Vision Festival, Days 3-5: New York City, NY, June 13-15, 2012
17th Annual Vision Festival
June 11-17, 2012
Wednesday night at the Vision Festival was given over to the celebration of a lifetime of achievement by multi-instrumentalist, Joe McPhee, a deserving and popular choice. In presenting him with the envelope (presumably holding a check), Patricia Nicholson Parker said that he didn't blow his own hornnot the most apt metaphor, but the meaning was clear and the truth evident throughout the evening. McPhee's modesty has seen him open to collaboration with unlikely allies across the globe, and it was typical of the man that so much of the time on this special occasion would be shared with others.
June 13: Angels, Devils and Haints II / The Thing with Joe McPhee
June 14: Eternal Unity / Ivo Perelman Trio / Hamid Drake's Lhasa
June 15: From Bebop To Free-bop / Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes
One important benefit of the award was that it allowed the honoree to handpick his colleagues for his performance. He took the opportunity to assemble a large ensemble for the first time in the US, to present a long-form conduction. Named after a work recorded on the CJR label documenting his saxophone with a lineup of four basses, Angels, Devils and Haints II replicated the quadruple bass concept, but expanded it with four additional players and two percussionists. Assisting him were confreres from several familiar aggregations: bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen from Trio X; bassist William Parker, drummer Warren Smith and trumpeter Roy Campbell from the Tribute To Albert Ayler band; and bassist Michael Bisio and saxophonist Joe Giardullo from Bluette.
While a little tentative in places, there were still an ample number of strong passages to savor. Unsurprisingly, they coincided with the principal's exuberant blowing on tenor saxophone, his glorious wail hitting like a wave of endorphins. His rapport with fellow saxophonist Joe Giardullo on curved soprano stood out as their twin horns entwined in an anthemic colloquy. But those episodes were not investigated at length, as the leader rang the changes frequently by means of hand directions, varying the dynamics from full bore to the merest of whispers.
For such a sizable group they were capable of extreme restraint, as in the early duet between Campbell's puckish trumpet and Rosi Hertlein's abstract violin. Later she indicated the swiftness of connection between brain and hands, singing in unison to her elongated lines. Many short vignettes peppered the gauzy oratory, with Steve Swell's rumbustious, declamatory trombone particularly noteworthy, but the whole cast were masters at this sort of unpremeditated creation. Understanding built from prior liaisons helped, as in one passage featuring Trio X plus Bisio, where Duval slapped the body of his bass percussively while the saxophonist emoted lyrically, still orchestrating with one hand while he blew.
Between times there was a set from Sonny Simmons on alto saxophone and English horn, with the leader's astringent, writhing alto mingling pleasingly with the slashing electric guitar of the young Thomas Bellier, supported by pulsing accompaniment from Warren Smith and William Parker.
On alto saxophone, McPhee also backed a stylish dance piece by Jason Jordan and two fellows, with a honeyed melancholy. As dancers circled each other in slow motion, the saxophonist sang through his horn, to electrifying effect, eventually touching on one of his favorite themes, the beautiful folk melody from Dvorak's New World Symphony, "Goin' Home," occasionally glancing up to see what they were doing. He slowed to soft breath sounds and then stopped altogether, standing motionless as the dance continued, Jordan even leaning on him at one point. After a long pause, he resumed, once more with the same tune. Their set formed a cooling interlude in the more heady fare.
The Thing with Joe McPhee
The best, though, was saved for last. As it happened, the celebration fell midway through a North American tour for McPhee in the company of Scandinavian power trio The Thing. It displayed another side of the veteran American, both in terms of his wide ranging alliances, but also his propensity for abstraction and frenetic annunciation. Everyone lined up across the stage, underlining equality. In The Thing's universe, punk energy and attitude fuse unconcernedly with post-Ayler fire and fierce prowess, creating a stimulating and visceral cocktail. But it's not all 100 miles an hour, though those sections certainly linger in the mind's ear. Quieter melodic interludes offered respite as well as a contrast, which heightened the effect both what preceded and what followed.
The Thing launched first with the American standing to one side, listening. But the powerhouse start soon drew McPhee in, too, his lacerating alto uniting in sublime synergy with Mats Gustafsson's incendiary baritone. A duet for the Swede and bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten ensued as drummer Paal Nilssen-Love adjusted his drums, leading into a hymn-like version of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" (covered complete with vocals on the band's startling collaboration with singer Neneh Cherry on The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound, 2012)), into which McPhee threaded a vibrant gospel obbligato.
In a program dominated by covers as diverse as expatriate South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza's "You Ain't Gonna Know Me Cos You Think You Know Me" and Cato Salsa Experience's "Sounds Like A Sandwich," as well as trio originals, McPhee certainly came across as the guest. Obvious attractants of the repertoire to the band seemed the potential for nagging riffs which in their hands took on an incantatory fervor, sometimes as the main event, but also at times forming the central thread, as when anchoring a whirlwind percussion exhibition from Nilssen-Love, which demonstrated astonishing stamina and brutal accuracy.
After Nilssen-Love received a good-natured ribbing from Gustafsson, their second piece, "Viking" authored by the drummer, started with a clarion call from the dual horns, presaging a meaty bass riff and pile-driving tattoo, which dissembled into a free jazz maelstrom. Haker Flaten strummed madly to be heard, inching gradually lower on the fretboard. Later in a less frantic moment he added an eerie vocalized upper register arco cry, emphasizing the wonderful mix of raw force and delicacy which is the Thing's hallmark. Their set made for a slamming finale to the proceedings, and a storming finish brought the audience to its feet.
One never quite knows what to expect from seemingly ad hoc meetings between improvisers. Under the moniker Eternal Unity, four Vision Festival stalwarts combined in a cooperative group. All involved had convened in various combinations over the decades. Guitarist Elliott Sharp, talking in a panel discussion earlier in the day said: "Live performance is different. It changes the air in the room." Perhaps after the Thing performance from the previous evening, the NYC contingent felt they had something to prove. Whatever the case, by the end of this first set of the night, we were breathing a very rarefied atmosphere.
It started innocuously enough. Drummer William Hooker opened by pattering softly with his brushes, soon to be joined in conversational exchange by Sabir Mateen on flute, Dave Burrell on piano and William Parker's throbbing bass. Mateen had his entire reed arsenal lined up on stage and he soon switched to clarinet, continuing the excellent interchange. Burrell watched his comrade intently, answering the reed man's phrases, pecking in the treble clef and flicking his hands over onto the knuckles in an assertive commentary. The drummer spiced his rumbling polyrhythms with vocal shouts of encouragement, but was nonetheless relatively restrained.
Drawing on countless years of negotiation of such long form improvisation, all four men were on the top of their game. Mateen, as fluent as ever, edged into the falsetto register with searing cries, escorted by Burrell's fragmented stride piano. On tenor saxophone, arguably his strongest horn, the horn man seemed inexhaustible, always able to summon one last outburst, shooting right up to the highest dog-bothering whistle, then plunging down for some gut-wrenching lows, before rebooting from bottom up. After the saxophonist signed off, Burrell took the spotlight, buoyed by the roiling drums and bass, in an excursion of lurching dissonances and angular attacks. So energetic was his playing that the Steinway was rocking on its wheels. Even in free mode Burrell's personal style, which stretches from ragtime to no time, informed his progress, as he crossed hands for a hyper-speed plink plonk, using the flats for jolting clusters and glissandos.
Eventually, the naturally evolving narrative opened out to allow Parker to display his mettle. Something in the air energized the bassist, who created a babbling bass solo where he rolled his hand back and forth across the strings, bringing to mind his notion of the bass strings as distinct parts of a drum set. Hooker reinforced the percussive intent, with complementary sharp ornamentation struck on the rims and snare. On the transition into the drum solo, he ferociously belabored his trap set, but once the initial charge was over he regrouped to develop an almost architectural structure from measured tattoos on the component parts of his kit.
Just when it looked like Hooker and Burrell were agreeing to wind down, Mateen strapped on his tenor once more. But defying expectations of further tumult, he breathed an almost bluesy soliloquy over spare chording and sweeping brushwork, briefly intense, but then concluding in an airy flourish. If every set were like this it would be exhausting, but blowouts of this nature and quality don't come along that often. Instead it formed a cathartic introduction to a varied menu.
Ivo Perelman Trio
As if their message were so imperative, Brazilian saxophonist Ivo Perelman's threesome began almost before the introduction had finished. But this wasn't a recapitulation of the earlier balls-to-the-wall strategy. Perelman has always chosen his sidemen with carejust look at the star-studded roster on his Hour of the Star (Leo, 2011) which features Matthew Shipp on piano, Joe Morris on bass and Gerald Cleaver on drums. Tonight he had co-opted Shipp's current rhythm section of bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Whit Dickey, for a 45-minute set short on charts, but long on invention, which unfolded as if an inexorable organic flow.
That shared experience in the cauldron of Shipp's trio served them well, as Dickey and Bisio proved adept at locking into the South American's repeated motifs, grounding his unfettered flights. While the drummer kept himself well reined in, deploying an intricate latticework of nervy patterns, the bassist brought a manic vitality, at times thrashing his instrument as it tilted almost at the horizontal. Other times Bisio deployed a propulsive counterpoint, whether abrading the pinched strings in a circular motion, or smiting the strings with languorous, loose-limbed strokes.
Perelman's lightly keening falsetto, sprinkled with throaty growls and reiterated rhythmic hooks, at times recalled the samba link to his native Brazil. His insistent figures on the same note meant that he double-tongued more often than many other saxophonists. That, paired with his ever changing embouchure and reed-biting squeals, meant that changing expressions flitted across his face in time with the music. Counter-intuitively, the second number started more as a ballad, emblazoned with the leader's broad impasto smears and long, impassioned cries before he wove fleeting melodic fragments into his freewheeling rapture. Still searching for new timbres, even at the end, Perelman removed his saxophone mouthpiece and blew through it for a bleating finale to a well-received set.
Hamid Drake's Lhasa
Having held over the bulk of his Reggaeology band, it was no surprise that drummer Hamid Drake's new Lhasa ensemble was able to move in and out of tunes and tempo with such practiced ease. On his first trip stateside from Italy, Pasquale Mira proved an exciting addition, an inventive texturalist and soloist who employed sticks as well as mallets, and used a cloth to dampen and create a more percussive sound with no vibrato, at times reminiscent of the great Walt Dickerson. Guitarist Jeff Parker adorned the set with swinging, lyrical solos, while on trombone Jeb Bishop was a bold, brassy presence, leavening the boisterousness with passages of diaphanous multiphonics. Drake performed like a man possessed, especially on the first piece, his mentor, the late Fred Anderson's "Three On Two," which culminated in a particularly impressive outpouring where he whirled around his kit with ferocious precision, which felt almost choreographed in its feline grace.
Earlier, Connie Crothers' kaleidoscopic piano extemporization had accompanied the dance and vocals of Patricia Nicholson Parker under the banner Dangerous Women.
Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton got the Friday concert off to a delightful start, as their From Bebop to Free-bop group quickly captured the hearts of the early crowd on Friday. Accompanied by the low-key swing of bassist Cameron Brown and guitarist Jack Wilkins, they recited, scatted and sang their way through nine pieces in an hour-long set. After a recitation on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Brown hit the riff of "A Love Supreme" and the two principals exchanged vocal felicities. While age may have reduced the vocal range, the winning individual panache was still intact.
Jordan ("I'm the bebop part of this group") elided through the syllables in characteristic fashion, inserting chat and rejoinders to her partner into her discourse. Clayton ("I'll be the free-bop part") sparingly used an octave divider and echo effects during her pieces, as the two women alternated the lead. Although far from typical Vision Festival fare, the playful, warm performance of a program including Charlie Parker's "Confirmation," Kenny Dorham's "Fairweather," and Bobby Timmons and Oscar Brown's "Dat Dere" charmed the audience.
Wadada Leo Smith/Henry Grimes
After previous engagements in California and Manhattan, the occasional duo of trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and bassist Henry Grimes was one of the highlights of the Vision Festival. Of late, everything bearing the brass man's imprint has turned to gold, culminating in his monumental Ten Freedom Summers (Cuneiform, 2012), and that luster attached itself to a 50-minute set notable for its communion, compelling inner logic and warmth.
Grimes led off on violin. After listening briefly, Smith, trumpet pointed to the floor, layered sustained long tones against the violinist's skittering angularities. Having taken up violin once more at age 70, following an extended hiatus since childhood tuition, Grimes' playing on the smaller instrument has become a notable aspect of his appearances. At one point, both plucking and sawing at the same time, he evoked Ornette Coleman on the same instrument in his roller coaster course. Smith's utterances by now carry such gravitas that all his lines are imbued with magisterial authority, partly due to his keen use of silence. His compositional sensibility meant he knew just when to play and when to lay out, adding a pleasing sense of purpose and shape to the spontaneous duet.
Two-way communication was self evident. Grimes' decision to recite a short poem prompted the trumpeter to deliver poignant, muted interjections. As he continued, his companion picked up his bass and started bowing resonantly and slowly, which was the perfect choice. Later the bassist responded to Smith's slithering phrases by abandoning his bow for an apposite rippling pizzicato. In turn, the trumpeter coined a series of faster phrases, interspersed with the occasional breathy splutter which again matched Grimes' runs. Later when the bass man once again wielded his bow, Smith realigned his trajectory, blowing long, harmonic-laden tones which intermingled with Grimes' wavering arco. At times, the compliment was reciprocated as the bassist bowed back a phrase Smith had just essayed. Grimes' regular alternation between bow and fingers kept his colleague on his toes and drew out a varied range responses, including a sequence of small sounds and half-valve slobbering susurrations. However, as good as the stream-of-consciousness bull fiddle exposition was, the five minute bass coda at the end did not add anything meaningful to what had gone before.
Earlier, trumpeter Roy Campbell enjoyed a captivating duet with drummer Ehran Elisha, at times evoking the legendary Don Cherry/Ed Blackwell combination, especially in the trumpeter's co-options of wood flutes and little instruments. Blackwell has been a touchstone for the drummer, echoed in Elisha's precise choice of timbre and phrasing, as well as the titular inspiration for the pair's Watching Cartoons With Eddie (DDD, 2011) offering. During a 40-minute set, compositions by both men were thoroughly explored with Campbell's "Prayer And Contemplation" (for Wilber Morris) a high point, illuminated by his delicate whinnying, vulnerable squeaks and deep drone in a tandem finish. Drummer Pheeroan ak Laff closed out the evening with a quintet which saw poet Amiri Baraka give a spirited rendition of "Somebody Blew Up America" over a funky backing with fiery tenor saxophone obligatos from Jun Miyake which recalled a young Frank Lowe.
All Photos: John Sharpe
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