Vision Festival 2010: Day 6, June 28, 2010
Marilyn Crispell, Joelle Leandre, Roy Campbell, Mat Maneri, Wadada Leo Smith, Gunter "Baby" Sommer, Joe Morris, Mike Reed
Abrons Arts Center
New York City
June 28, 2010
With only three sets scheduled in the main auditorium, Monday evening at the Vision Festival was low on quantity but more than made up for that in terms of the quality on offer. Some of the few European artists at the Festival were to appear, in two infrequently sighted ensembles. French bassist Joelle Leandre has loomed large many times in previous Vision Festivals but she was here tonight as but one part of the all star Stone Quartet, while this was the first Vision appearance for German drummer Gunter "Baby" Sommer since 2004, in the company of AACM trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith.
First convened by Leandre as part of a series at The Stone in December 2006 curated by Bruce Lee Gallanter and Manny Lunch of Downtown Music Gallery, the Stone Quartet is rarely encountered anywhere, let alone New York City. Their initial performance, released as The Stone Quartet (DMG/ARC, 2008), gives a fairly accurate idea of what to expect: measured free improvisation, with all combinations explored without grandstanding. So it transpired this evening too, everyone's ego subsumed to the needs of the music. Extended technique was put at the service of the group approach. Even Leandre's theatrical side was held in check, though her animation was plain to see with an amazing array of expressions flitting across her face in response to the group interjections.
To begin Mat Maneri's viola and the Frenchwoman's arco bass wove a lattice of contrapuntal lines, reminiscent of 20th century composers such as Schoenberg and Webern. As the string colloquy thickened, Leandre glanced over towards Marilyn Crispell at the piano who tentatively immersed herself in the flow. Soon the dynamics shifted to leave a duet between the pianist and Roy Campbell on trumpet. The force was with the hornman who blew sparse and almost cool with less blues inflections than usual. Gradually the whole group rejoined with Leandre echoing Crispell's tremolos, and then indulging in a sequence of slithery bowed glissandos with Maneri. Such kaleidoscopic movement characterized the entire set and made description both impossible and superfluous.
Each member of the quartet transcended both their instruments and any preordained roles. It was a four way conversation between equals which each dipped into and dropped out of as the moment demanded, but with a cohesiveness which undermined any thought of randomness. Listening of the highest order was necessary to make this music work. At one point, Crispell sat carefully choosing when to re-enter, her hands poised above the keyboard for minutes before she thought better of it. The group operated across a wide dynamic range, meaning acapella spots emerged organically and then vanished just as quickly, as when Leandre's bass reverie was suddenly engulfed by the other three.
Highlights abounded, including a wonderful Maneri viola spot, constructed from sliding microtonal bowing, and a marvelous duet between the pianist and the bassist, which became a quickfire trio with Maneri's fleet-fingered skirling, then a foursome with Campbell's high whispering squeals. A sublime fourway discourse closed out the first section, with repeated two note arco phrase from Leandre forming a backbone against which Crispell fired runs and arpeggios, Campbell's muted trumpet stutters, topped by Maneri's sweeping legato. Overall it was a bracing start to the evening: a cerebral quartet music, almost austere at times in its purity.
Wadada Leo Smith/Gunter "Baby" SommerTouch the Earth II
AACM trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith's last appearance at the Vision Festival in 2008 with his Golden Quintet was outstanding, and resulted in one half of the excellent Spiritual Dimensions (Cuneiform, 2009). Consequently his duet with German percussionist Gunter "Baby" Sommer was one of the most anticipated sets of this year's Festival. Their shared history goes a long way back. Together with departed German bassist Peter Kowald, they formed one of the first American/European collaborations in the Touch The Earth trio which recorded an exemplary eponymous disc for FMP in 1979.
Since Kowald's death, they decided to carry on collaborating together as a duo, but always leaving a space for the departed bassist. Perhaps that explains one of the reasons this pairing works so well: the use both make of silence, contrasting long pauses with exuberant tempests of sound. Evidence of their rapport can readily be found on their only release to date: Wisdom in Time (Intakt, 2007). However there is a further significant ingredient to their success, that goes beyond the musical, which is the visual element added by Sommer's theatricality, well in evidence this evening. While the German is not quite at the Han Bennink level in the drummer as showman stakes, he could be a contender.
An explosive drum attack from Sommer matched by a brief vocal shout from Smith broke the anticipatory hush, which was then allowed to prevail again before the drummer essayed a more open soundscape of gongs and cymbals into which Smith interjected his annunciatory blues drenched trumpet. Sommer switched to brushes which he not only swept over his kit but swooshed through the air, creating phantom percussive components. Against this rolling cadence, the trumpeter engraved sustained tones. Like Sommer, he was very precise and deliberate in what he did, yet simultaneously inspired and even impetuous.
With his short cropped white hair, walrus moustache and expressive features, the German was already a charismatic presence, a quality only exacerbated by his playing antics. At one point he beat his kit with a shaker in one hand and what looked like a broom head in the other. He kept time in crisp bursts, occasionally with vocal shouts, which prompted the American to add some tongue clicks to his trumpet line, generating a reciprocal structure. After rising to strike a prayer bowl, the drummer moved away from his kit entirely, adding a spatial dimension to the show, with a gong which he struck and aired across the stage around the unperturbed, immobile but intensely focused American. Though undeniably entertaining, the sonic output of Sommer's capers was never less than integral to the performance.
While well versed in each other's idioms, their responses still avoided the obvious. So when Smith suddenly erupted with a raucous blast, Sommer's reaction was to stop, the ensuing silence allowing the trumpeter's fizzing overtones to reverberate. Then after that fleeting cessation he unleashed his own complementary onslaught, establishing a tremendous loping rhythm over which Smith burned with majestic fanfares. But again displaying a penchant for the unexpected, the brassman changed tack to gurgle, splutter and wheeze. Typical of all Smith's oeuvre, there was that compositional sensibility even in an extemporized context which distinguishes the great improvisors from the merely good. The audience agreed with a standing ovation after the first installment.
To much laughter, Sommer began the second piece by smiting his kit with the towel he had been using to mop his brow. In sympathy the trumpeter beat time on the floor with a mute. After a long interval the drummer launched a cantering tattoo against which Smith pitched distant muted trumpet, illustrative of the impressive use of volume as an expressive device by this duo. Sommer again augmented the musical with the visual (why are so many of the most visual performers European/non American?) by employing long red plastic tubes as drumsticks, later to be replaced by bright orange gourd-like shakers.
During a lull, the German inserted a whistle in his mouth and then blew a full on rhythmic barrage above the meter demarcated by the orange shakers, over which the trumpeter waxed incandescent, until they stopped as abruptly as their set started. It was a consummate end and elicited another standing ovation. Even with air conditioning in the hall it felt hot and Smith was clearly soaked in perspiration. Both men had put a lot into it and the only shame was that they weren't able to play for longer than 35 minutes. Nonetheless it was another of the festival's high points.
In the intimate setting of downstairs theater, Azares played between sets in the main stage. Leader Jean Carla Rodea has assembled an intriguing cast: Joe Morris' name has the highest profile, and with him centrally positioned, but their performance came across as a collective venture, with the only composition from drummer Gerald Cleaver's pen. As often the case with improvised music, they began incrementally with vocal moans and wails from Rodea, Joachim Badenhorst's insistently probing clarinet, and Morris' guitar scuttling and then built inexorably from there.
One worried for the vocalist's vocal chords as she screamed and rasped, her expressiveness matched with overblown screeches from special guest Mexican saxophonist Remi Alvarez. Highlights were a flowing solo of chiming single notes by the guitarist, and a fantastic tenor saxophone duet between Badenhorst and Alvarez, skronking away over pounding forward momentum, something Cleaver excels at (witness also his slow burning fuse in the trio with Lotte Anker and Craig Taborn), pacing a gradual increase in passion until it ascended to fever pitch.
Eventually the intensity crested and we were into a more dreamy terrain in which Morris banjo plucks resonated between drifting tenor and bass clarinet and gently rumbling mallets on drums. Cleaver also threw in electronic sounds which blended so completely with the instruments that it took a while to realize where they were coming from. In a complete change of pace their succinct second number was a lyrical melodic line embellished and harmonized by voice, sax, arco bass, and guitar, like a cooling shower after the midday sun. Overall their set was a splendid and unanticipated pleasure.
Mike Reed's People, Places & Things
For the last set of the night, drummer/composer Mike Reed's People, Places & Things,paid their respects to Chicago elders from the hard bop days. As well as originals they traversed storming versions of tunes by the Windy City's lesser known lights such as "Status Quo" by John Neely, a forgotten Chicago tenor player and "Wilbur's Tune" by unsung drummer Wilbur Campbell. Handling the involved heads with practiced ease were the twin saxophones of tenorist Tim Haldeman and altoist Greg Ward, all the more remarkable as they were doing it the old-fashioned way, without charts. Both saxophonists supported and incited the other during solos, before partaking in daredevil dashes, recalling of tenor chases in the Chicago tradition.
Reed proved a busy active drummer, stoking the high velocity exchanges. During the introduction to Ward's "VS # 1," titled for Velvet Session at Fred Anderson's Velvet Lounge, Reed became very emotional, voice choked, as he talked about the influence and support the elder man had given to upcoming players. The tune was notable for a slow building outpouring from the composer, starting at the edge of audibility, causing bassist Jason Roebke to respond by unsheathing his bow for some scratchy scrabbling arco bass, while Reed supplied textural detail. Ward etched his dancing lines with persistence and invention, much as altoist Jimmy Lyons was wont to do, until he reached a climax of throttled cries, then transposed into long unfurling cascades to continue, his body undulating on the spot as he played.
To come on Tuesday was the final night of the Vision Festival at the Abrons Arts Center. It promised to be something of a celebration of drummer Rashied Ali, who died in August 2009. Two key sets were a continuation of the collective trio By Any Means which included saxophonist Charles Gayle and the omnipresent William Parker on bass, but with Ali's brother Muhammad on drums, and a closing drum tribute from a cast of five percussionists.
All Photos: John Sharpe