Vision Festival 2009: Day 3
Composer and drummer William Hooker has long had a fascination with incorporating other art forms into his performance, be it his own poetry or films, like those of experimental film-maker Stan Brakhage, often breaking free of his free jazz roots to encompass rock and noise sensibilities in the process. But for his Silent Film Project, which he has been touring on and off since 2007, Hooker and bandmates Darius Jones on alto saxophone and Adam Lane on bass, extemporized accompaniment in real time to a screening of black film- maker Oscar Micheaux's 1920s classic Symbol of the Unconquered.
A fledging industry known as "race movies" existed in the United States from 1910 to the end of World War II. Made predominantly by blacks (especially in the 1920s) for black audiences, these independent films emerged from a direct response to Jim Crow theaters and an exclusionary Hollywood system. They were a part of the Afro-American community's attempts in countering and providing alternative images to the stereotypes so prevalent in mainstream culture.
Thought lost for decades and only restored in the 1990s, though with a crucial reel missing, in Symbol of the Unconquered the black hero holds his ground and chivalrously protects a lovely light-skinned mulatto neighbor (who is passing as white) against a local gang of thieves and hooded, torch- carrying Klansmen (one of whom is also passing as white).
So powerful was the film that it was hard to focus on the music. On a darkened stage, Hooker accompanied the first part alone with a lengthy almost architecturally structured solo, demonstrating great ability to compose long form in real time. For the second part Jones' impassioned alto dueted with Lane's big booming bass, before all three came together for the final reels, featuring anguished wailing and powerful trio interplay though, against expectations, the film actually had a happy ending. A very moving experience overall and one where the music could have stood alone, and would probably have been even better appreciated.
Enlivening the changeovers, young male dancers appeared both on stage and various points around the center, for the first of four evenings of the Festival, investigating the relationship between performer, audience, and environment. What this meant was some good-natured interactions among Jordan and company and the audience (though proving a deterrent for the less forward members of the audience wanting to get to and from the restrooms on occasion. Perhaps a degree of desperation was needed to run the gauntlet and risk being co-opted into the performance).
For his first leadership appearance at Vision AACM alumnus Ernest Dawkins and his New Horizons Ensemble turned in one of those solid sets that is the backbone of a good festival. With proceedings recorded for possible release, they put on a tight program of five pieces of what might be called "traditional free jazz" featuring well-arranged compositions, fine soloing, a little group interplay, and a forceful young rhythm section.
After all faced east to briefly cleanse the stage, the performers launched into "Shades of the Prairie Prophet," dedicated to veteran saxophonist Fred Anderson and written for his 80th birthday, with tinkling percussion giving way to an explosive unison over tumultuous bass and drums. Dawkins (on right) expounded high energy in his tenor saxophone outing before a powerful solo from trombonist Steve Berry. Drummer Isaiah Spencer was bouncing up and down on his stool as he thrashed his kit. A fast head introduced a bass feature for Darius Savage, strumming frantically at first, then quietening to flick at his strings with both hands. Dawkins and Berry combined in a further theme, delivered in counterpoint before a slower bluesy outing from Berry. Working up to a shrieking head of steam, Dawkins essayed a series of fast wails and a repeated figure over an accelerating rhythm, before bringing it all back down again for a mournful unison to finish.
One of the highlights of the set was Dawkin's "Balladesque" where the leader's soulful alto saxophone traced a soaring line over splashing cymbals and nimble bass, doubled by trombone. As he skipped into double time, Dawkins really dug deep, ducking and diving, with his face creased in concentration for an intensely passionate solo which left him needing to recover at the start of the next piece, which prompted him to give Berry the first feature. Dawkins was seeking audience participation for the closing "Baghdad Boogie," with the fast unison line over a pulsing two-note bass and drum riff broken by the titular spoken aside. Berry was inspired into his strongest solo of the night, with strong narrative thrust into his storytelling. Taking the mic as Spencer came out front with a conga drum, Dawkins launched into an anti- war polemic, before holding up his cellphone to play his ring-tone into the mic. "Sounds like peace to me," Berry quipped as they ended.