Vision Festival, Days 3-5: New York City, NY, June 13-15, 2012

Vision Festival, Days 3-5: New York City, NY, June 13-15, 2012
John Sharpe By

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Days 1-2 | Days 3-5 | Days 6-7
17th Annual Vision Festival
Brooklyn, NY

June 11-17, 2012

Wednesday night at the Vision Festival was given over to the celebration of a lifetime of achievement by multi-instrumentalist, Joe McPhee, a deserving and popular choice. In presenting him with the envelope (presumably holding a check), Patricia Nicholson Parker said that he didn't blow his own horn—not the most apt metaphor, but the meaning was clear and the truth evident throughout the evening. McPhee's modesty has seen him open to collaboration with unlikely allies across the globe, and it was typical of the man that so much of the time on this special occasion would be shared with others.

Chapter Index
June 13: Angels, Devils and Haints II / The Thing with Joe McPhee

June 14: Eternal Unity / Ivo Perelman Trio / Hamid Drake's Lhasa

June 15: From Bebop To Free-bop / Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes

June 13: Angels, Devils and Haints II / The Thing with Joe McPhee

One important benefit of the award was that it allowed the honoree to handpick his colleagues for his performance. He took the opportunity to assemble a large ensemble for the first time in the US, to present a long-form conduction. Named after a work recorded on the CJR label documenting his saxophone with a lineup of four basses, Angels, Devils and Haints II replicated the quadruple bass concept, but expanded it with four additional players and two percussionists. Assisting him were confreres from several familiar aggregations: bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen from Trio X; bassist William Parker, drummer Rocker Warren Smith and trumpeter Roy Campbell from the Tribute To Albert Ayler band; and bassist Michael Bisio and saxophonist Joe Giardullo from Bluette.

While a little tentative in places, there were still an ample number of strong passages to savor. Unsurprisingly, they coincided with the principal's exuberant blowing on tenor saxophone, his glorious wail hitting like a wave of endorphins. His rapport with fellow saxophonist Joe Giardullo on curved soprano stood out as their twin horns entwined in an anthemic colloquy. But those episodes were not investigated at length, as the leader rang the changes frequently by means of hand directions, varying the dynamics from full bore to the merest of whispers.

For such a sizable group they were capable of extreme restraint, as in the early duet between Campbell's puckish trumpet and Rosi Hertlein's abstract violin. Later she indicated the swiftness of connection between brain and hands, singing in unison to her elongated lines. Many short vignettes peppered the gauzy oratory, with Steve Swell's rumbustious, declamatory trombone particularly noteworthy, but the whole cast were masters at this sort of unpremeditated creation. Understanding built from prior liaisons helped, as in one passage featuring Trio X plus Bisio, where Duval slapped the body of his bass percussively while the saxophonist emoted lyrically, still orchestrating with one hand while he blew.

Between times there was a set from Sonny Simmons on alto saxophone and English horn, with the leader's astringent, writhing alto mingling pleasingly with the slashing electric guitar of the young Thomas Bellier, supported by pulsing accompaniment from Warren Smith and William Parker.

On alto saxophone, McPhee also backed a stylish dance piece by Jason Jordan and two fellows, with a honeyed melancholy. As dancers circled each other in slow motion, the saxophonist sang through his horn, to electrifying effect, eventually touching on one of his favorite themes, the beautiful folk melody from Dvorak's New World Symphony, "Goin' Home," occasionally glancing up to see what they were doing. He slowed to soft breath sounds and then stopped altogether, standing motionless as the dance continued, Jordan even leaning on him at one point. After a long pause, he resumed, once more with the same tune. Their set formed a cooling interlude in the more heady fare.

The Thing with Joe McPhee

The best, though, was saved for last. As it happened, the celebration fell midway through a North American tour for McPhee in the company of Scandinavian power trio The Thing. It displayed another side of the veteran American, both in terms of his wide ranging alliances, but also his propensity for abstraction and frenetic annunciation. Everyone lined up across the stage, underlining equality. In The Thing's universe, punk energy and attitude fuse unconcernedly with post-Ayler fire and fierce prowess, creating a stimulating and visceral cocktail. But it's not all 100 miles an hour, though those sections certainly linger in the mind's ear. Quieter melodic interludes offered respite as well as a contrast, which heightened the effect both what preceded and what followed.

The Thing launched first with the American standing to one side, listening. But the powerhouse start soon drew McPhee in, too, his lacerating alto uniting in sublime synergy with Mats Gustafsson's incendiary baritone. A duet for the Swede and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten ensued as drummer Paal Nilssen-Love adjusted his drums, leading into a hymn-like version of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" (covered complete with vocals on the band's startling collaboration with singer Neneh Cherry on The Cherry Thing (Smalltown Supersound, 2012)), into which McPhee threaded a vibrant gospel obbligato.

In a program dominated by covers as diverse as expatriate South African trumpeter Mongezi Feza's "You Ain't Gonna Know Me Cos You Think You Know Me" and Cato Salsa Experience's "Sounds Like A Sandwich," as well as trio originals, McPhee certainly came across as the guest. Obvious attractants of the repertoire to the band seemed the potential for nagging riffs which in their hands took on an incantatory fervor, sometimes as the main event, but also at times forming the central thread, as when anchoring a whirlwind percussion exhibition from Nilssen-Love, which demonstrated astonishing stamina and brutal accuracy.

After Nilssen-Love received a good-natured ribbing from Gustafsson, their second piece, "Viking" authored by the drummer, started with a clarion call from the dual horns, presaging a meaty bass riff and pile-driving tattoo, which dissembled into a free jazz maelstrom. Haker Flaten strummed madly to be heard, inching gradually lower on the fretboard. Later in a less frantic moment he added an eerie vocalized upper register arco cry, emphasizing the wonderful mix of raw force and delicacy which is the Thing's hallmark. Their set made for a slamming finale to the proceedings, and a storming finish brought the audience to its feet.


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