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.
A Vietnamese folk song arranged by Bang (from the group's forthcoming CD) follows. It opens with Bang plucking a pizzicato riff, supporting the sweet voice of Co Boi Nguyen, in flowing red and black robes, as she interprets the folk song lyrics. As she sings she punctuates the song by striking two sticks together, accompanied by Nhan Thanh Ngo's twanging zither.
Next up is "Tunnel Rat", introduced by Bang with another Asian sounding pizzicato theme before launching James Spaulding into a driving alto saxophone solo, ratcheting up the excitement levels. The piece concludes with wonderful interplay between Bang, positioned in front of the drums, and Michael Carvin, who plays with a questioning grin on his face. Carvin repeats Bang's phrases back at him, then begins to anticipate and softly shadow the violin lines as they close as one.
"Moments for the KiaMia" (Killed in action, Missing in action) begins with a bass riff and gentle piano introduction before Bang states the poignant melody - Bemkey's only piano solo of the evening follows, hewing close to the melody initially, before cutting loose.
The 40 minute set is curtailed because we are running late, and requires rapid reorganisation by Bang, before the band launches into the final unannounced piece in unison. It draws a fiery solo from Bang, with Bemkey pounding block chords behind him, as they build to a crescendo. The tension drops as Daniels solos without piano backing initially, before turning up the heat once more. Spaulding's solo opens with liquid multiphonic tones and builds in fast bluesy runs over Todd Nicholson's fast walking bass - inspiring Bang to dance at the side of the stage. Bang arranges the piece as it goes along encouraging Co to step forward, which she does with high yelps and long swooping lines, exploiting her wide vocal range. Bang orchestrates a trumpet/alto riff in support, as drum rolls bring the feature to a head. Bang signals them all to cut, leaving the discordant dan tranh in the spotlight. Bang orchestrates bass and drums in stop/start support until finally they are headlong into the closing theme, repeated four times with Bang counting them out, before ending with a real bang! Great stuff and very much to the audience's taste.
The final set of the evening features the return of The Revolutionary Ensemble, a classic 1970s underground free jazz group which reformed for the 2004 Vision Festival, where their set was so successful that they recorded a new CD. The line up of Leroy Jenkins on violin, Sirone on bass and Jerome Cooper on drums was somewhat esoteric at the time and their emphasis on flowing three way improvisations, blended with composed frameworks, still sounds fresh.
Sirone stands alone on stage with his bass - playing a few notes then stopping, listening, setting off again - occasional melodic fragments or motifs surface - very disjointed - accompanied by moans, groans and grunts, and looking up to the heavens with exaggerated facial expressions. Sirone is a very muscular, physical player with a solid darkly resonant tone, who plucks the bass with great force. After five minutes he is joined by Cooper and then by Jenkins, who launches into a theme as Sirone's soliloquy coalesces into a riff with Cooper, which it becomes apparent was the subtly intimated thread holding together the bass introduction.
Jenkins and Sirone conjure a thicket of dense contrapuntal lines while Cooper forges motifs based on the opening riff. Jenkins bows a lengthy exposition on the theme, then gives way to a controlled, deliberate and structured solo by Cooper where he extemporises on the theme but always finishes with the same 2 or 3 note pattern on either snare or cymbals.
A cerebral line by Jenkins opens the second piece, accompanied by Sirone reading from a score. At start of several pieces Sirone puts on glasses and laughs as he reads the score, almost as if saying 'they can't expect me to play that'. The two interlocking lines lead seamlessly into a fluent group improvisation with Cooper beating softly on his snare with two mallets. As Cooper stokes up volume, Jenkins and Sirone bow the piece to a fiery conclusion.
The third piece, Cooper's episodic "911-544" piece from the latest CD, evolves from Jenkins sawing and rasping at the violin, mixing melodic fragments with rhythmic scrapes, before he is joined by Sirone's densely woody arco. Cooper picks out notes on the piano as another characteristic 3 way improv ensues. Sirone solo, plucking and pattering, leads into a brief rendition of the portentous main theme. Cooper takes up the baton - a one man band on marimba, piano and ride cymbal simultaneously. The piano/marimba unison line is fractured as Cooper extemporises short marimba breaks while he continues the piano line, before setting off a lush synthesiser backdrop. Jenkins and Sirone intone the theme in unison over the synthesiser before giving way to the finale with Cooper wailing on musette, as he echoes the theme on synthesiser and percussion.
The final piece is a blur of intertwining lines with Cooper interpolating on piano, before moving behind his kit to build a sustained wall of sound on cymbals. Jenkins and Sirone both pluck away, the latter almost throwing notes off the back of the stage over his shoulder. A brief Cooper solo brings the piece, and the evening, to a conclusion at 12.30, some four hours after it started, and we all stumble out into the Paris air. What a night!