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Steve Swell-Gebhard Ullmann Quartet; Bobby Few and Sonny Simmons; Henry Grimes with Sabir Mateen Quartet; Connie Crother; Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quintet
13th Annual Vision Festival
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center
New York City
Friday, June 13, 2008
For the second of the week's panel discussions on Friday afternoon at the Vision Festival, the topic was "Jazz Factions," with representation drawn from across the creative music spectrum, including several musicians in the audience. As always it was difficult to find a consensus, but there was a heartening degree of comradeship from all sides and a common desire to avoid externally imposed labels. Of interest was William Parker's preferred term to avoid jazz factions"Black Mystery Music"the Vision Festival's approach to promoting diversity through a booking policy which favors a certain percentage of black artists.
Friday evening presented a varied bill of fare to the packed house, with strong sets from the Steve Swell- Gebhard Ullmann Quartet, solo pianist Connie Crothers, and Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet, not only one of the Festival's high-points but possibly the set of the Festival.
Steve Swell-Gebhard Ullmann Quartet
Trombonist Steve Swell brought his quartet, co-led with German reedman, Gebhard Ullmann, to the Vision Festival on the back of a North American tour in April and May, and their experience showed in their relaxed demeanour and togetherness, even more in evidence than on their exceptional Desert Songs and Other Landscapes (CIMP, 2004). Swell now graces ensembles ever wider than his downtown heartland, with his fierce improvisational intellect. In Ullmann he has found a partner comfortable in a wide range of situations and adept at promoting cross pollination between them through his writing. Consistency of personnel is important to the group's sound, and they have been fortunate to recruit and retain increasingly in demand bassist Hill Greene while providing a welcome platform for a renascent Barry Altschul on drums.
As a working band of more than four years, their quartet blended composition and improvisation in a way that resisted easy separation. Over the course of five pieces in a well-paced 45-minute set, the well rehearsed arrangements saw the players move among angular themes, simultaneous horn conversations and involving solos with a natural ease borne of familiarity. On tenor saxophone, Ullmann proved muscular, though with a querulous, keening edge hinting at vulnerability, while on bass clarinet he frequently percolated through the registers, culminating in vocalised yelps. Whether directing the improvisational flow or delivering forceful yet nuanced solos, while bending sideways to keep his trombone on mic, Swell was at the top of his game. Greene walked, riffed and generated momentum, sometimes with his bass almost horizontal during his more animated moments.
Altschul is a master percussionist, striking his drums as crisply as anyone during the Festival, and taking a wonderfully artful solo during the last piece, a Swell favourite, the loping "Impatient Explorer," which incorporated the two-beat pattern from the theme as a recurring motif, embellished on all parts of his kit, before leading back to the head. From here the band decrescendoed to silence, luring the audience into applause, only to take off again with an all hell-breaking-loose cadenza which ended as suddenly as it began, for a great conclusion to a fine set.
Bobby Few and Sonny Simmons
There can't be too many Vision Festival performances which start with the pianist telling a joke and which involve the saxophonist singing his version of Frank Sinatra's "It Was a Very Good Year," but that's what we got from the duo of veterans Bobby Few and Sonny Simmons. The duet format left lots of space especially for the pianist, enabling him to display his fluid, even florid, style, revelling in call-response exchanges between his hands, at times evoking an almost spiritual feel.
On alto saxophone, Simmons alternately soulful and piercing, moved in loose conjunction with Few through their melodic and good-natured 40-minute set. Having received the signal to finish, Simmons began winding down for a joint conclusion, but the mischievous Few was having none of it, launching repeatedly into just one more chorus, before finishing with a hammering run, in his own good time.
Henry Grimes with the Sabir Mateen Quartet
The next set paired bassist Henry Grimes and reed master Sabir Mateen with two Paris-based expatriates in trumpeter Rasul Siddik and drummer John Betsch. They had a program of three pieces starting with a poem read by Grimes, which set the scene for an extemporised soundscape, a composition by Mateen dedicated to the World Trade Center victims, and finally an involved theme by Siddik alternating a stop-start head with free interludes.