Celebrating Andrew Cyrille at the 2019 Vision Festival

Dave Kaufman By

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The 2019 jazz festival "high holy" season opened with the sounds of the 24th Vision Festival, the longest running jazz festival in New York City. The festival is dedicated to free jazz and improvised music, but it is an expansive celebration of art in its many guises. Dance performances, poetry and visual art forms are an essential facet of the experience. Arts for Arts, the organization that puts on the Vision Festival is also committed to building, sustaining and promoting the artistic community for the present and future generations. Long before it became fashionable, the organization and the festival were dedicated to the cause of social justice. Although the social message continued to resonate throughout the event, it appeared in more subtle forms than in past years. For the second consecutive year, the Vision Fest was held at Brooklyn's Roulette Theatre, a venue that offers a superior musical experience even if it lacks adequate space for social gatherings that are a routine part of the event. The organization and festival emphasize that community is at the heart of the experience. Many of the same musicians, artists, audience members, journalists, and photographers return year after year for this unique one of a kind experience.

The festival offers a platform for young artists but is also deeply committed to celebrating the elders. Each year they pay homage to one of the greats and confers upon them a lifetime achievement award. Past celebrants have included Dave Burrell, Henry Grimes, Sam Rivers, and Muhal Richard Abrams, to name just a few. This year's award was bestowed upon the great free jazz pioneer, drummer/percussionist Andrew Cyrille. Cyrille's accomplishments across a 60-year career are truly staggering. He is perhaps best known for his long association with the great pianist Cecil Taylor and his more recent work with the collaborative trio, Trio 3 which also includes Reggie Workman on bass and saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Oliver Lake. However, he has played with a wide range of musicians across genres including greats like Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Coleman Hawkins, David Murray and has amassed an extraordinary resume as both a sideman and leader. A personal favorite of mine is a magnificent trio record, Monk's Japanese Folk Song, by Koto player Miya Masaoka, The recording also features Cyrille's frequent partner, Reggie Workman and is most deserving of wider attention. A lifetime career achievement sometimes suggests that an artist's best work is behind him. However, Cyrille skills as a drummer are undiminished. He is also at the peak of his artistry, with some of his best-recorded work as a leader being produced in the last ten years. Two of these projects, Haitian Fascination and Lebroba were featured on the program, which was curated by Cyrille himself. The program consisted of eight sets involving duets and trios that reflect the remarkable range of Cyrille's musical spirit.

Haitian Fascination kicked off the evening. This group recorded a great album, Routes des Frere a few years ago. The album was conceived in part as a tribute to Cyrille's Haitian ancestry. The album featured a quintet that included magnificent baritone sax playing by the late great Hamiet Bluiett. The performance on this evening was to have included Alix Pascal, whose understated folk-jazz guitar playing added much to the album. Unfortunately, he was not able to make it. Jean Guy Rene on Haitian drums accompanied Cyrille as did poet Quincy Troupe - Poet, perhaps best known for co-authoring Miles Davis' autobiography. The essence of the music was a splendid dialogue between the two drummers. Cyrille is fully conversant in the Afro-Caribbean rhythmic and timbral vernacular although that's a side of him that you don't see very often. Troupe delivered rhythmically-charged poetry highlighting the great accomplishments of Afro-American musical artist throughout history, from early jazz to hip-hop, name-checking more than a dozen seminal artists. The festival has a longstanding tradition of weaving poetry and music and I thought this was a very engaging performance.

The essence of much of Cyrille's work is the musical conversation and he is an absolute master conversationalist. Many of the musicians who played with him on this festive occasion have a history of working with Cyrille, some dating back decades. Saxophonist Kidd Jordan, a regular visitor to this festival, is one of the lions of free jazz. Jordan, who is now 84, is admittedly in frail health. Despite his infirmity, he managed to summon up the energy and the power to perform brilliantly at last year's festival. Although he was a little more challenged this year, his heroic effort produced some great musical moments. The result was an immensely satisfying dialogue between the two great masters. Milford Graves is one of the great pioneers in free jazz, credited in part with freeing the role of the drummer from the timekeeper role. Cyrille and Graves have known each other for more than 50 years. They also recorded a duet, Dialogue of the Drums, in 1974. Although Graves is dealing with significant health issues at this time, he rose to the occasion and delivered. The two great percussionists engaged in a conversation that was varied and deeply engaging. Graves continuous vocal banter, rapping (in an old school sense) and commentary were enlightening, humorous and an essential part of the musical experience.

Lebroba is a musical collective, nominally led by Cyrille, that included Wadada Leo Smith on trumpet and guitarist Bill Frisell. They released a magnificent album of the same name (on the ECM label) in late 2018. Despite the late entry, it found its way towards the top of several best albums of the year lists. For this set, Brandon Ross ably replaced Frisell. Smith, who like Cyrille is enjoying a remarkable late-career renaissance, was the lead melodic instrument in this trio. The performance was marked by sensitive and synergistic interplay. The music was spare, (mostly) slow-tempo, impressionistic and very beautiful. Smith's trumpet playing was lyrical and poignant; at times reminiscent of Miles Davis. This was most notable on Pretty Beauty, a gorgeous ballad that is the last track on the Lebroba album and also ended this outstanding set.

Dance has always been a staple of the Vision Festival and this night was no exception. Before the set, Cyrille explained the importance dance was in his formation as a young drummer and how much he enjoyed playing with dancers. Tomeka Reid, a brilliant cellist and rising star in the jazz community, dancer Beatrice Capote and Cyrille played a completely improvised set. Capote's athletic, but graceful moves were rather evocative. Cyrille seemed to be having a great time as they exchanged musical and visual gestures. It was hard to tell when the musicians were responding to the dancer or when the music sparked the dancer's movements. In either case, this set was very compelling and one of the great highlights of the evening. On a personal note, I immensely enjoy photographing dancers, and this was especially gratifying.

Although Cyrille's musical history is well documented, the evening revealed unknown facets of his musical persona. For example, Singer and pianist Lisa Sokolov first performed with Cyrille as part of a Broadway ensemble. Sokolov is an extraordinarily unique and gifted singer, unlike any other that I've heard. She is classically trained but has extraordinary command of the free-jazz and improvisation vernacular. Her vast stylistic range, dramatic gestures and musicality made for a most impressive dialogue with Cyrille.

You know what to expect from German saxophonist and free jazz innovator Peter Brötzmann. He will breathe fire and play with relentless intensity in just about any musical context. At age 77, he may not have the lung capacity and for example, can't scream in the upper registers the way he once did. He still has that "sandpaper" tone and can bring energy and ferocity the way few men half his age can. Cyrille and Brötzmann first played together more than 50 years ago and they played with real telepathy in a bracing set of improvised music. It was a fitting end to a wonderful celebration of a great master who remains a remarkably vital musician. If anything, his admission to the free jazz hall of fame will only push him to greater heights.
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