Vision Festival 2010 - Opening Night
Opening Invocation, The Blues Escaped, Stomp It, Rob Brown New Quartet, Broken Flowers, In Order To Survive
Abrons Arts Center
23 June 2010
After three days of activity across various downtown venues, the Vision Festival returned to the well-appointed Abrons Arts Center for the core part of the proceedings. Everything a small festival might need was on hand. Main theater with comfortable seating and air conditioning? Check. Smaller performance area which increases the options for artistic presentations? Check. Separate hall where the commercial activities of selling CDs, books, T-shirts, food and drink can go on without disturbing those listening to the music? Check. Variety of smaller spaces and thoroughfares available for exhibition of photos and paintings? Check. In addition the acoustics were detailed and the sound system such that listeners were able to hear well throughout the auditorium. Without doubt the Abrons Center has provided the best accommodation of any for the Vision Festival in recent years.
Billed as a Vison for Vision Benefit, the opening night boasted a stellar lineup showcasing some of the musicians most strongly associated with the Vision Festival over the years, each presenting a new (or in the case of William Parker's In Order To Survive, almost new) project. They didn't disappoint and the performances made this a curtain raiser to savor.
In what has now become a firm Vision Festival tradition, the first night proper opened with a brief Invocationa sort of secular blessing of the housein which music and chanting come together to lay the spiritual foundation for the Festival. As if eager to get underway, there was no introduction and the musicians seated in a line across the stage drifted into an easygoing groove, as if they were on the back porch. Cooper-Moore's home made banjo and Hamid Drake's frame drum were at the heart, embroidered by Roy Campbell's trumpet, Kidd Jordan and Rob Brown's saxophones and Jason Kao Hwang's violin. As William Parker downed his wood flute to bang gongs at the rear stage, partner and main organizer Patricia Nicholson intoned above the rootsy mélange: "The angels are flying. Here they are. Here you are." After a series of whinnying cries from Brown, Jordan and Hwang, the ritual finished with a quick unceremonious "OK" and we could unfasten our seatbelts. Recognizing that newcomers might be somewhat mystified, MC Lewis Barnes explained the Invocation for the uninitiated before the next show.
The Blues Escaped
A first time gathering, The Blues Escaped, featuring five holdovers from the opening Invocation, had the honor of initiating the event. Jason Kao Hwang began by picking out a plaintive melody on his violin while everyone else stood immobile. William Parker laid down a slowly mutating bass riff, fuelled by Hamid Drake behind the traps. The front line initiated an amiable exchange of free form phrasesa three way conversationbefore Kidd Jordan took a fleeting turn in the spotlight. That established the template for the set: collective improvisation over Parker and Drakes patented non-repeating groove. There were momentary passages which resembled loose arrangements, but more likely sprang from the shared memory of R&B riffs and classic tunes. Living on their wits, at one point Jordan and Hwang even extemporized a paraphrase of Charlie Parker's "Now's The Time" behind a Campbell trumpet solo.
While no-one really soloed as such, Campbell seemed more often to make his way to the front as the set progressed, his slurred legato cutting through the cumulative sonic mass. Pushing the bell of his flugelhorn over the mic, he evoked an underwater burbling, while later on trumpet he leant right back and blasts the heavens. Hwang alternated fluid bowing with rhythmic inventions, tapping his bow off the strings or plucking pizzicato riffs. Jordan used his distinctive falsetto more sparingly than usual, content to excavate the middle and lower register of his tenor, while orchestrating impromptu riffs.
There was nonetheless plenty of scope for the bass drum masterclass that is Parker and Drake. By now so empathetic, they responded almost intuitively to the slightest inflections of attack, changing the groove at whim, safe in the knowledge that the other would follow. Parker's deep full-toned bass and Drakes syncopated stick work wove an effortlessly funky golden thread which the horns could choose to follow or play against as they wished. It was like a discussion between old friends but one which was all the better for being shared with an appreciative audience. Illustrating their responsiveness, one moment that stuck in the mind was when Jordan mirrored Hwang's singing lines, winding each other up into a frenzy of high pitched quavering whistles, before Campbell leapt in on pocket trumpet. It was like looking at the sea: always changing but essentially the same in its coherence and flow.
Made up of Matthew Shipp on piano and Whit Dickey on drums, Stomp It could alternatively be viewed as two thirds of the Matthew Shipp Trio. Without a bassist the communication between the two was more direct, though still oblique by most standards. While Shipp pawed at the piano, Dickey, looking down and to the side head motionless, constructed intricate latticeworks from drum, stick and cymbal. But the output belied the visual image as Dickey was very responsive, becoming noticeably more expansive when Shipp got into hammered patterns, echoing and embellishing at the same time. There was strong rhythmic interplay between the two, not least when Shipp launched a heavy sustain pedal assault on the refrain of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" with the drummer accenting the refrain on cymbals.
Dickey's mastering was most apparent in a solo passage when both velocity and volume increased, with motifs whirling around his kit like intersecting satellites. Otherwise his role seemed to be about underpinning and interaction, achieved industriously but not obtrusively. Shipp demonstrated a particular attraction to the bass register tonight. At times the pianist was almost boxing as he swung rights then lefts at the keyboard and tackled one typically thunderous sequence primarily with the heel of his right hand, while Dickey added emphasis on toms and cymbals.
Together they delivered a short but powerful set that, while programmed almost as an interlude between acts, was easily the equal of those allotted greater time.
Rob Brown New Quartet
Rob Brown has been a near constant at previous Vision Festivals, presenting new projects each time, the only consistent factor being the excellence of his passionate yet controlled expression. This year wasn't to change that, with the main novelty being that in his new quartet Brown had replaced piano which has been a recent trait with the vibes of Matt Moran.
Four mallets in hand, Moran pontificated over Gerald Cleaver's clattering drums and a Chris Lightcap bass riff to start, before joining Brown in a modular head, like something Steve Lacy might have composed. Having demarcated the territory Brown took off on a fine extended solo, with backing loosening up behind him. Moran's vibes allowed plentiful space and his sparse style of comping involved waiting for an appropriate juncture then leaping in with darting clusters. Brown has assembled a very solid rhythm section. Lightcap combined melody and rhythm in his muscular basswork, and excelled at digging into riffs and finding ways of to varying the interest without losing momentum. Cleaver can do it all, often keeping things simple yet able to deconstruct tempo into pulsing polyrhythmic rumble in his supporting play. He seamlessly incorporated modulations of pitch and timbre into his spare rhythms, as when he applied clothes pegs to his cymbals. Together they essayed an intense set of five originals spanning the gamut from sprightly free-bop to slow burning ballad in a 50 minute program, which was recorded for future release.
Brown boasts an instantly recognizable sweetly acerbic sound on alto saxophone, modulated by carefully calibrated distortions, squeals, and split tones, all of which add emotional weight to his note choices. In spite of his burgeoning leadership credentials, he remains most often sighted in the company of bassist William Parker, whose ensembles he has graced for more than 17 years. It was easy to see why as he smoldered over a menacing vamp in the darkly loping second piece.
Moran brought an element of unpredictability to matters, whether taking a bow to his vibes to produce long pure notes, making asymmetric use of repetition in his kaleidoscopic ringing runs, or bobbing as he took fast paced solos like an increasingly desperate carpenter trying to hammer in multiple nails which refused to stay down. Always alert, Moran exploited the time worn, but ever pleasing, trick of co-opting Brown's closing phrases to start his solo in fifth piece.
Highlight of a formidable set was the fourth piece (all of which remain untitled) which unfurled into an ominous ostinato before a knotty unison. It featured a typically serpentine alto solo from the leader. As he hit siren like high points Moran bowed his vibes and deployed a funnel to intensify the swelling bell-like tones until they commingled wonderfully with the reedman's alto strains. Brown was inspired to one of his best solos of the evening, full of anguished squeals and shrieks in an unbroken stream, with great comping from Moran and Cleaver adding a metallic shimmer to the beat with shakers used as sticks.
Going under the title Broken Flowers was the duet of Matthew Shipp once more at the piano accompanying Patricia Nicholson's free form dance in another short interlude. Shipp watched Nicholson closely as she worked the stage, modulating some of his rhythmic motifs to her movement and vice versa. His flow included a range of references, including a section of almost stride piano. Shipp's hands seemed to be dancing in empathy, fingers prancing along the keyboard, inducing a display of staggered prancing from Nicholson. The need to complement the dance provoked another impressive showing from Shipp in one of his most sustained rhythmic recitals.
In Order To Survive
Much anticipated was the reunion of William Parker's In Order To Survive, one of the most exciting groups of the 1990s. They produced one all time classic, the double album Peach Orchard (Aum Fidelity, 1998) during their five year existence. However as it happened it was more a meeting of that band with Parker's current quartet, in that pianist Cooper-Moore and alto saxophonist Rob Brown were the original members alongside Parker himself, while the group this evening was rounded out by trumpeter Lewis Barnes and the wonderful Hamid Drake from Parker's regular ensemble. The repertoire also was largely culled from the Quartet's book, referenced as part of a continuous spontaneously evolving performance.
First off was an up-tempo "Wood Flute Song" from Sound Unity (Aum Fidelity, 2005) marked by spicy horn interplay between Barnes and Brown. Straight away the pianist made his presence felt, with his mad cap comping continually verging on the brink of veering out of control, but always restrained just when meltdown seemed imminent. The overall effect was freer and more edgy than Parker's Quartet's usual modus operandi. Barnes, who like Brown is rarely encountered outside Parker's orbit, notwithstanding leading a fine outfit at Vision 2008, took a fiery solo, alternating between poignant lyricism and braying intensity, with Cooper-Moore going berserk behind him, spraying glissandos all over the keyboard. After a theme restatement the horns retired leaving a startling piano trio in which Cooper-Moore made use of fingers, palms, elbows, whatever he needed to get his message across.
Drake was energized, reciprocating rhythmic stress from the pianist with emphatic crashing, while Brown and Barnes threw in joint fanfares from opposite wings of the stage. Brown took off on a daredevil flight, unpredictably twisting and careening with more bustling pianistic support along with brassy hollers from Barnes as he reached the apex of his trajectory. Parker's pizzicato turned into an eerie wavering, almost vocalized arco, invoking a mournful dirge from the twin horns, over a choppy backing, in which Cooper-Moore again galvanized the Parker/Drake duo. This was a band not reclining on desiccated laurels, but looking restlessly forwards, and deserving much wider exposure than a one off Festival appearance. Finally another WPQ number emerged, "Daughter's Joy" from Petit Oiseau (Aum Fidelity, 2008), which acted as a springboard for the concluding collective give and take. Short and sweet, this was one of the standout acts of the Festival. If only they had played for longer than 25 minutes.
Having begun on such a high, it was fortunate that the next night also promised much with a celebration of a lifetime of achievement by AACM founder Muhal Richard Abrams.