Vision Festival 2008: Day 3

John Sharpe By

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Oliver Lake New Quintet Project
James Spaulding Swing Expressions
Bluiett's Bio-Electric
Ensemble of Possibilities

13th Annual Vision Festival
Clemente Soto Velez,
New York City
June 12, 2008

Among the many attributes of the Vision Festival, one of those which makes it unique is the emphasis on all of the arts, not just the stellar avant-garde jazz for which it is most renowned. So to accompany the roster of acts on the main stage at Clemente Soto Velez, a second space in the same complex hosted a schedule of spoken word, dance, visual projections and music in various combinations.

Programmed to coincide with the changeovers on the main stage, it was easy to catch the start of a piece, but also all too easy to miss the start of the next set. Michael Wilderman's photo projections of Kidd Jordan through the years formed a neat counterpoint to the ongoing celebration on the main stage. The first break this evening featured Steve Dalachinsky reading his poems against violinist Tom Chiu's abstracted musings. Later evenings more dance and music, including an austere piece with Yvonne Meier dancing in a gorilla costume to a cool saxophone backing from Saco Yasuma.

Both spaces also featured art installations, the main hall hanging "Rev/Revolution" by Jo Wood Brown, with blown up photos revolving on wires supported from the ceiling, while the Milagro was home to "Lunar" by Kazuko Miyamoto, a moon-like sphere looming over the performance area with ropes curled on the floor.

June 12, 2008's program offered a taste of the more accessible end of the avant-garde jazz spectrum, but was no less appreciated for that. Bluiett's Bio-Electric was one of the high points of the Festival, but each of the other three sets was in some way notable, with veteran James Spaulding making a strong impression which caught most listeners by surprise, all the more pleasurable for being unexpected.

Oliver Lake New Quintet Project

Composer/reedman Oliver Lake has long straddled the inside/outside divide, dating back to his investigation of Eric Dolphy's legacy, though on the face of it his New Quintet Project featuring Peck Allmond on trumpet, Jared Gold on organ, his son Jahi Sundance on turntables , and Jonathan Blake on drums, was going to be more on the inside. But over a 48 minute set of six Lake originals they put their own spin on everything from ballads to funk to foot stomping grooves.

Whenever Lake moved out of tempo, sections of the band would follow, only to return prodigal like to the beat. Blake proved a propulsive drummer, ready to explode whenever anyone became slightly heated. Not much could be heard of Sundance generally, but he contributed some neat touches, like the heartbeat and squeals starting the second piece and the vinyl sourced drums replacing Blake in the closing theme of the boppish opener. Allmond proved a strong foil to Lake's acerbic alto, whether embarking on careering runs or declaiming high pressured fanfares. On organ Gold watched everyone's back, providing the bass lines, surging chords or bubbling leads as required.

At the end of their varied set, in spite of getting the signal to finish, Lake cued one final piece and it proved the highlight. Over lush churchy organ, the saxophonist breathed a bittersweet ballad, while Sundance threaded in a recording of a preacher's voice "Lord, I must confess..." before the band leapt into an infectious theme with a gospel swing. As they restated the unison theme, Lake's alto erupted, spewing a litany of choked cries before picking up the theme once more, as first Allmond, then Gold got their turns to testify. As a recurring motif, Sundance allowed the recording of the preacher's voice to continue, becoming ever more impassioned. All too soon the uplifting feel had to end, provoking huge applause and vocal approval. A great way to close a set.

James Spaulding Swing Expressions

With a back story invoking Freddie Hubbard, Bobby Hutcherson, Horace Silver and Lee Morgan, James Spaulding might not seem an obvious candidate for a Vision Festival spot. Notwithstanding stints with Sun Ra in the late 1950s and David Murray in the 1990s, expectations weren't high for Spaulding and his Swing Expressions. How wrong can you be? They were great.

Powered by Reggie Nicholson on drums with the exuberant Sabor on percussion, the band certainly lived up to its name. The lengthy opener summed up its approach with a quiet incremental start from Eric Lemon's ruminative bass over percussive splashes, before first Richard Clements delicate piano lines and then the leader's fluttering flute evoked a rainforest awakening. Moving to alto saxophone, Spaulding essayed a coruscating free jazz soliloquy before being briefly joined by the rich baritone voice of Gregory Porter, who then disappeared from the stage. Taking this as their prompt, the band leapt into an irresistible Latin rhythm, with Spaulding encouraging the audience to clap, before another cooking solo over the driving backing, And so they continued.

Not until the start of the next piece did Porter reappear, coming forward from the back of the hall shouting "New world's comin,'" an exclamation taken up by the band and even some of the audience, before the band kicked in for another groove. Such smart arrangements, allied to Spaulding's thoughtful original compositions transformed what might have been a straight ahead set into something special. Percussionist Sabor reveled in the spotlight with an indomitable sense of fun, which encapsulated the band's appeal, earning them a well deserved standing ovation.

Bluiett's Bio-Electric

Even better was to come with both Hamiet Bluiett and Billy Bang returning from the previous evening for a grooving ensemble, merging innovation with tradition by way of garrulous group interaction. With them they brought another top notch rhythm team of long standing: Chicago's Harrison Bankhead on bass and Hamid Drake once more on drums. Accompanying them was Sun Ra veteran Ahmed Abdullah, added to the programmed lineup for good measure on trumpet.

Another slow burning start saw Bluiett blowing his first notes on baritone saxophone with his hands behind his back, before laying down a brawny WSQ style riff. Bang and Abdullah ratcheted up the intensity until you feared they might combust, egged on by Drake's rocket propelled cymbals, setting the scene for an explosion of intertwining lines, with solos emerging from the volatile mix.

Drake watched Bang intently as his hands became a blur during a quicksilver violin and drums duet, while the irrepressible violinist worked his bow frantically to keep up. Even so, Drake still found time to reference the thematic rhythm and execute a turnaround to cue Bluiett back in. Denying the cumbersome nature of his horn, Bluiett sustained a lengthy upper register passage with unrivalled control, before a contrasting series of multiphonic blurts. Energetic face offs with Bang ensued with both sparring head to head, grins splitting their faces. A tumbling circus music theme climaxed the lengthy opener, before a final blow out from the raucous front line.

For the next piece, longtime Bluiett associate, pianist D.D. Jackson, made a guest appearance. His expansive introduction deconstructed into a swirling maelstrom, before finally morphing into a serene rendition of Coltrane's "Naima." Just as the announcer attempted to cut them off, Bluiett launched into a dynamite version of Ellington and Strayhorn's "Take The 'A' Train." Bluiett signaled Jackson to go wild, which he did with a two handed abandon, symptomatic of this joyful noise. Whether convened just for this show I don't know, but this all-star lineup deserves greater visibility and a live recording at the very least. Another standing ovation was their inevitable due.

Ensemble of Possibilities

Following three storming sets upped the ante for the cooperative group filling drummer Whit Dickey's festival slot and meant it was more like an ensemble of impossibilities to command the audience's attention at the end of a hot evening. Joining him was a star studded lineup of downtown talent, with Rob Brown on alto saxophone, Daniel Carter on flute, alto and tenor saxophones, clarinet and trumpet, Eri Yamamoto on piano, Joe Morris on bass and Jason Kao Hwang on violin. While connections abound between these players, this was only their second performance as a unit.

Their brand of non-pulse based free improvisational ebb and flow required a reorientation of mindset which took a while to achieve. Nonetheless tracking the group trajectory provided an object lesson in seat of the pants navigation. A nervy quality to the proceedings stemmed from the largely non-linear movement of bass and drums, with Yamamoto actually the source of a lot of the rhythm, explicitly so in the later part of the set when she asserted more repeating patterns.

Numerous passages highlighted the group dynamic: a duo developed between Dickey and Yamamoto, with the pianist dampening the strings with her hand for timbral variation, then expanding into an almost percussive approach, before switching to a rich chordal underpinning as the rest of the ensemble rejoined. Carter noticeably energized and redirected the flow in one drifting ensemble, putting down his clarinet in favor of his alto for an urgent run, repeated at intervals until first Dickey accentuated the pulse, then Morris picked out a riff to sustain the momentum, with impromptu solos unfurling from the collective outpouring.

An absorbing set which certainly had its moments, but never really caught fire and perhaps demonstrated the role of context and environment in the appreciation of this music. In retrospect it might have worked better as the opening rather than closing performance on this particular evening.

Photo Credits

Frank Rubolino

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