Vision Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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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.

Honorable Mentions

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.
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