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.