Each year the Sons d'hiver festival in Paris plays host to an evening where luminaries from the New York avant-garde firmament present a taste of the Big Apple's annual Vision Festival. On 4 February 2005, three groups gathered at the Theatre Jean Vilar in the Paris suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, before a large and enthusiastic audience, to demonstrate the breadth of styles concealed under the avant-garde banner.
The evening begins with the trio Resonance, featuring Rob Brown on alto saxophone, with the twin basses of William Parker and Henry Grimes. Parker is one of the founders of the Vision Festival and a monumental presence on the free jazz landscape. Brown is a frequent collaborator and has played with Parker in various groupings since the early 1990s. Grimes is a legendary figure, playing on many of the classic free jazz recordings of the 1960s, who was off the scene for many years before being rediscovered in California. This group first appeared at the 2003 Vision Festival when the planned duo of Brown and Parker was joined by Grimes for one of his first NYC appearances since his re-emergence into the creative music world.
Brown coaxes cries from his alto - flanked by Grimes on bowed bass and Parker playing pizzicato - slowly burning, building very gradually with short squawks. Parker shakes his head, tuning into the soul of the music, and selecting the definitive notes to contribute. The trio's performance is freely improvised, with the twin basses affording a continuous pulse. Brown must have one of the most distinctive voices in avant-garde jazz - with a wide vibrato and a bitter sweet edge, exploiting accidental tones, and playing very few notes without some kind of distortion - and he proves a worthy focal point.
Grimes takes the first solo arco: left hand dancing rapidly up and down the fingerboard while his bow undulates across the strings creating a continual stream of wavering, careering lines. When Brown and Parker rejoin they set the pattern for the concert with Brown's alto soaring above the incendiary basses with stretched out runs ending in anguished cries.
The two bassists usually take complementary roles - one arco the other pizzicato - sometimes swapping roles instantaneously. Even when they settle on the same course, Parker often mines the extremes while Grimes roams all over the fret board. Parker tends to be more structured, repeating sequences of notes, exploring variations and moving on to the next motif. Grimes playing suggests a freer, stream of consciousness approach, finding inspiration in constant motion across the fingerboard.
At one point Parker bows a solo, while Grimes plucks a stream of light high notes in support. Parker slides his fingers rapidly up and down the strings as he bows, like an orchestra of ululating creaky doors. He manipulate the tones yet further by bending the strings and pushing them apart as he bows a virtuoso tour de force which elicits whoops of delight from the audience.
Brown returns to short bursts, over arco bass from Parker and Grimes low on the bridge, echoing the start of the performance. It proves a false ending as the dynamic builds yet again with Brown exploring gaps between notes, false fingering and multiphonics over Grimes soft patter of notes. Parker rejoins bowing harmonics on the bass, which Brown briefly mimics before moving on. The actual end of the hour long set comes with Brown playing delicate tremulous motifs over high arco harmonics from both Parker and Grimes. The music subsides into silence with Grimes the last to stop. Cue tumultuous applause.
Billy Bang's "Vietnam the Aftermath" Band is up next, and invokes another return of sorts: Bang continues to confront his experiences as a Vietnam War veteran through his music, this time with two Vietnamese musicians along for the ride. Much of the music is from Bang's celebrated 2001 Vietnam the Aftermath CD, although with a different group on board here, including fellow Vietnam vets Ted Daniels and Michael Carvin.
Bang exuberantly takes the stage and calls "Ca va?", "I'm in your house" by way of explanation for his French. The first piece, "Ho Chi Minh is in the House," starts with trumpeter Ted Daniels prowling the stage blowing a long straight horn, in sweeping arcs to different corners of the theatre. He is accompanied by Bang, cradling his violin like a miniature guitar, before the two Vietnamese musicians join - Co Boi Nguyen on voice and Nhan Thanh Ngo on dan tranh - a sixteen string zither, similar to the Japanese koto. The evocative opening gives way to the full band launching into the oriental sounding theme. Bang takes a typically fluid and rhythmic solo before Daniels holds forth, first on muted then open trumpet. Bang's amplified violin allows him to slink sinuously around the stage, in grey shirt and tie, with a twinkle in his eye. He bends, twists, and jumps as he plays, talking to all the other musicians, encouraging them, indicating who should solo when.