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Vision Festival 2018

John Sharpe By

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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.

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