has now become known as By Any Means (perhaps based on the rhetoric of Malcolm X: "action on all fronts by whatever means necessary"), with Charles Gayle on alto saxophone, William Parker on bass and Rashied Ali on drums. They first got together again in January this year for a successful Vision Club gig at the Clemente Soto Velez Gallery. It was gratifying to see an influx of younger faces to the front of the hall to drink deep of the combined wisdom. Gayle began playing from the rear of the stage, coming forward with a stream of sanctified sounds from his alto. Parker provided measured propulsive bass lines as Ali set out a constant arrhythmic pulse. Gayle was transcendental with his vocalised cry drenched in polychromatic overtones.
The three pieces allowed ample solo space for each participant over the course of their forty five minute set. Parker's walking over Ali's brushed shuffle in the second piece provided the perfect platform for Gayle's impassioned altissimo wail and bent shrieked lines, culminating in a high scream. Parker belayed a dancing bass melody before Gayle's return, and switched to arco, as Gayle, eyes closed, squeaked and squealed in tandem with the bass, for a sweetly filigreed wavering conclusion.
They went out with a bang. Ali opened the final piece with an insistent tattoo which led to a series of muscular solos before Gayle returned screaming, throwing out skeins of molten sound. He signalled to Ali to up the intensity, if that was possible, for a series of rapturous crescendos, before repeating a descending riff to finish a tumultuous set and elicit a standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience.
It was a stirring end to a wonderful sequence of music with five excellent sets - all the better for being unanticipated. One of the best evening's music I can recall anywhere and undoubtedly the high point of the Festival, not that there wasn't more excellence to come in the final night...