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
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.
'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
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