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Vision Festival 2009: Day 5

John Sharpe By

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With the bar set high, taking on the next set was a challenge which alto saxophonist and composer Rob Brown (on left) took in his stride. A world class talent who too infrequently gets the chance to play on his home turf, Brown is a good example of why the Vision Festival is so important. Joining him tonight was the prodigious Craig Taborn on piano and the controlled explosion which was Nasheet Waits on drums for a program of four pieces during their 50-minute set.

An involved piano/alto unison over clattering drums quickly gave way to diverging lines as Brown took off on a quicksilver exposition in a wonderful high energy opener. As Brown peaked with sustained high falsetto wails, drums and piano were in hyperactive support, with Taborn's hands galloping up and down the keys. Waits was very busy but always precise and cleanly articulated. At one point he hit his ride cymbal so fast it hardly had time to vibrate, in a masterful display of the percussive arts.

Brown's marvelously inventive lines were controlled in delivery and nuanced in tone, with his trademark edge of controlled distortion close at hand to color almost every note he played. Over recent years he has added a forcefulness to the tender side of his sour sweet storytelling which really came to the fore tonight. In Taborn he has found the perfect partner whose ability to pursue separate lines in each hand can mirror Brown in compelling invention. His solo on the second piece was a case in point. After a bluesy start, he slowly chorded with his left hand, while his right raced away fingers dancing, skittering and stabbing, culminating in a breath-taking sequence of ominous two handed lines.

This was a powerhouse group, reaching screaming intensity at times, but allying that strength with wisdom in its use. Everything came together at the conclusion of the set as Brown's initially quizzical line built to a searing crescendo, with Taborn hammering the keys and Waits pounding his kit for an emotionally charged passage of amazing potency. Another standing ovation was their due for one of the high points of the Festival.

Milford Graves Quartet

Milford Graves

There was a palpable sense of anticipation before Milford Graves' set. The veteran drummer and educator hadn't played the Vision Festival for five years and doesn't have too many gigs in New York City, and this was to be the premiere of his new quartet, featuring pianist D.D. Jackson. Having studied with the great Don Pullen, Jackson's inclusion immediately brought to mind those classic early sides Graves recorded with Pullen on the long out of print Nommo (SRP, 1966). Anyone with an inkling of how they sounded would not have been disappointed with the wall of sound barrage which awaited.

Graves is something of a showman, even carrying band members around on his shoulders in previous performances. Tonight they all remained tied by the force of gravity, and the drummer's theatricality was restricted to his entrance. On a home-made talking drum, Graves began in the wings, before circling the stage as he played until concluding with a puckish "Good Evening." After positioning himself behind his customized kit he launched a tumultuous pounding, speaking in self-invented tongues in accompaniment. Jackson slipped onstage and began beating the hell out of his piano, with Graves looking delighted. Jackson rocked backwards and forwards as he assaulted the piano in a display of amazing high energy playing. Graves summoned first William Parker to leap into the fray, then tenor saxophonist Grant Langford for a veritable wall of sound.

Graves leavened his ferocious power with a distinctive timbral palette courtesy of his customized kit, but he also demonstrated an uncanny ability to maintain separate rhythms on different parts of his kit, so at times it sounded as if there were at least two drummers involved. Though the group generally operated at flat out intensity, it was like a spicy meal where you can still taste the full range of flavors once you get used to the heat, with shifting patterns revealing themselves to the discerning listener within the overall tumult. Parker's approach was similar to his tactic with Cecil Taylor, a flow of constantly changing propulsive patterns.

Graves took time out to talk about the three generations of musicians in the band, with Langford the youngest member, and how musicians from the 1950s and '60s could be a timely inspiration to the younger generation in showing that you can do it for yourselves. Langford held his own without overpowering, building with short gobbets of overblown sound, trading licks with Jackson and even finding space for more delicate whinnies. Jackson clearly relished the challenge to ensure he was heard, supplementing his strong runs with block chords, flats of hands and elbows as necessary to get his point over. A wonderful rousing set and yet another well-merited standing ovation.


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