Vision Festival, Days 1-2: June 11-12, 2012
17th Annual Vision Festival
June 11-17, 2012
For the 17th annual Vision Festival, organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker and her team had assembled one of strongest lineups in many years. Alongside many luminaries of the New York free jazz firmament, including accomplished working bands such as Trio 3 and In Order To Survive, were rising stars on the scene like Ingrid Laubrock's Antihouse and Darius Jones' Quartet. Even the late withdrawal of David S. Ware due to ill health was turned into a positive when his slot was filled by improvising threesome Farmers By Nature. As a continuing showcase for the NYC avant-garde jazz scene, the festival attracted an audience from across the country and indeed, the globe. While for New Yorkers much of the offer might be customary fare, for many out-of-towners it was an opportunity to cram a year's worth of concerts into the space of a week.
Continuing avant jazz's inexorable shift out of Manhattan as rents rise and gentrification of the Lower East Side continues apace, this year's Vision Festival found a new home in Brooklyn's Roulette. The use of a single venue meant that unlike other festivals, there was no need to brave the vagaries of the transportation system and weather to transfer between sites. Roulette provided everything required: a comfortable, compact theater with good lighting and acoustics. The only downside was that with less space outside of the main hall than venues in previous years, the small lobby served not only as the place for buying tickets and merchandise, but also as the main place to hang. As a result, the sociable noise sometimes bled through into the theater when the doors were opened, but distracted only on a handful of occasions.
Compared to many festivals around the world which number fans in the thousands, the Vision festival is a small scale affair, with crowds in the low hundreds. But that has its compensations. Proximity made for a real connection between audience and musicians. That spirit transferred offstage as well, producing a relaxed ambience where it was possible to rub shoulders and chat with the performers.
In keeping with Vision Festival tradition, the first night began with an invocation proclaimed by organizer/activist/dancer Patricia Nicholson Parker, accompanied by fellow vocalists Kyoko Kitamura and Fay Victor, and the rhythmic wit of festival mainstays bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake, supplemented (as if needed) by drummer Gerald Cleaver. Nicholson Parker intoned texts exalting freedom and justice, embellished by the other two women, and supported by impromptu vamps from the accompanists, until finally we heard the words we had been waiting for: "Let the Festival Begin!"
June 11: Matthew Shipp / Paul Dunmall, Mark Dresser Quintet, Elliott Sharp / Tracy Morris, Kneebody
June 12: Eri Yamamoto / Farmers By Nature / Darius Jones / William Parker's In Order To Survive
By common consensus, the high point of the first evening was the quartet featuring English saxophone titan Paul Dunmall with the iconoclastic pianist Matthew Shipp. This wasn't a one-off. Both share the same manager and have become well acquainted over the years, although the amalgam remains as yet sadly unrecorded. They combined to potent effect in London during Shipp's residencies at both the Vortex in 2011 and at Cafe Oto in 2010. Completing the foursome were two players from the New York rather than London milieu: Joe Morris on bass and Gerald Cleaver once again on drums. That coalition proved crucial to the success of the meeting, as they pushed a jazzier agenda than the improv-informed pulse of London's John Edwards and Mark Sanders. It made for a smoldering, high-intensity set, where the energy levels barely dropped out of the red.
Dunmall never ceases to amaze. He seems to be galvanized by his visits to NYC. His last concert at the Vision Festival during the early summer heatwave of 2008, as part of the Profound Sound Trio with Henry Grimes and Andrew Cyrille, was one of the pinnacles of that event. Perhaps with that showing in mind, the crowd gave the reedman an especially loud cheer as he took to the stage. He didn't disappoint. With no pause for reflection, he launched straight into a fast and dense polyrhythmic barrage from Morris and Cleaver. Coming out of mid-period Coltrane, tempered by European improv sensibilities, Dunmall eschewed the default option of the overblown falsetto, instead opting for a muscular middle range, spiked with split tone screeches and the occasional trademark guttural honks, all combined into a considered yet raucous eruption.
Shipp was an almost subliminal presence until the mix was rebalanced, but his close alliance with the reedman then became apparent, as he determinedly probed and cajoled. His emphatic tremolos and pounding chords in the bass extremes spurred Dunmall to ever greater exertions. Shipp also co-opted the reedman's phrases as material for restated figures to fire back at him. When the saxophonist subsided, Shipp was able to essay his customary double whammy of sparkling runs and insistent motifs, abetted by jostling momentum from the engine room. Cleaver in particular was always on the lookout for the groove, never settling into a single pattern but edgily switching between meters. On bass, Morris provided a nimble-fingered contrapuntal blizzard of notes, coming into his own in one solo foray where he evoked an African kora player with a flinty ripple, accompanied just by Cleaver's fizzing cymbals.
Instances abounded which demonstrated just how simpatico was the bond between the pianist and saxophonist. One of the most notable came towards the end of Morris' feature, when Dunmall, from extreme stage right, interjected a brief, conversational kernel, and Shipp, at extreme stage left, responded in kind with a treble register sparkle. The prompts continued intermittently, until with almost telepathic understanding both leapt back into the fray at exactly the same moment. Overall their set, just shy of the hour-long mark, was a reminder of all that is good about the Vision Festival: unfamiliar alliances, passionate exposition, and seat-of-the-pants navigation coming together in an unforgettable result, which justly warranted the first standing ovation of the week.
Another vital showing came courtesy of bassist Mark Dresser and his quintet, which opened with gorgeously swelling phrasing passed back and forth between Rudresh Mahanthappa's pliant alto saxophone and Michael Dessen's blustery trombone. Dresser, his face a mobile canvas for fleeting expressions, laid down a monstrous swing aided by inventive drummer Michael Sarin, as they nonchalantly sashayed through the well-drilled arrangements in an almost unbroken set characterized by compelling individual statements, especially from the leader.
Earlier Elliott Sharp on avant blues guitar and bass clarinet, and poet Tracy Morris combined in a quirkily effervescent outing, while Kneebody delivered a set of music largely composed following a grant from Chamber Music America. Their tightly charted structures at times utilized hip hop beats, belayed with accuracy and enthusiasm by drummer Nate Wood, while Shane Endsley's bravura trumpet was the pick of the soloists.