Vision Festival, Days 1-2: June 11-12, 2012
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 Flip 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