Vision Festival 2008: Day 6 - Finale

John Sharpe By

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the Vision Festival continues to provide a much needed showcase in New York City for avant-garde jazz and continues to emphasize that this is an African-American art form
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Lewis Barnes' Hampton Roads
Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce
Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure's Deep Sahara
William Parker's Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield

Vision Festival 2008
Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center

New York City
Day 6: Festival Wrap-Up

Sunday evening's bill was perhaps one of the most tangible manifestations of the slightly more diverse roster than usual for the Vision Festival, with a tip of the hat in the direction of more accessible fare. Whether this direction was actual or imagined, there was a smaller crowd than previous evenings, and though several of the regular faces weren't around, those that were enjoyed themselves immensely. Of course this might just be due to the need to travel on the Sunday on the part of those who had come from further afield, but the task of growing the audience while retaining the core is a challenge for all festival organizers.

During the afternoon debate on community, moderated by cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum, some opined that emphasis on growing the audience was wrong and that the focus should be on integrating the arts within their community and increasing their relevance to that community. An interesting perspective, though in this increasingly globalized age, you could argue that the free jazz community is in fact world-wide, with small pockets of local interest linked into something very much larger by the web.

Indeed, the art form itself is worldwide, recognized by the inclusion on the bill of Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure's Deep Sahara, though they were as much African roots as jazz. Lewis Barnes' Hampton Roads band was the nearest to a "traditional" Vision Festival outfit, and indeed they turned in one of the week's stronger performances. Another side of the downtown scene was on show with Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce merging jazz and voice. But William Parker's Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project demonstrated the futility of hairsplitting between genres, with a tremendous show which brought in elements of free jazz, soul, R&B and gospel into an inspiring mix, elevated even further by the inspired decision to bring in a church choir for the second half of their performance.

Lewis Barnes' Hampton Roads

Opening the final evening, Lewis Barnes had assembled a fine group, reuniting him with his horn partner from the William Parker Quartet, alto saxophonist Rob Brown, along with Darius Jones, also on alto saxophone, Todd Nicholson on bass and master percussionist Warren Smith. In fact this more collective ethos prevailed, with both Brown and Jones contributing and directing compositions alongside Barnes.

The untitled opener by Brown featured an involved unison line over a relaxed bounce, before solos from Barnes, Nicholson and the composer. Taking his time, the trumpeter fashioned an extended outing, with Brown directing backing riffs, echoed by Smith's drums. Brown played one of the solos of the Festival, incorporating and extending parts of the theme in a blistering outpouring full of bent notes, multiphonic edges and unexpected turns.

Barnes' Swipe Card boasted a multi-sectioned theme with exquisite coloring from Smith (just the right number and placement of decaying tom tom beats) and an exposition of overblown squeals from Jones before a boppish outing from the composer, jerking his horn to the right as he smeared incandescently at the end of each line.

Jones penned the final piece "Michelle Heartwell," featuring a solid Nicholson bass riff and three-horn unison, with a feature for each, with Jones in particular excelling as he gradually built intensity from the low end through throaty shrieks to climax on a piercing falsetto. A great set.

Roy Nathanson's Sotto Voce

This aggregation was Nathanson's solution to his quest to make words and music interchangeable in storytelling. Lined up across the stage in addition to the leader's alto saxophone, we had Curtis Fowlkes on trombone, Napoleon Maddox using his voice as a human beat-box, Tim Kiah on bass and Sam Bardfield on violin, with all of them singing, too, at various points in the performance.

Nathanson comes on like a self-deprecating Jewish comedian, but with a saxophone, his humorous songs spiced with twisting solos, or perhaps it should be the other way round. Overlapping tiers of riffs, lines and vocals meshed for an entertaining set, with the high point Nathanson's moving tribute to his brother who died when he was young, incorporating a tape of Allan Ginsberg reciting "Strange now to think of you...."

Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure's Deep Sahara

Fast turning into vocals night, Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure's brand of African roots jazz foregrounded Kali Z Fasteau on nai flutes, soprano saxophone and vocals alongside the leader's guitar and vocals, with backing from piano, bass, drums and African percussion. Their infectious grooving songs, peppered with jazzy solos, certainly got the audience going, with one appreciative punter coming down front to shower the stage with dollar bills. The percussionist delighted in embellishing the rhythms with both talking drum and gourd, earning himself a further payoff from the enthusiastic punter.

William Parker's Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield

Closing out the Festival for another year was the NYC debut of William Parker's Inside Songs of Curtis Mayfield project, drawing inspiration from Mayfied's pioneering songs addressing issues of African American pride and community. Parker's arrangements of the late soul legends songs mixed in original compositions, alongside additional words by poet/playwright Amiri Baraka. Sharing vocal duties with Baraka was the elegant Leena Conquest, from Parker's Raining On The Moon ensemble. In the horn section were Sabir Mateen on reeds, Darryl Foster on soprano and tenor saxophones, and the returning Lewis Barnes on trumpet, while the powerhouse driving the band comprised Hamid Drake on drums, Dave Burrell on piano, Barnes' son on guitar, and of course Parker himself on bass. Fittingly given the emphasis on community at this Festival, the band was to be accompanied for the second half of the show by the young people of the New Life church choir directed by Angela Moses.

Kicking off with "Freddy's Dead," the funky beat and riffing horns behind the singing of Conquest and interjections of Baraka quickly established that this was one of Parker's more accessible outfits. In fact a regular groove underpinned almost the whole set, with the only outside elements being the horn fills and solos percolating up out of the mix. Baraka was over amplified compared to Conquest, though the balance was readjusted as the set progressed through "A Little Sugar" and "It's Alright."

Inspired by Foster's serpentine soprano saxophone solo on the former, Conquest dismounted the stage for a session of her trademark dancing down front to wild applause. As a link to the latter piece, Parker indicated for Burrell to take centerstage, plink-plonking initially, but then crashing wildly, by way of some off- kilter stride before finishing with more flailing runs.

For the second part of the set, Parker invited the 20-piece New Life Choir to join them, down in front of the stage, immediately in front of where I was sitting, for a funky "People Get Ready." Their spirit was irresistible. During the wailing horn breaks, they swayed back and forth clapping enthusiastically, before belting out the next chorus. Parker and Drake segued into "Love Is All We Need" and then a deeply affecting "This Is My Country" with the young men and women in the choir giving it their impassioned all. Inspiring, uplifting, and impossible not to be moved. It still brings a smile to my face as I write these words. Naturally they received a standing ovation, and indeed the set was yet another high point in what had been an excellent festival.

Festival Wrap Up

As the audience said their goodbyes to friends new and old at the close of the 13th Annual Vision Festival, the vibe amongst the regulars was that this had been one of the best festivals in recent years, with some incredible highs like the Kidd Jordan celebration, Bluiett's set, Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quintet and Paul Dunmall's trio, and just a few lows, one of them being the unseasonable heat. Having a venue with two performance spaces allowed more dance, visual art and spoken word, although it meant that the audience for them was more select.

In spite of a slightly more diverse roster, the Vision Festival continues to provide a much needed showcase in New York City for free jazz, or avant-garde jazz, call it what you will, and continues to emphasize that this is an African-American art form. Here's hoping that organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker succeeds in her aim of finding a permanent home for Vision music and other arts, and here's to many more Vision Festivals in the future.

Photo Credit
Frank Rubolino (Abdoulaye Alhassane Toure, William Parker) John Sharpe

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