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The Compelling Urgency of Now: Celebrating Peace, Justice and Improvised Music

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Arts for Arts, the organization responsible for the Vision Festival, has put together a series of "Peace and Justice Celebration" concerts at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center situated on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan in New York City. I was fortunate to attend a performance on October 15, 2021 which was the last in a series of seven October concerts. There was a small, but enthusiastic audience. The show was also live-streamed. The opening performance presented acclaimed pianist, composer, bandleader, and educator Vijay Iyer and a young saxophonist/flutist Zoh Amba. Zoh has been on the scene a short time and is beginning to make a name for herself with her excellent work with William Parker and with her trio. I first saw her perform at the Vision Fest as part of a tribute to Milford Graves, who had passed away in early 2021. The finale was a free jazz blowing fest with as many as 20 musicians on the stage at once. It was a cathartic experience, and Amba acquitted herself exceptionally well, playing with great ferocity and heart. However, in this duet, she had the opportunity to show a more expansive vocabulary and nuanced playing. Iyer and Amba had never played together before but demonstrated great chemistry resulting in an engaging improvised musical dialogue with shifting moods, dynamics, and a nice inside/outside musical balance. It was a remarkable opening set.

The Eri Yamamoto "Double Drums" Quartet followed. Yamamoto is an accomplished composer, perhaps best known for weaving together Japanese folk themes and jazz. She is also a gifted pianist with a beautiful lyrical touch and a master improviser. The quartet included Jackson Hillmer and her longtime associate Ikuo Takeuchi on drums and Matt Lavelle on trumpet and bass clarinet. The quartet debuted three new Yamamoto compositions, which were inspired by the pandemic. She spoke eloquently about the very difficult, lengthy experience of isolation with many ups and downs. The compositions reflected those emotions. The double drums suggest a percussion-dominated sound, but it was more fluid and interactive, with the drummers being a part of the musical discourse. I can't say that I am very familiar with Matt Lavelle, but I thought his trumpet playing and bass clarinet work was outstanding, bringing both a sense of lyrical beauty and a sense of urgency.

The final set featured a duet of pianist D.D. Jackson and violinist Curtis Stewart. Jackson has a longtime association with Arts for Arts, having appeared at several Vision Fests over the years. He is a distinguished composer for musical performance and other media, including TV and Film. He is an extraordinary pianist effortlessly alternating between a delicate, soulful touch and a manic percussive intensity. Stewart is the son of tuba player Bob Stewart and late violinist Elektra Kurtis. Curtis has an impressive resume in both the classical and jazz worlds. This was my first time seeing him play, and I came away immensely impressed. Jackson and Stewart first played together with David Murray's Octet and have an obvious rapport. The duo opened with a hard-swinging and joyous version of "Monk's Dream" that was both forward-looking and reminiscent of a musical era that predated the Thelonious Monk composition. It was perhaps the highlight of the evening. This was followed by a beautiful tune that he had first performed with the late Billy Bang as a duet on one of his early albums, Paired Down, Volume 1 (Justin Time, 1997). Unfortunately, I had to leave before the end of the set. I thoroughly enjoyed the music that I had the opportunity to hear.

This is a time when jazz venues are beginning to open and there is a growing sense of optimism. However, it remains tentative and fragile. None of us know what the future holds. This reality coupled with other events of the day leads to glimmers of hope amidst a continued sense of deep uncertainty. No organization has done more during these trying times to support and promote creative and improvised music than Arts for Arts. The ongoing celebration of peace and social justice through music is just the tonic we need.
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