Vision Festival 2008: Day 1

John Sharpe By

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A great evening with four satisfying sets...promising more to come from the rest of the week.
Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

Opening Invocation
Taylor Ho Bynum
Dave Douglas
The Nu Band
Mark Dresser & Denman Maroney

13th Annual Vision Festival
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, New York City
June 10, 2008

With temperatures beating the June record, the first night of the 13th Annual Vision Festival was always going to be hot. Happily, though, it is the music which sticks in the mind and not the soaring heat and humidity. In spite of moving to a new venue this year at the Clemente Soto Velez, just a couple of blocks from the festival's home of recent years at the Angel Orensanz Center, the winning format remains basically the same: four or five acts on the main stage each night, for six nights, with an additional session on the Saturday afternoon showcasing emerging talent.

Though unprepossessing from the outside, with boarded up windows and scaffolding, the Clemente Soto Velez does the business on the inside with two performance spaces, a bar, and a lobby in which to browse merchandise and to just hang. Having two spaces meant that organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker was able to provide a purpose made environment for some of the video, dance, music and spoken word which makes the Vision Festival more than just another jazz festival.

So each night there was a program of events happening in the Milagro theatre, each starting at the conclusion of a set on the main stage. However this meant a fair degree of clock watching was needed not to miss the start of the next act on the main stage after the roughly fifteen minute changeover. But the end result was a clear benefit: both more music and more other arts. And it also meant that those audience members whose focus was solely the music were happy.

As an artist-run event the Vision Festival has a unique place in the international festival calendar, with teams of volunteers helping out the small paid staff. While this inevitably results in some small confusions, it doesn't detract from the friendly down home vibe, with artists and musicians freely mingling with fans from all over the US and beyond.

Opening Invocation

In what has become a firm tradition, the 13th Vision Festival opened with a short invocation delivered by organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker, with musical accompaniment from Hamid Drake on frame drum and William Parker on doussn' gouni, melding a homely spiritualism with world music inspiration. Bobbing and swaying, Nicholson Parker delivered her message over a gentle rhythm invoking the healing power of sound: "may sound lead us to an understanding beyond words." Concluding with "Welcome to the Vision Festival" they left the stage smiling, job done and another year's proceedings underway.

Taylor Ho Bynum Sextet

The honor of opening this year's festival fell to cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, best known for this long association with Anthony Braxton, but increasingly rectifying that through appearances with Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon and an increasing roster of his own aggregations. Featuring the twin guitars of Mary Halvorson and Evan O'Reilly, the sextet's unconventional line up was completed by Jessica Pavone doubling on violin and bass guitar, Matt Bauder on tenor saxophone and bass clarinet and Thomas Fujiwara on drums.

Starting with the downbeat melodicism of "JP and the Boston Suburbs" from their excellent Middle Picture (Firehouse 12, 2007) they quickly moved into the realm of simultaneous themes, shifting instrumental combinations, and loose ensemble interplay, all jostling for attention with incisive solos, in a seamless free flowing 45 minute set. Passages of jazzy syncopation rubbed shoulders with chamber interludes, rocky guitar driven noise, and even a calypso.

Bynum introduced one section with a tremendous exposition incorporating multiphonic burrs, agitated blurts lifting him up onto his toes, and what sounded like the peter piper picked a peck of pickled pepper tongue twister recited by Donald Duck, concluding with a high pitched whistle, before segueing into a delicate chamber ensemble exploration.

Though both guitarists could skronk at the drop of a hat, their divergent approaches presented an intriguing contrast. O'Reilly had a rockier style, featuring swirling feedback and guitar choir effects, while Halvorson's cleaner picking still encompassed angular turns, fusillades of bent notes, and even C&W strums. Bauder favored unconventional sonorities with choked cries and falsetto swoops in his spots, but nevertheless emulated straight-ahead styles with conviction. While on drums, Fujiwara commanded a similar breadth of approach, but pummeled toward a concluding wall of sound, though with the final coup de grace delivered by Halvorson alone.

Cued by Bynum and sometimes Bauder, the group navigated the challenging territory with casual ease, operating to a cool inner logic, in contrast to the sweltering heat in the hall, for a challenging but rewarding opening set.

Dave Douglas' Magic Circle

Next up was Dave Douglas' Magic Circle featuring Uri Caine on piano and Brian Carrott on vibes, alongside the leader's voluble trumpet. Though perhaps more accustomed to the concert hall, Douglas was nonetheless quite at home at the Vision Festival, piloting a set of seven melodic and swinging compositions with insouciant aplomb. Characterized by sensitive interplay, the superb musicianship of the trio was on display throughout.

Douglas effortlessly threw off fanfares, apercus, and whinnying decrescendos, toying with both the tunes and the audience, frequently bringing a smile to the face with his virtuosity. While largely responsible for the rhythmic thrust, Caine nevertheless found space to echo the phrases of others or essay emphatic commentary. Though Douglas and Caine are perhaps the more known quantities, Carrott was the real revelation with his spare and unpredictable contributions. In one solo he used one mallet to dampen and bend notes struck with the other, extending the tonal range of the vibes, and even played briefly with his hands.

Closing the 45 minute set was an involved unison line, interspersed with shouting accents, then breaking apart into more open-eared dialogue. Caine rumbled on piano leading to a chiming duet with Carrott, then passed motifs around the group setting up another unison finale to great applause for a very polished set.

The NU Band

More typical Vision fare was provided by the Nu Band: a cooperative outfit featuring Roy Campbell on trumpet, and pocket trumpet, Mark Whitecage on alto and curved soprano saxophones and clarinet, Joe Fonda on bass and Lou Grassi on drums.

Campbell has been a fixture on the downtown scene for over 30 years, gracing ensembles such as Other Dimensions in Music, William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and Marc Ribot's Spiritual Unity, with his smoldering trumpet. He has a habit of forming fine understanding with his front line partners and in the veteran Whitecage he has found another kindred spirit who dealt with everything thrown at him, switching between inside and outside at will. Since a flurry of activity on CIMP records in the mid 90s, too little has been heard from the mercurial saxophonist, so it was a real pleasure to catch him in this setting.

Though neither man is tall both Fonda and Grassi pack enormous energy into their compact frames. Fonda verged on the hyperactive, whether stomping his foot as he played with an intense grimace, scatting along with intricate runs or essaying delicate arco work. Grassi combined tumbling polyrhythms with a feather light touch as he swept around his kit.

As Fonda sardonically announced: "The Nu Band has no leaders. We all contribute tunes, and even on occasion finances." Their program reflected this, opening with Campbell's effervescent "Loeasida Blues," before Grassi's loping "Avanti Gallopi," and a pair of tunes from Fonda. Whitecage's blues tinged "Connecticut Solution" closed out the set with Whitecage reciting a deconstructed US Constitution, following a fine pocket trumpet outing by Campbell.

The line "It is the people's duty to throw off such Government" drew a cheer from the audience, and vocal interjections from Campbell, culminating in a chorus of "Bush whack him," over Whitecage's bitter sweet alto peregrinations. Seeing the sign from the side of the stage that their time was up, catapulted them into a slow down and dirty line with frantic chase interludes and the closing statement "we've been Bush whacked." An excellent set.

Mark Dresser and Denman Maroney

Mark Dresser may still be best known for his tenure with one of Anthony Braxton's classic quartets, but the bassist and pianist Denman Maroney have a musical relationship stretching back some 19 years, and it showed in the highly personal duo language they have evolved.

Their unique sound world is predicated upon extended techniques, with Maroney rubbing wooden blocks along his piano strings, producing unearthly shrieks and glissandos, almost as a recurrent motif through the performance. Dresser made assured and purposeful use of the whole gamut of bass techniques, drawing from frog croaking yelps, rubber band twangs and stuttering drones in pursuit of their tandem vision. Dresser is a master: at times he simultaneously plucked and bowed to inspired effect against abrasive rubbing on the piano strings, or subtly varied the pressure as he bowed on the bridge of his bass to modulate a firm but vocalised squeaking.

Though the single 35-minute piece sounded like a free improv, both men followed a score at times, looking studious and serious. A dark lyricism contrasted with passages of subterranean rumbling piano and rusty door hinge arco, before pirouetting into a sequence of sudden starts. With the loudest applause of the evening greeting the close of probably the most challenging set, and what for some was a major highlight, it demonstrated that you should never underestimate either the stamina or the discernment of the Vision Festival audience.

A great evening with four satisfying sets displaying the wide breadth represented under the rubric of the Vision Festival and promising more to come from the rest of the week. The next night was to be Kidd Jordan night.

Photo Credits

Taylor Ho Bynum Photo: Frank Rubolino

All Other Photos: John Sharpe

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6

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