Published since 2006
I must begin on a strictly personal note. The 12th annual Vision Festival, held at the Angel Orensanz Center, was my first. Even if certain of the artists' visions did not translate for me in the way they might have, the level of musicianship and commitment was consistently high. It was gratifying to witness the diversity of instrumentation throughout the six-day event, especially in the larger ensembles, of which there was a surprisingly high number, with those led by trumpeter Bill Dixon and flutist Nicole Mitchell standing out for excellence of vision and execution.
Dixon was given the longest set of the festival, but while the schedule stated that his life's work was to be recognized and awarded, nothing of the sort occurred at the appointed time, save the fine playing of Kali Z. and Daniel Carter as Barry Wallenstein read his poetry. Dixon's Sound and Vision Orchestra concert was brilliant; opening sparsely, the early stages were highlighted by a chord of pulsating beauty and intensity from which all else seemed to fragment. Austere ensemble passages, in Dixon's customary unisons, alternated with multiple levels of dialogue that could not be called solos as such a label would imply a false distinction between foreground and background, which did not exist in this hour-long sonic odyssey. The piece undulated in huge arcs, finally reaching a seemingly unbearable intensity before being brought to a reflective close.
Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble performed in what might very loosely be described as a more traditional language, the aesthetic due largely to the presence of Justin Dillard's dynamic pianism and to Marcus Evans' frequent in-tempo drumming. Distinguished by creative orchestrations the multi-movement work resounded with controlled energy via muted trumpets, flute flurries and brief but intense bursts of collective sound. Particularly haunting and extraordinarily moving was a duet between cellist Tomeka Reid and vocalist Mankwe Ndosi. Ndosi's is a powerful voice, theatrical without the slightest pretense, and she accentuated every orchestral color with her own fiercely deliberate delivery. Her work was in perfect correspondence with the seemingly limitless invention of percussionist Avreeayl Ra, his many dynamic shades and equally diverse timbral pallet providing additional vibrancy to a work already overflowing with color.
In a class of its own, with a sound like no other group in the festival, was the Fifty Violins in dedication to the much lamented Leroy Jenkins, led and conducted by Billy Bang and coordinated by Jason Kao Hwang. Bang's transformation of a brief Jenkins score into a 40-minute musical journey of intensity and majesty was the biggest surprise of the festival; under his shaping guidance a homophonic Jenkins piece evolved into a multi-planed study of counterpoint, texture and energy distribution, with many fine solos and ensemble passages of raw power and overwhelming grace. The players violinists, violists, cellists and bassists included everyone from Henry Grimes, on violin, to Ramsey Amin, whose presence was appreciated by those who remember fondly his late '70s work with Cecil Taylor.
Of the smaller groups, Roscoe Mitchell, Jerome Bourdellon and Thomas Buckner played a set that built, almost inexorably, from a sputtering flame to a whirlwind of sound, Bourdellon's bass clarinet work a revelation as it supported Mitchell's alto and soprano saxophones and Buckner's vocal invention. Cooper- Moore's Keyboard Project, a volatile unit buoyed by Marlies Yearby's provocative poetry, featured some stunning solo work by reedsmen Darius Jones and Assif Tsahar, all cemented by the rock-solid drumming of Chad Taylor.
Even a conventional piano trio was anything but, as exemplified by Co-Pilots, featuring the mercurially translucent drumming of Rashied Ali, the towering inferno of Marilyn Crispell's pianism and the precision and endless invention of Henry Grimes on both violin and bass. While they've only performed together with any frequency during this past year, Grimes and Ali have developed a partnership based on controlled maximalism, both tapping into improvisation's crystal-center current and harnessing it for public consumption. Crispell was a perfect foil, weaving quasi-modal fabrics around Grimes and Ali's ever-changing counterpoint.
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