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Starting off the penultimate evening of the 14th Vision Festival on a high note was the triumvirate of trombonist Steve Swell (pictured on left), alto saxophonist Rob Brown and cellist Daniel Levin, combining under the moniker of Planet Dream. Though their new release Planet Dream (Clean Feed, 2009) is under Swell's name, live they appeared a complete collective playing spontaneous improvisations. If the instrumentation provoked thoughts of chamber jazz, then it didn't take long for the execution to suggest otherwise in the three pieces of their 40-minute set.
Although there was a relaxed conversational feel to the opening piece, with the twin horns exchanging repartee over Levin's droning strings, once Levin lay out they worked themselves to a peak of garrulousness. Only on his bowed return did they become more contemplative and tentative at, eventually stopping to leave the cellist alone, bow undulating across the strings. Throughout the set Levin demonstrated a breath-taking command of his axe, moving from fluent almost classically inflected arco to ugly scrapes and scratches, even at one point rapidly tapping the end of his bow on the bridge of his cello evoking a pneumatic drill.
Eventually Swell rejoined, first emptying moisture out as he blew and incorporating these breath sounds into his flow. Swell married rumbustuous expression with fine attention to detail such that every note was invested with a particular weight or shading. Indeed the same was no less true of his confreres, evidenced by Levin's delicate arco work matching Swell's muted whisper in a wide-ranging duet. Later a lovely passage ensued where wavering falsetto cries, squeaks and whistles became so intermingled that it was impossible to pin down the source, making a fitting ending to the opening number.
Though the second piece started off slow and spacey it didn't stay that way and featured a Brown tour de force of upper register squeals with overblown whistles and a guttural edge in a knockout solo. One thing was readily apparent in this year's Festivalif Brown was in it then it was good. Not that Swell or Levin were in any way slouches. Supporting and leading roles blurred or switched at the slightest prompt in the three way dialogue of their excellent set.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.