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.
In a departure from the norm, the second day of the festival was devoted to the 15th anniversary of Aum Fidelity, one of the premier record labels for avant-garde jazz, and one which treats both the music and the musicians with respect. As a consequence it has been responsible for a string of outstanding releases since its inception in 1997. That uniformly exceptional quality revealed itself over four excellent sets from the imprint's roster.
Japanese pianist Eri Yamamoto initiated the proceedings in a rare unaccompanied performance. At the outset Yamamoto clarified that she would be playing two compositions, which, given that most of her pieces fall shy of 10 minutes, made one wonder what she would do after that. But all became clear as what had manifested as short, attractive tunes on disc became the foundations for shape-shifting edifices, including the title number from her trio date The Next Page (Aum Fidelity, 2012), in a looser, more extemporized rendition where she explored the highways and byways, just checking in with the rolling theme from time to time.
Yamamoto possesses such a marked sense of rhythm, emphasized by a forceful left hand, that the absence of bass and drums barely registered. She suffused the recital with lush, rich voicings and prancing blues-tinged motifs, heightening suspense effortlessly, suddenly reaching inside piano at one juncture to manipulate the strings, then doggedly repeating the phrase. Her second tune, "Memory Dance," began meditatively, as befitted a work about friends and family who have passed, but like many of her songs it combined a feeling of happiness with a certain poignancy. Her decision to base her set on charts guaranteed an abundance of melody, and steady tempos, though she switched in and out of both at will.
Her final contribution was an improvisation dedicated to fellow pianist Matthew Shipp. Yamamoto explained that early in her New York career, he gave her some sage advice: "If you slide your hands a half step above or below you might find a new world." Even though unscripted, the piece shared the virtues of its fellows. But in a nod to its dedicatee it featured tumultuous chording in the bass, before branching into a lurching stride to finish. Executed with more than a touch of charm, her act kept the hall in rapt attention throughout and provided a spellbinding opener for the evening.
David S. Ware and Planetary Unknown were scheduled to reprise their triumph at the 2011 Festival, but owing to health problems, Ware was unable to be present. Not a problem when the ringer was the stellar improvising collective Farmers By Nature. As label impresario Joerg recounted in his introduction, the first time that bassist William Parker played in this company, his bass almost levitated off the stage, such was the charge of their interaction. Consequently, the next time they got together Aum Fidelity was on hand to record what became their acclaimed eponymous debut. As Joerg proposed, there are very few groups who can improvise collectively at the level of these three, a view amply confirmed this evening in a 50 minute organically unfolding narrative. Drummer Gerald Cleaver established the prevailing mood with a quiet sizzle on his cymbals as Parker and pianist Craig Taborn listened attentively. Eventually both began to insert indeterminate stutters and abrasions into the mix. Parker posited some emphatic strums and Taborn reached under the bonnet to pluck the piano strings, while all the time the drummer maintained his initial rapid fire pulse. This aggregation has consistently inspired Parker, particularly when he unsheathes his bow. So it was a pleasure to hear so much of his distinctive, highly vocalized arco wail emerge from the exemplary interplay.
Of course, as with all the best cooperative ensembles, individual contributions weren't the main aim. Even with three such illustrious constituent parts, egos were completely subsumed to making the music flow. There were no leaders and no followers, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that everyone was simultaneously both. Also there was no instrumental hierarchy. Taborn undercut the potential dominance of the piano as a lead voice much of the time by playing as much percussively as melodically, his hands, turning over onto his knuckles and back as they scuttled crablike across the keys.
Fittingly, given Cleaver's nominal leadership (he chose the name), the group was often a celebration of the impulse to tap, hit and strike no matter what the instrument. In one passage Parker essayed a rippling bass feature more percussive in nature, inspiring Taborn to delve into the innards once more, to rub the strings, generating a ghostly shimmering moan.
Their overall trajectory remained unpredictable, with the obvious moves conspicuous by their absence. Even when Parker and Cleaver cohered around a shuffling tattoo and Taborn began to open out, cavorting in the treble extremities, it never resolved into the sort of flailing magnificence he might bring to a gig with the his own trio. Without that closure the mood shifted, leaving Cleaver alone for an interlude of rolling thunder in contrast to the subtle fragments of meter which constituted his routine stock in trade.
Those small rhythmic gestures and pauses were the building blocks forging an almost palpable tension. They boosted anticipation by not going for broke, but time and again leaving synapses twitching until finally when they did commit, as at the end of the set, it packed an almost visceral punch. Taborn began demonstrating his chops, conceiving an independent direction for each hand, until it sounded as if there was a second pianist at work playing a nagging repeated hook, while the first improvised free form in a coherent yet totally unrelated manner. Cleaver picked up and accentuated the pianist's impetus until they were airborne in daredevil flight. Such a superb set fully merited the standing ovation which ensued.
Alto saxophonist Darius Jones obviously didn't set much store by Irving Berlin's dictum to never start or end a show with a ballad, as he arguably did both. Many of his new compositions, drawn from Book of Mae'bul (Aum Fidelity, 2012) incorporated ballad elements anyway, so perhaps that wasn't a surprise. Pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Ches Smith reprised their roles from the disc, so there was an easy familiarity to their participation which breathed life into the switchback material, shaping an outcome both sweeter and more vehement through extended readings.
Jones cut an imposing presence on stage, an impression only amplified by the raw emotion with which he imbued his soaring elongated lines. On "You Have Me Seeing Red," the passion saw him stretching up onto his toes one minute and then crouching down the next. But he achieved his zenith in the concluding "Be Patient With Me," where his alto spewed forth the sound of love, but with razor blades hidden among the molasses.
In Order To Survive reprised its incendiary appearance at the 2010 Vision Festival to close out the inaugural event. On that occasion, unfortunately, overruns meant the band's time was truncated to little more than half an hour. Happily there were no such problems tonight, and they were able to play for twice that long. In fact the lineup is a hybrid of the band of the same name which was one of the top outfits of the late 1990s and Parker's regular quartet.
While not quite as wild and free as the original, heard at their peak on The Peach Orchard (Aum Fidelity, 1998), the band certainly had its moments here. It performed a chart written by Parker, premiered the previous week in Montreal, dedicated to AACM reedman Kalaparush Maurice McIntyre, who is suffering from cataracts. In three seamless movements, "Kalaparush on the Edge of the Horizon" showcased all the major attributes of the band: gilt-edged soloing; an elevated emotional charge; a powerhouse rhythm team; and responsive and absorbing interplay.
The twin horns of Rob Brown and Lewis Barnes floated a slow melancholy air over a feisty churn, reminiscent of the classic "Another Angel Goes Home" from the band's 1999 Posium Pendasem (FMP), before catapulting Barnes into the spotlight to carve an incisive statement from waspish bursts. As captivating as that fiery upwelling proved, it was hard not to get drawn into the roiling undertow created by the drummer and pianist Cooper-Moore. Drake's rolls and crashes prodded, underscored and unsettled as they seemed to vie with each other to spur the trumpeter on.
An unsung talent who has only recently garnered his due, with appearances alongside David S. Ware in the acclaimed Planetary Unknown (Aum Fidelity, 2011), Cooper-Moore bolstered his case further here. He was barely able to contain his excitement during the first part of the set. Mouthing and swaying it was as if two hands and 88 keys were not enough. He chopped up and down the keyboard, moving from fingers to the palms, then heels of his hands, then onto his forearms, spiking the outpouring with clusters of notes in a breathtaking pyrotechnic accompaniment.
Similarly under-recognized in spite of being a mainstay of Parker's bands for the last two decades, Brown plays so rarely that he makes the most of the opportunities when he does. A rising cadence stretched out from the melody and served as the launch pad for the saxophonist's acerbic alto rollercoaster. Incited by Cooper-Moore's volatile undulations, Brown escalated to a litany of controlled multiphonic screams and tortured shrieks, in an incredible outburst which teetered between pain and ecstasy.
A piano trio gave full rein to the furious interaction between the pianist and drummer, while Parker circled through a sequence of riffs and tenacious counterpoint. Eventually he eased into one of those buoyant but ever-changing grooves with Drake, so familiar from the pair's commingling over the years. Parker was the ringmaster throughout, inaugurating another splendid sequence later in the set with a riff topped by a jaunty, mournful second line recounted in braying unison by the horns. Cooper-Moore's solo on this segment started tender and melodic, but a glissando the length of the keyboard took matters rapidly elsewhere. Somehow, from the mayhem emerged a duet for piano and the leader's bowed bass which ushered in a final theme restatement and another richly deserved standing ovation.
What a night!
Coming up on days 3-5: Joe McPhee Lifetime Achievement Award, with The Thing; Eternal Unity with Dave Burrell, Sabir Mateen, William Parker and William Hooker, the Ivo Perelman Trio; and Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes.
All Photos: John Sharpe
Days 1-2 | Days 3-5 | Days 6-7