23rd Annual Vision Festival
New York, NY
May 23-28, 2018
The Vision Festival somewhat surprisingly but reassuringly stands proud as the longest-lived annually produced jazz festival in New York. While the central plank remains what the Festival terms avant jazz, it's interspersed with poetry, dance, art, and film in a way which matches rather than detracts from the music. For its 23rd edition the Festival returned to Brooklyn's Roulette after three years in the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where there was more space but problematic acoustics. Aside from the music, some of the great things about Vision are its comparatively small size, the warmth of a community coming together and single venue location. It remains the pre-eminent place to hear many of the luminaries in what can loosely be termed American free jazz in a short span of time, and as a consequence attracts attendees from across the globe to its six days of festivities.
Dave Burrell Celebration
Every year the Vision Festival honors one of its own with an evening's celebration. Past celebrants have included Sam Rivers
, Fred Anderson
, Muhal Richard Abrams
, Kidd Jordan
, Marshall Allen
, Bill Dixon
, Milford Graves
, Henry Grimes
, Peter Brötzmann
and Joe McPhee
. This year the deserving recipient was pianist Dave Burrell
who was showcased in three sets which kick-started the Festival out of the start gate with a bang. Burrell first came to prominence as one of the few pianists able to chisel out a niche in the in the 1960s New Thing. Since then he's enjoyed long associations with saxophonist David Murray
and bassist William Parker
, but has also fashioned a body of work which attests to his interest in not only forward looking practices but also in more traditional forms such as ragtime and stride piano as well as classical opera. The sold out evening provided a suitably widescreen appreciation of Burrell's art.
For the first set Burrell mustered an all star crew to present his most recent project Harlem Renaissance, inspired by the 1918-38 artistic flowering in Harlem. Straight from the opening "Paradox Of Freedom" the tight arrangements made it clear that this was a well-rehearsed band. The transitions between the bluesy tilt set out in the opening and the unfettered autonomy which blossomed from alto saxophonist Darius Jones
' curdled sustains and trombonist Steve Swell
's blustery fanfares were glorious. This was one of the most convincing ensemble readings of Burrell's music ever and how fitting that it came on an evening of celebration.
A dirge-like unison heralded a darker more yearning ambience in "Full-Blown Rhapsody," illuminated by an electrifying unison shriek from Swell and Jones. Here too Burrell sprang into freeform thunder as Jones began to smolder. The final number "Red Summer March" began with drummer Andrew Cyrille
's unaccompanied tattoo, referencing marching licks with a broad grin. A bass drum fusillade released the tension, leading to a series of overlapping rhythms which recalled Anthony Braxton
, while bassist Harrison Bankhead
kept up a two note pulse. Up till this point Burrell had been content for his conception to stand center stage, but here he too took a solo, off kilter meter vying with backhand flicks, merging with Cyrille's rat-ta-tat. It was a fantastic start to the evening and constituted one of the best ever Vision opening sets.
And there was more to come. One of the young Burrell's first major employers was saxophonist Archie Shepp
, and tonight they were reunited, a day short of the reedman's 81st birthday, for the first time in almost a decade. Billed as the Archie Shepp Quartet, the pair were joined by the stellar rhythm pairing of William Parker and Hamid Drake
, to revisit some of Shepp's extensive back catalogue. Although past dental problems mean the saxophonist uses a curious embouchure which envelops the mouthpiece, what he lacks in precision he more than makes up for in feeling. That was obvious from the opening notes of "Sonny" his tribute to Rollins, which he endowed with rough hewn muscularity, against pneumatic backing from Parker and Drake. Burrell's splendidly askew comping both punctuated and complemented Shepp throughout as they rolled back the years.
An affecting rendition of "In A Sentimental Mood" matched the accompanying visuals displaying snapshots from Burrell's career. Shepp introduced "Revolution" as "a piece I wrote for my grandmother," before spiraling upwards on soprano sax and then reciting the combustible "Mama Rose" over a rippling beat. Burrell's feature at this point was really a spare jabbing duet with Drake's buoyant polyrhythms, testament to the special connection between them. Although Burrell's role was primarily supporting in this format, he nonetheless provided the critical underpinning throughout, cosseting the romance and stretching the harmonies, as borne out by their version of "Crucificado," a Burrell tune from Shepp's Montreux One
(Arista Freedom, 1976). Like the whole set it afforded a wonderful stroll through the history of both men.
For the final set of the evening, Burrell abandoned charts entirely in the company of Parker, Cyrille, and an intergenerational pairing of fiery saxophonists in Kidd Jordan and James Brandon Lewis
, to proffer more typical Vision Festival fare. There can be few players who can inhabit the extremes of inside and outside as well as Burrell. He opened by throwing in a few twisted piano phrases and the band leapt in to follow, starting at red-lining intensity and staying there. Jordan's alternately searing and beseeching falsetto forged a pleasing counterbalance to Lewis' roaring overblown tenor and guttural honks. For his part Burrell was indefatigable, energized by the potent outpouring and fuelling it with two handed clusters and astringent pokes.
Jordan has been unwell and cut a physically frail figure, but he held his own, albeit occasionally taking a breather by the piano. The saxophonist and pianist possess a singular bond, evident in how they affectionately egged each other on in a no holds barred spectacle. The two tenors took on a testifying air, particularly when Jordan cycled through his "Motherless Child/Chasing the Trane" licks, but Lewis refused to follow suit, maintaining a purposeful arc to the set. A master at this type of event, Cyrille stoked the fires without ever resorting to all out tumult allowing Burrell to probe the spaces with a kind of fractured barrelhouse, creating a bridge between disparate styles, something which has defined his considerable career.
As usual in a festival setting the highlights didn't always appear where you predicted. With a discography which includes tenure on the classic Blue Note imprint, the appearance of trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire
seemed slightly out of place for the Vision Festival. But what his set with pianist Kris Davis
and drummer Tyshawn Sorey
proved was that in this music preconceptions should be tossed aside. The invitation to participate followed Akinmusire's residence at The Stone in January 2018 where this unit first gathered. As it happened their spontaneously navigated outing was probably the highlight of the week. They began with Akinmusire laying out a quiet but wiry melodic line, detailed with sharp accents from Sorey. Davis interpolated some lovely echoing of Sorey in the bass register before settling into a lilting vamp. The trumpeter offered some distant sighs, and it was clear that this was going to be special.
So it proved as Akinmusire passionate but restrained simmered over a rolling cadence. Davis and Sorey have partnered before in trio format with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock
in Paradoxical Frog, and seem especially tuned to each others wavelength. An explosive piano drums duet culminated in Davis stacking up the harmonics on top of each other against Sorey's shimmering cymbal wash. The festival audience was gripped in rapt attention even during passages of almost silence. Akinmusire extemporized a bittersweet melody lighting a slow burning fuse of reiterated piano kernels which branched out across the keyboard. At times they generated an almost unbearable tension as Davis hammered with Morse code urgency and the trumpeter countered with forceful rejoinders, but resolved it in the best possible way. An absolute triumph.
Nasheet Waits Equality Quartet
Drummer Nasheet Waits
presented his Equality Quartet with the same all star lineup which waxed Between Nothingness And Infinity
(Laborie Jazz, 2017) and he gave them plenty to do in a sometimes incendiary storm force collision of freedom and structure. It seemed in this festival that the presence of saxophonist Darius Jones was a sure guarantee of quality. His drenched-in-passion wail was totally apt for the rootsy vibe of the opening tune. On piano Aruán Ortiz
swayed back and forth on his stool as he added spiky comping and block chords injunctions behind Jones' volcanic solo.
Waits was going all out, and using solo spots to act as transitions between pieces. In its initial sparseness, the second number provided a contrast to the previous furore. Ortiz reached under the lid to attenuate the resonance, while Jones' breath sounds splintered into a choked yowl. Ortiz leaned away from the piano as he soloed as if it was too hot, gradually escalating in contrapuntal energy, before pulling back to fit with Waits' cymbal pulse. In ballad style with broad vibrato Jones freighted even the simplest phrases with emotional depth, while on bass Mark Helias
mixed darkly resonant abrasion with moments of alluring fragility. Waits was evidently pumped by the end and deservedly so.
Mutations For Justice
A start which involved chanting with candles in the darkened auditorium certainly didn't help clarify expectations of the premier of vocalist Fay Victor
's Mutations For Justice. But once she, drummer Michael Vatcher
, bassist Luke Stewart
and trumpeter Jaimie Branch
made it onto stage hopes were more than met in a set which took minimal compositions, with Victor's words addressing the times and actions of the Trump presidency, as the starting point for some spirited interaction. At times the blend between Branch's formidable trumpet inflections, using half valve effects to bend her notes around Victor's forthright tones, bordered on the sublime. Vatcher found numerous ways to carve out idiosyncratically funky grooves in harness with Stewart's unruly riffs. Victor's chorus of "Stormy Daniels I love you" during one piece drew guffaws from the partisan audience and their set formed an unanticipated high point.
The Final Night
If the festival started with a bang, four superb performances on the final night made sure it didn't go out with a whimper. Jaimie Branch's Fly Or Die
(International Anthem) was one of 2017's most acclaimed releases so there was great interest in what a live rendition might entail. Drummer Chad Taylor
was a holdover from the record, but the ringers were bassist Anton Hatwich
, flown in from Chicago, and young cellist about town Lester St Louis
. They reprised the written themes from the album in an unbroken performance which, in its tremendous dynamic pacing, alternating fast and slow and loud and quiet, discordant timbral polarity and expansive exploration, even surpassed it. Taylor once again proved himself a tremendous asset in any music which marries the earthy and the cerebral, starting by setting out an infectious vamp over which Branch span melodic variations. There was a rich lyric core to the trumpeter's sound, in which she shows an affinity Bill Dixon in her painterly smears and incantatory repetition.
Thereafter they subsided to something more textural in a daringly slow exchange between bowed bass and cello, before a whip crack from Taylor's snare initiated another galloping lope. Branch's experimental nature revealed itself in episodes where she circular breathed a gusty growling drone, and later took a sip of water to blow through her mouthpiece like a bubbling geyser. They ended the set with another punchy theme, varied with broad vibrato, and purveyed with great panache, which brought the house down. What a start.
Next up was a solo piano set from Cooper-Moore
, himself the honoree of last year's Festival. The improvised set entitled A Mourning Dove's Call was dedicated to his parents, indicative of the emotional weight he invested in the performance which was by turns flailingly volatile, carefully considered and exquisitely lyrical. He inserted natural pauses in the proceedings when he took of his jacket or took a drink of water, but he otherwise delivered a stream of consciousness informed by a lifetime's experience. At one point a syncopated melody harkened back to early swing. But heavy drama abounded as vocal utterances vied with layers of overtones piled atop one another, as if thunder clouds were building. Capricious digressions toward the extremes took him away from meter, but then he would gravitate back to funk, ragtime and gospel or a compound of all three and more, as "I Have A Friend In Jesus" surfaced among other themes. There was also a tenderly beautiful dedication to his fallen colleague David S. Ware
, which segued straight into something more bracingly robust climaxing in an explosion of forearms and elbows on the keyboard and back of hand glissandos. Finally he stilled as looked searchingly at the keyboard as if trying to find the right notes before resuming hymn-like, but with the merest hints of dissonance to puncture any sentimentality.
Billed as New World Pygmies in acknowledgement of a recording on Eremite from 2001, the trio of alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc
, bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake united for three numbers. Moondoc sounded as good as ever, his melodic rhythmic fragments colored with hoarse whispers, wavering howls and stifled shouts. The simple line of trombonist Steve Swell's "Childsplay" provided ample scope to revel in Parker and Drake's mutating rhythmic carpet against which Moondoc pitched his vibrato-laden buzzsaw tone, rejoicing in a righteous burnished lustre and a blues-infused tonality. "And What Not," another sing song line found Moondoc investigating hypnotic variations, extending into wayward slurs while bass and drums not only levitated the bandstand but made it dance, reviving the old magic. Moondoc's anguished vocalized holler intersected with Parker's moaning bowing to great effect on the dirge-like third piece, transmitting huge depth of feeling. Sadly their set was curtailed by time constraints and over way too soon.
There's often a large ensemble for the Festival finale, but this year rather than a one-off grouping, saxophonist Oliver Lake
's long-established Big Band did the honors. This is a big band for people who don't like big bands, the tradition given the sort of twists and turns valued in Lake's small group works. He assembled a star-studded cast which included Darius Jones and Alex Harding
among the saxophones and Adam O'Farrill
in the brass, but the whole group, many of whom have been with Lake for years, proved both audacious and tight. They started with "Is It Real" from Wheels
(Passin Thru, 2013), a tune that moved from slow group emphases to cinematic Mingus-esque polyphony, incorporating outstanding solos from Bruce Williams
on alto saxophone, Jones in tandem with James Stewart
on tenor, O'Farrill on trumpet, and the leader himself solely in the altissimo register. "Say What" again featured Jones impassioned alto, until gradually subsumed by the squeals and cries of the entire band, and a string of adventurous solos thereafter primarily in the company of the rhythm section of pianist Yoichi Uzecki, bassist Robert Sabin
and drummer Chris Beck
"Round 2000" from Cloth (Passin Thru, 2003) showcased Uzecki's talent as he moved from accompanying an elegant pizzicato excursion by Sabin to his own feature which incorporated a whole litany of moves under the bonnet, as he interposed rubbed wires and dampened keys between flowing lines and tripping figures. The corkscrewing lines and exuberant riffs of the last number presaged another lacerating outing from Williams whose sudden plunges into a gruff bottom register peppered his braying outburst, before the red light cued the band introductions, with sheaves of material still untouched in spite of the 45-minutes already passed. It was a fine close to the night and the Festival itself.
There were any number of other worthwhile moments during the Festival. Honorable mentions go to guitarist Mary Halvorson
's Code Girl, which recalled some of the late Steve Lacy
's work in its angular instrumental and vocal amalgam, playing tunes from their eponymous debut. Amirtha Kidambi
's voice, sometimes singing Halvorson's enigmatic lyrics, at other times declaiming wordlessly, was well-integrated into an exemplary ensemble which also featured some intensely scorching trumpet from Adam O'Farrill as well as shredding guitar from the leader. Cohesive interplay through sometimes woozily elastic episodes was a given with bassist Michael Formanek
and drummer Tomas Fujiwara
, colleagues from co-operative trio Thumbscrew, on board. Halvorson's compositional skills continue to grow and astound and her love of odd, but in a good way, endings to her distinctively knotty works was a hallmark of the set, sometimes enticing the audience into premature applause.
The phenomenal combination of flautist Nicole Mitchell
, bassist Joëlle Léandre
and violinist Melanie Dyer
came together with the dance and voice of Patricia Nicholson
under the banner Women With An Axe To Grind. They specialized in astonishingly quicksilver seat-of-the-pants exhortation, both guided by and steering Nicholson's movement. There were some tremendous exchanges as Léandre's jagged arco constructs jostled with Mitchell's percolating vocalized flute and Dyer's soaring violin. They all contributed to the theatrical aspect too, with Léandre echoing some of Nicholson's politically-steeped phrases and rounds of harsh sighs fizzing around the stage, in a set which prompted a standing ovation.
Irreversible Entanglements merged contagious grooves sustained by bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes
, the freewheeling horns of alto saxophonist Keir Neuringer
and trumpeter Aquiles Navarro
and the forthright supercharged poetry of Camae Ayewa in an invigorating set, which reflected their eponymous 2017 debut on International Anthem. Anthemic themes vied with percussive interludes, which saw everyone beating something, and bickering horn solos. One squealing snarling outburst from Neuringer was particularly noteworthy.
Multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter
stepped into the void left when a poet pulled out of the planned schedule to deliver a short but poignant and heartfelt tribute to his late wife, painter Marilyn Sontag. Carter moving between trumpet, soprano and alto saxophones mingled quiet meditation and keening cry, while pianist Matthew Shipp
and bassist William Parker fashioned a restless occasionally percussive backdrop, though often seeming to take their lead from Carter in a piercingly sensitive performance.
At the opposite pole Norwegian reedman Frode Gjerstad
's quartet featuring trombonist Steve Swell took no prisoners. Starting at fever pitch and returning there at every opportunity they collectively traversed uncharted waters in a thorny sharp-elbowed version of free jazz. The shared lineage of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love
and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten
in The Thing resulted in an especially solid and responsive foundation upon which Gjerstad and Swell indulged in conversational repartee which inevitably became heated. The four distinct but finely tuned personalities proved masters at mixing such mercurial extemporization with more reflective interweaving in which a repeated note motif from one player could quickly solidify across the ensemble before they moved on to the next idea.
Particular recognition should be given to "Inward Motion" the piece commissioned from pianist Matthew Shipp by the New York State Council on the Arts. For the performance Shipp had gathered a diverse group of improvisers, who he conducted from the front of the stage, occasionally moving behind the piano for particular sections. In some ways the piece resembled one of Shipp's early dates such as Strata
(Hatology, 1997) or Magnetism
(Bleu Regard, 1999), in that it was divided into separate cells which each spotlighted different subsets of the whole ensemble, while few sequences promoted the complete group. Without overt thematic material, it was left to Shipp to direct the dialogue, opening with Newman Taylor Baker
rustling on drums and Michael Bisio
's plucked spurts. Mat Walerian
on clarinet and Jason Kao Hwang
on violin seemed to emulate sirens in loose unison, before stilling to allow Nate Wooley
to hold forth. He adds a striking voice to whatever projects he's in. His little vocal exclamations between his ululating whistles, locomotive chuffing and powerful squalls furnished a human dimension to his boundless imagination.
When the section for the whole group came it resembled a swirling vortex. While most of the sequences tended towards the abstract, there were two exceptions. Firstly during the group tutti in which Bisio and Baker slipped into a jazzy swing, augmented by a loose polyphony between the horns and violin, when as if to undercut the consonant aura, Shipp went to the piano and belayed tolling tremolos and pummeling clusters. Conversely the second was an interlude for solo piano in which Shipp waxed songlike and romantic. In some ways it was a hard listen coming right at the end of a Friday night, and might have benefited from being programmed earlier during the evening when ears were fresh.
To conclude this year's Vision Festival was a dramatic confirmation of the health of avant jazz, in that a number of younger voices were triumphantly heard, supplementing the familiar old guard, who are becoming thinner on the ground with each passing year. Even better was that it all took place in an intimate venue with excellent sound and a terrific audience. Here's looking forward to more of the same next year.