Vision Festival 2009: Day 1

John Sharpe By

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6 | Day 7

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 yourself—heaven knows we could do with more outlets for creative music.

Chapter Index

  1. Invocation
  2. Brass 'n' Bang
  3. Douglas R. Ewart and Inventions
  4. Lawrence D. Butch Morris

Opening Invocation

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 guimbri—an 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 home—almost 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.


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