Vision Festival 2009: Day 1By
Brass 'n' Bang / Douglas R. Ewart and Inventions / Lawrence "Butch" Morris
14th Annual Vision Festival
Abrons Arts Center
New York, New York
June 9-15, 2009
New York City's annual Vision Festival is a unique showcase for avant jazz in such profusion and diversity that it attracts a returning audience from across the US and indeed the globe. At a time when other outlets for the music are closing or moving out of Manhattan, the Vision Festival has cemented its place in the calendar as a reliable must-see event for hometown fans too, with some 37 performances concentrated into seven nights.
Organizer Patricia Nicholson and Arts for Arts Inc. is committed to the idea that the arts, in all of their various shapes and forms, should abide in close proximity, challenging viewers and artists and creating new synergies through which ideas can flow. Consequently, dance, poetry, sculpture and visual arts all jostled with music for the audience's attention and featured in some exciting collaborations such as Butch Morris' conduction for poets and strings, and William Hooker's accompaniment for a silent film classic.
Running June 9-15, the first six nights of the fourteenth Festival came from a new landmark venue, the plush and comfortable Abrons Arts Center on Grand Street in NYC's gradually gentrifying Lower East Side, shifting to the more familiar environs of the Angel Orensanz Foundation for the final night. With the demise of the JVC Jazz Festival, the artist-run Vision Festival became the only remaining established-name jazz festival in New York City this summer. Such activism may provide a more widespread template for the future in the current financial meltdown, with artists and volunteers taking up running and producing their own events.
Many of the Vision Festival regulars from the Lower East side artistic community which organizes the festival were on the bill. But if there was some evidence of consolidation in booking policy, with only one group from Europe joining the festival this year, there was also more of the exciting new projects for which the festival has become known, such as Jason Kao Hwang's 30-member Spontaneous River. Another special feature of the Vision Festival is the honoring of the lifetime's work of an elder of the avant jazz community, and this year it was Marshall Allen, current director of the Sun Ra Arkestra, whose work was showcased on the second night of the Festival. Complaints are sometimes heard about the regulars on the Vision roster for overlooking talent from other sources, but the carping provokes as a riposte: if you want to play or see different performers, then organize another festival yourselfheaven knows we could do with more outlets for creative music.
Each Vision Festival opens with an invocation, and the custom continued with Patricia Nicholson Parker, William Parker and Hamid Drake taking the stage for an almost ritualistic performance to get the proceedings underway. Though now perhaps best known as an arts organizer and activist, Nicholson Parker is also a dancer, specializing in free-form expression allied to improvised jazz, and the Vision Festival provides a platform for her talent each year. So true to form, the invocation took the form of her movement and wordless vocalizations set against an unfolding rhythmic African groove extemporized by Drake on frame drum and Parker on a guimbrian African two-stringed hunter's guitar. Though sitting in the center of the stage, Parker and Drake could have been on the back porch, such was their unforced and natural feel. As Nicholson Parker danced, they upped the intensity, only to return to a more relaxed tempo as she sang a hopeful "Change is coming."
Parker was constantly uncovering new grooves, finding one he liked, then digging into it while Drake adjusted by exploiting myriad ways of extracting and modulating tones from his drum, flicking the edge with his thumb, or rubbing a finger from the center to rim to modulate the pitch. When Parker Nicholson sang "Wake up," Drake supplied a backing chorus too. Parker switched to a strident double reed horn for a change of color before tolling a bell to herald Parker Nicholson's intonation of "and the Vision begins." Job done, they left the stage wreathed in smiles, after a performance simultaneously ethereal and down homealmost a metaphor for the Vision Festival as a whole.
Brass 'n' Bang
The honor of starting off the Festival proper fell to downtown mainstay violinist Billy Bang with the debut of his new Brass 'n' Bang ensemble, pitching his agile bowing against three trumpets, trombone and drums. Bang first burst onto the scene in the 1970s, most notably with the String Trio of New York which he co-led until 1986, and since with diverse groups under his own leadership, including his feted Vietnam the Aftermath band exorcising the ghosts from his time in the Infantry. His backstory encompasses collaboration with Sam Rivers, Frank Lowe, Bill Laswell, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Sun Ra and Don Cherry.
It was Cherry who first alerted him to how well the trumpet blended with violin, and since that time Bang often looked to introduce brass into his wood-centric groups. In his introduction Bang noted that one of his violin heroes, Stuff Smith, drew a lot of his inspiration from Louis Armstrong, in a similar way to how he was drawn not to string antecedents as much as the saxophones of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Jackie Maclean. Hi present group, he said, was an attempt to herald the harmonious relationship between the two instruments. And that they did through first an improvisation and then three extended compositions in a 50-minute set characterized by a spacious group sound, with the trombone often taking the role of a blown bass, and playful interactions.
After Bang's announcement, the ensemble commenced incrementally with first, trumpeter Ted Daniel entering from stage left, purveying fragmented fanfares, then trombonist Dick Griffin joining from the opposite side of the stage. Remaining trumpeters Ahmed Abdullah and James Zollar, the latter growling through a mute, added their voices one by one, until they were lined up behind music stands across the stage. Only when drummer Russell Carter was in action behind his kit at the rear of the stage did Bang take up his bow, adding his earthy sawing to the raucous chorale. After conjuring a mighty crescendo, Bang brought it all to an abrupt halt and, before the applause had ceased, had begun plucking the theme to the next piece, a down and dirty concoction with a horn section which could have graced a James Brown funkathon. Each of the trumpeters got a chance to strut his stuff, with Daniel the most melodic of the three, before some lovely conversational interplay prior to the closing theme restatement.
Next up was a favorite Bang composition, the beautiful "Moments for the KIA MIA" from his Vietnam the Aftermath book, graced by an a capella trombone introduction. Griffin's gruff buzzing and multiphonic whimsy created a lovely elegiac feel, somewhat undermined by an incidental excursion into "We Will Not Be Moved," before a conclusion of wavering circular breathing led to a bass register riff, spare drumming and Bang's rendition of the haunting theme. Bang excelled himself in the following solo replete with rhythmic suspensions, screeches and almost vocal expressiveness, before handing over to Abdullah, then orchestrating the closing theme. For their finale, Zollar had arranged a medley of Duke Ellington compositions around Billy Strayhorn's "Take The A Train" in a delightful set-closer emphasizing this latter- day music's unbroken, though sometimes overlooked, connection to the tradition.
Douglas R. Ewart and Inventions
Douglas Ewart has never garnered the same high profile as many of his AACM colleagues, due to continued residence in the mid-West and wide ranging interests beyond composition and performance, including making masks, wood flutes and kinetic sound sculptures. Factor in his status as an educator, lecturer and arts organizer serving on the boards of various cultural bodies such as Meet The Composer and the National Endowment for the Arts, and it is small wonder that the appearance of his six-piece Inventions generated widespread curiosity.
In a white lab coat festooned with flags, reminiscent of the late trumpeter Lester Bowie's get up with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Ewart announced five pieces, which were subsumed within a continuous 80- minute performance blending involved arrangements with improvisations and recitations from Ewart himself, reedman Joseph Jarman and poet Amiri Baraka.
A fragmented unison opening pitted Ewart's piping sopranino saxophone against Jarman's soprano and JD Parran's clarinet in a shrill conclave, until the sudden crescendos and attacks opened up for Baraka's recitation of "Dawn," then some prancing piano from Donald Smith (pictured above) at the rear of the stage. Ewart's "Prophet of the Prairie," dedicated to 80-year old saxophonist and mentor Fred Anderson, featured further overlapping recitations, name checking multitudinous AACM alumni and touching reminiscences before a portentous passage for piano and Thurman Barker's percussion presaging Parran's whinnying bass saxophone and Ewart and Jarman's tandem flutes. An exercise in contrasts positing the airy flutes against blustering bass saxophone over Barker's marimba gave way to an extended bass saxophone outing, with the big beast roaming the plains emitting simultaneous squeals and gruff blurts, in one of many fine episodes.
Towards the close Ewart introduced a lovely melody around which the band gradually coalesced, with Smith taking a rhapsodic rolling piano solo. Just before Jarman's closing lyric, Ewart unleashed four spinning tops at the front of the stage, for an enigmatic ending in keeping with a good set, which with a little paring could have been outstanding.
Though he first caught the attention as a cornetist, Lawrence "Butch" Morris can now very reasonably claim that the band is his instrument. Many people work through conduction, but few take it as far as Morris, and it is hard to consider the term without his body of work coming to mind, consisting of some 187 conductions to date, with this one. His raw material this evening comprised a chorus of poets, in keeping with the Vision Festival aims of intermingling arts, and a string ensemble. This wasn't their first outing with Morris, and in fact the chorus of poets dates back to the 1991 when Morris collaborated with Steve Cannon (of A Gathering of the Tribes renown).
It was quickly clear that both poets and strings were well-versed in Morris's system of techniques and balletic gestures, as sudden points or sweeps with his baton acted like a magician's wand drawing waves of sound from the ensemble. Working with "Erotic Eulogy" a text by Alan GraubardMorris kept some people repeating particular words or phrases while others continued on. It was instructive to hear how the technique worked with words as it gave an insight into how the musical aspect of the conduction was constructed.
Operating as both narrative with meaning and as pure sound, the words tended to dominate perceptions, though there was some fine string work going down as well. One particularly arresting moment occurred when Morris captured a repeated harp figure, which was echoed by the cellos and other strings in almost minimalist variation. Later a round of laughing recitations overlapped with a serene string passage in a pleasing contrast. Morris had a keen sense of dynamics, carefully controlling volume, as lurching monolithic rhythms gave way to volleys of sound.
After a single 45-minute piece, Morris was entreated for an encore, obliging with more aggressive swathes of string glissandos and calling forth extended techniques involving rubbing bows and hands across fretboards. A short cameo for cellist Okkyung Lee preceded a final section featuring expressive recitation by Chavisa Woods mimicked by the other poets and a sudden swift ending. An unexpectedly fascinating and humorous set to close a very promising first evening.
Next day promised even more with Marshall Allen taking center stage for an evening honoring his lifetime's achievement.
John Sharpe and photo of Billy Bang by Frank Rubolino