Vision Festival 2009: Day 4

John Sharpe By

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Miriam Parker's Corridor / Charles Gayle Trio / The Ras Ensemble / The Ayler Project / Zim Ngqawana and the Collective Quartet
14th Annual Vision Festival
Abrons Arts Center
New York City
June 12, 2009

On Friday the Vision Festival was sold out again, with the line stretching down the road. On offer was some of the cream of New York City's avant jazz talent, with the U.S. debut of the Roy Campbell's Ayler Project particularly noteworthy. As a showcase, the annual venue is important not only to the audience who can pack a year's worth of gigs into one week, but also the artists themselves. A good performance can catch the ear of European festival promoters, of whom several were present, and lead to invitations for appearances by headliners for the delectation of those not able to cross the Atlantic. Perhaps this attention translates into above-average performances. Certainly a fair proportion of sets ultimately get released, as a growing catalogue of Vision performances on diverse labels attests.

Chapter Index

  1. Miriam Parker's Corridor
  2. Charles Gayle Trio
  3. The Ras Ensemble
  4. The Ayler Project
  5. Zim Ngqawana and the Collective Quartet

Miriam Parker's Corridor
To start the night, Miriam Parker brought her solo dance piece "Corridor" to the blacked-out stage and auditorium, with music by Jason Kao Hwang together with Joseph Daley's tuba along with banks of electronics, raised on a podium on the left-hand side to allow space for dancing. At the outset Parker cavorted sinuously in front of a spotlight in the wings so her shadow undulated across the stage, as Hwang plucked on violin, though for the most part the sounds accompanying the wonderfully lithe Parker were more like ambient electronics. At one point Hwang bowed a grandly romantic theme but generally the electronic soundscapes with tuba drones and heavily amplified violin had the elemental feel of weather rather than music.

Charles Gayle Trio

Free jazz saxophonist (and sometime pianist) Charles Gayle has been a fixture of the Vision Festival over the years, finding the trio format particularly well suited to his needs. With him tonight were Lisle Ellis on bass and longtime collaborator Michael Wimberly on drums, for a 50-minute set of improvised conversations.

Looking gaunt in a gray suit, Gayle began with a whinnying cry, before a crash of drums and strutting bass signaled buoyant support for the leader's forceful upper register forays. Ellis was almost dancing with his bass during his full-toned pizzicato solo, before a repeated motif led him into a delicate section which elicited such attention from the photographers that it became a duet for bass and camera shutters. Punctuating his flow with harmonics plucked below the bridge, he soon made it apparent that here was another monster bassist, very strong rhythmically, with great presence and plying a continual counterpoint to Gayle's outpourings. Coming out of his feature, Ellis locked into a repeated pattern to underpin Wimberly's explosive flurries on the drums. Although he gave his kit a good thrashing, Wimberly was far from one dimensional, displaying acute sensitivity when needed. Wielding very thick sticks, the drummer eased into a powerhouse solo, ended when Gayle strode back onstage for a short closing statement on alto saxophone.

Gayle had a very clear idea of what he wanted. After a lovely abstract conversation with Ellis at the start of the second piece, Gayle turned to one side to signal Wimberly to join, tapping his foot to set the tempo, before embarking on a litany of bent hollers. Ellis interjected a tumbling series of plucked notes in a pleasing interaction with Gayle's soulful vocalized shout. Preaching the ugly beauty of distorted tones and wide vibrato, Gayle arched his back as he stretched for a high falsetto, before turning to one side with his sax, to guide the piece to a close.

Moving to the piano, Gayle essayed stuttered chording, with Ellis joining for some flowing arco work, contrasting with Gayle's increasingly wild prancing fragmentation. A second piece began with some abstracted stride, with Gayle growling at the piano as he played. Testament to the responsiveness of the trio, Ellis repeatedly plucked a note like he was glued to it, prompting Gayle to hammer at a single note with his right hand, and Ellis to up the intensity even more.

Clinching evidence of all the listening going on was the final piece, on which Gayle brought out his tenor saxophone, a rarely seen sight over the last few years. Ellis picked up straight away on Gayle's opening phrase, transmuting it into a contrapuntal motif grounding the saxophonist's exhortations. As Gayle alternated multiphonic shrieks with deep subtone honks, Wimberly crashed his cymbals to a crescendo while Ellis swayed his bass from side to side. Working out of the middle register again Gayle could almost have been playing some abstracted standard in terms of his phrasing and tempo, but in terms of content it was anything but. Shifting from a great tenor wail to distorted bleating, Gayle finished with breathy vulnerability and a wavering cry. Excellent set. A powerful set and one of highlights so far.

The Ras Ensemble

Under the leadership of reedman Ras Moshe, the next band comprised regular partner Matt Lavelle on trumpet and flugelhorn (pictured right), Dave Ross on guitar, Charles Downs (formerly known as Rashid Bakr) on drums, and another welcome appearance for Shayna Dulberger on bass (background, right). Moshe (pronounced Mo- shay) was born in New York into a family of saxophonists, and has been paying his dues around town since 1986, generally operating in the free jazz idiom, and that's how it played out tonight over three pieces of dense fiery avant- garde jazz, with short heads acting as compositional signposts, during a 45-minute set.

An incremental pattering start left everyone going full pelt, at which point Moshe initiated a repeated tenor saxophone/trumpet unison, before subverting convention by indicating that Dulberger should take the first solo. Following the bassist's accomplished outing, Moshe stretched out on his burnished tenor, shadowed by abstract comping from Ross' guitar. Sadly Moshe sounded under-miked and it was only when his long flowing legato lines developed squalling overtones that he really cut through the dense ensemble. Downs kept a constant barrage on his hi-hat throughout, contrasting with more abstract pulsing round the rest of his kit, as part of the group's wall of sound aesthetic.

Dulberger was the star of this particular show—another monster bassist in the making if not yet the finished article. She had a big sound, clear articulation and very fast fingerwork, all put to imaginative use. And she proved a good listener, witnessed by her arco work spicing up a Lavelle solo of alternating high whistles and broken runs, with flurries of sawing and bouncing her bow to weave enhancing colors through the dense rhythmic carpet. A brief duet between Moshe and Lavelle closed proceedings drawing a healthy reaction from the home town crowd.

The Ayler Project

Roy Campbell

Next up was Roy Campbell's eagerly anticipated Ayler Project in its first time before an American audience (as a concept though not as a band, as this configuration featured at the Vision Festival in 2003,) following widely lauded European appearances. Trumpeter Campbell was part of another Albert Ayler tribute band in Marc Ribot's Spiritual Unity, but surpassed the heights reached by that aggregation with this new band featuring an all- star cast of Joe McPhee on reeds and pocket trumpet, the great William Parker on bass and master percussionist Warren Smith on drums. Their transcendent mix of Ayler tunes, group improvisations and spirited interplay was one of the highpoints of the Festival.

In a ritual beginning, Smith circled the stage tinkling little bells before smiting a gong to cue Campbell's incantation of Ayler's "Music Is the Healing Force of the Universe," with a chorus of affirmation from the rest of the band. McPhee's slow burning tenor saxophone emerged, quickly partnered by Campbell's incisive trumpet and with Parker riffing and Smith rolling, we had lift-off in a swirl of intertwining, soaring, diverging and mingling lines. Campbell and McPhee jostled in loose counterpoint, their elegiac horns soulful and relaxed, but always able to retrace the compositional thread binding them together. While at the same time the rhythm pairing of Smith and Parker could go wherever the moment took them and effortlessly adjust to the subtly changing landscape. Melodic themes, including Campbell's "Blues for Albert and Don Ayler," came and went interspersed with squalling outbursts in their playful sparring. Campbell's first solo packed real emotional gravity, slow growling as he bent backwards, over Smith's fragmented tumbling.

For their second piece, an opening duet of McPhee's pocket trumpet and Campbell's flute touched on oriental sonorities before metamorphosing into Don Ayler's beautiful "Our Prayer," the theme reverentially introduced by a dual trumpet frontline over Parker's arco drone and Smith's mallet rolls. As the energy levels increased by way of interlocking flurries, Campbell stepped out, all squeals and breath sounds, before yet more simpatico interaction with McPhee.

Sadly they were cut off in their prime after forty five-minutes, a victim of sound problems of earlier sets, which had eaten into the evening, in spite of heroic efforts to minimize changeovers. Given a five-minute warning they launched into Ayler's "New Ghosts" at a fast rhythmic shuffle, featuring Campbell in the Mary Maria role ("And night and day will pass away but love will always be") and some appropriately Ayleresque tenor from McPhee, shaking his horn from side to side, as they combined for a tempestuous unison and more sublime interplay, well meriting the standing ovation which greeted their close.

Zim Ngqawana and the Collective Quartet

Collective Quartet was an especially accurate description for the final band of the night, even though they were assembled under the nominal leadership of South African reedman Zim Ngqawana. Adding weight to the group ethic alongside Ngqawana were Matthew Shipp at the piano, William Parker a holdover on bass, and Nasheet Waits behind the drumkit. While on recordings the saxophonist performs traditional songs of his Xhosa ethnic group, tonight's offering was a free-wheeling group improvisation very much in avant jazz territory.

Ngqawana's flute musings ushered melodic piano, propelled by Wait's brushes for a gentle start, but it wasn't long before Shipp was blending his patented circular chording patterns with forbidding crashes, while the South African wailed on alto saxophone. Parker fuelled the tumult with a deliberate bass latticework while Waits circled restlessly around his kit. As the energy dissipated, Ngqawana walked away from the mic, leaving Shipp's repeated Morse code patterns meshing with Parker's insistently propulsive figures.

Shipp stabbed at the keys to set up a pulse, echoed by Waits then picked up by Parker for a pyrotechnic passage that eventually gave way to a delicate feature for the bassist, in which he alternated his hands on the frets in slo-mo karate style, investigating the harmonics, in stark contrast to the preceding mayhem. Waits was a percussive whirlwind, one of a generation who can do it all and make it seem effortless. Further proof came in a later solo where he incorporated a funky beat into an otherwise cataclysmic onslaught, as if there were two duetting percussionists.

Ngqawana's penchant for repeatedly working over phrases, as he ascended the registers made sublime connection with Shipp's emphatically hammered motifs. On one occasion he took Shipp's rhythmic progression and built from it, bending backwards, into intense overblown howls, over a dense backdrop from the band. In this setting Ngqawana noticeably drew on late period Coltrane, though while he was strongest on tenor he also delivered some very forceful vocalised flutework. But his African heritage was in evidence later as, alternating acappela quacks and squeaks on alto, Ngqawana extemporized an almost spiritual sounding melody which could have come straight from the Townships.

As a soprano saxophone outpouring drew to a close, everyone stilled to leave just Ngqawana quietly musing over Parker's filigree pizzicato for a downbeat finish. Tonight's emcee David Budbill came out to draw the evening to a close, but Shipp obviously wasn't through and started attacking the keyboard again, drawing in the rest of the band for a burning addendum to a set which finally closed after 45-minutes to yet another standing ovation, and was a great way to end the best evening so far.

A full program was in store next day, starting in the early afternoon with a showcase for emerging artists, which featured Seth Meicht's Big Sound Ensemble and the Darius Jones Trio. Standout shows later included a rare performance by Milford Graves and the U.S. debut of Joe Morris' GoGoMambo.

Photo credit

John Sharpe and Frank Rubolino (of Zim Ngqawana)

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