Vision Festival, NYC, Days 6-7: June 16-17, 2012

Vision Festival, NYC, Days 6-7: June 16-17, 2012
John Sharpe BY

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17th Annual Vision Festival
Brooklyn, NY

June 16-17, 2012

Chapter Index
June 16: Steve Swell Quintet / Trio 3 / Jason Kao Hwang Burning Bridge

June 17: Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House / Burnt Sugar Holy Ghost & Fire / Rob Brown/Daniel Levin / Kidd Jordan Quintet
Festival Wrap Up

June 16: Steve Swell Quintet / Trio 3 / Jason Kao Hwang Burning Bridge

You couldn't wish for a better start to the evening than trombonist Steve Swell's super charged ensemble. Swell had selected his colleagues wisely. Everyone proved adept at propounding his gritty themes with verve, before utilizing them as launch pads for a series of hot solos. Chris Forbes, the sort of pianist who very quickly creates a stir, surged out of the tunes with knuckled clusters and forearms in glissandos which stretched from top to bottom of the keyboard as hammered simultaneously in the bass register. In terms of high-octane exhilaration, he showed some affinity with John Blum, another pyrotechnical keyboard artist who has graced the brassman's Slamming The Infinite combo—witness his outings on Live @ The Vision Festival (Not Two, 2007) and 5000 Poems (Not Two, 2009).

On alto saxophone Rob Brown was an inspired presence. His acerbic-toned expositions ricocheted at unsettling angles, invoking bridled chaos. Although at times he might sound completely outside any order, he knew exactly where he was. That went for the leader as well, his unpredictable undulating lines matching his bending and twisting frame as he ducked and swayed, inspired by the music.

Hilliard Greene on bass and Michael TA Thompson on drums meshed thoughtfully, manipulating an elastic pulse. Thompson deftly combined keeping free with keeping time, and still finding opportunity for glancing commentary on the shells of his drums. But structure was never far away: in one malleted statement, he started on floor tom, then moving around his kit in purposeful eruptions before cutting loose and then suddenly pausing to usher in the staggered theme reiteration. Greene added grain as well as tempo, showing his range in one feature where widely spaced, resounding notes contrasted with arco outbursts of ever increasing anxiety.

Tight yet loose at same time, the band performed with a heightened emotional resonance as exemplified by their second number, which began with a richly nuanced Swell intro, presaging a vaguely oriental head, doubled by Brown's alto. As was ever likely, such organization then dissolved into an apparently unscripted give and take, prior to a perfectly judged synchronous reentry. Later the reverse held true as the trombonist pontificated while the band slowly cohered around him, until they leapt into a passage of syncopated swing in 4/4 time. One of hallmarks of the group was the knotty interaction behind the soloist, unlocking exciting pockets of sound to be navigated. Forbes enthusiastically shone in this regard, even having to literally hold onto his hat at one point, something which the audience only had to do metaphorically during this excellent set.

Trio 3

A buzz of anticipation coursed through the auditorium before the appearance of veteran collective Trio 3, who stand as one of the preeminent working units of the present era, with more than a 30-year history behind them. Their democratic ethos was evident both in the space allowed for each member and in the repertoire itself, featuring six charts drawn from across the band. But as if to demonstrate that they could do it all, they opened with an improvisation, which saw bassist Reggie Workman blowing on his pickup for an ambient whooshing, through which percolated Oliver Lake's emotive alto saxophone cries.

Exploitation of freedom within frameworks was one of the joys of Trio 3's performance. Each knows the other so well that they can leave space to be filled and still pick up and keep the inner logic to what sounds like a completely unscripted extemporization, as on the drummer Andrew Cyrille's stop-start "Fate," with its hanging suspensions where Lake, glorying in his distinctive sour/sweet tone, switched between thematic and off-the-cuff outbursts. The group achieved a similar effect on the reedman's "Debts" as bass and drums accelerated into a headlong tumble, before slowing as the author entered, accompanied only by Cyrille's sticks on the shells of his toms.

Cyrille has long been one of the most graceful of avant jazz drummers, as he confirmed in an accomplished display, immaculately balancing sound and silence on Lake's "Lope." Each member took on the allotted roles of the jazz trio, but then executed them in unanticipated ways. That was never more true than in the stickman's "The Navigator," where after a rubato false-fingered opening by Lake, the subsequent interchange felt like a deconstruction of the jazz trio, bringing to mind the band's acclaimed Time Being (Intakt, 2007) in terms of dismantling structures into fragments of melody and rhythm. At the finale, Lake worked himself up into a fine frenzy, alternating his coruscating runs with vocal shouts and stamping his foot on the spot. At the conclusion of their set the audience leapt to their feet in vocal approbation.

There wasn't a weak act all evening. Under the title Premiere, a threesome of vocalist Thomas Buckner and the increasingly familiar twinning of flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist extraordinaire Joëlle Léandre—heard to positive advantage on Before After (Rogue Art, 2011)—lined up across the stage. Each listened intently to the other as their intersecting lines and timbral gestures coalesced into an ongoing flow.

Buckner's wordless vocals blended well with the two women, both of whom used their voices alongside their instruments. This was a group creation, with brief individual vignettes appearing naturally from the flow. Mitchell was at her most timbrally inventive, creating a symbiosis of flute and voice with multiphonics and trills. Leandre was typically exuberant, effortlessly deploying stunning technique and tone, and at one juncture bowing while at the same time creating a pizzicato rhythm on two strings. Collective in the true sense of word, and all about communication between three consummate musicians who transcend their instruments.

Jason Kao Hwang's Burning Bridge

Closing out the penultimate evening, Jason Kao Hwang's Burning Bridge expounded four movements from a Chamber Music America commission which featured an augmented version of his talented group Edge, heard on the acclaimed Crossroads Unseen (Eunonymous, 2011). Hwang's arrangements leavened melodicism with adventurous textures, giving birth to complex and varied backing for solos, which at times recalled Charles Mingus in their infectious holler. The horns riffed joyously in support of first Taylor Ho Bynum's wah-wahed cornet and later the leader's testifying violin.

Unusual juxtapositions blossomed from the charts, like the haunting duet for Ken Filiano's peerless arco bass and Wang Guowei's beautifully evocative erhu (a one-stringed Chinese violin) which morphed into a heated argument for strings. On drums, Andrew Drury was full of timbral ingenuity, conjuring oriental similes with his use of gongs and cymbals, and a mind-bending array of source materials deployed on his drumheads.

In the second movement there was a forthright clash of cultures between the brass quoting a hymn, and the strings, more ethereal. Swell moved the mind from the sacred to the profane with rapidly articulated, blowsy trombone over a lurching riff, while an interchange between violin and pipa became an exercise in abrasive color. Later Sun Li unveiled plushly shimmering pipa work on the fifth movement (they skipped the fourth due to time constraints). By this late hour, such densely plotted constructs proved hard to grasp, but it made one hope that the work would be recorded in its entirety so it could be appreciated at leisure.

June 17: Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House / Burnt Sugar Holy Ghost & Fire / Rob Brown/Daniel Levin / Kidd Jordan Quintet

Exemplary musicianship was in evidence from the git go in the set from Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House. The German saxophonist gave the nod to guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose slurred and pitch-bending pontifications introduced a series of overlapping interjections from around the band, and later resurfaced in more urgent guise in a conversational exchange with drummer Tom Rainey. It was a bold start, displaying all the strong points of the band: unpredictable compositions that masquerade as improvisation, varied instrumental amalgams, and unusual sonic signatures, especially from Halvorson and the leader.

Sheaves of scores festooned the music stands, but their influence was barely apparent in delivery until an unmistakably preconceived unison phrase or vamp emerged from the middle of a seemingly unfettered discourse. Each of the three numbers followed sometimes mysterious form through multiple sections. As the first progressed, a tricky unison eventually unfurled for the saxophone and piano, shadowed by John Hebert's surefooted bass, before opening out for a puckish interlude of piano, cymbals and spare guitar chords, then signing off with a restatement of the earlier material.

Since moving to New York from London in 2008, Laubrock has continued to take impressive strides in both preordained and unmapped terrains. She has co-opted the free jazz saxophone vocabulary as part of her armory, but this day consistently wrong-footed listeners by placing those sudden snatches of impassioned, overblown tenor in contexts other than the usual roiling ensemble. She pulled the opposite trick, too, steering serene soprano over a thorny backing, then sailing on in an unexpected trajectory as the backing degenerated into a bubbling morass, complete with discordant, scratchy picking from Halvorson.

But the individual talents were largely subsumed to the needs of the music, manifesting only in flashes of individual brilliance. Pianist Kris Davis' longest feature came on the last tune, interacting with a choppy funk rhythm worthy of the dedicatee, Henry Threadgill. Illustrative of the search for unorthodox textures, which also saw Davis delve under the bonnet and Halvorson mimic a detuned koto, Rainey began the third selection by rubbing wet fingers across his drum heads to create a booming sigh, while the tight interaction between Rainey and Hebert was manifest in the start of the second tune, where a drum crash presaged an extended, ominously edgy rhythmic duel, before melding a garrulous soprano and arco bass.

Such involved arrangements depend upon the life breathed into them. Exhilarating at their best, when Anti-House created seamless and spirited transitions from the written to the extemporized, the cerebral nature of events took their toll as interest flagged along with the tautness of the interplay. No doubt with more time to fully inhabit these pieces, the band will scale the heights of their eponymous debut recording (Intakt, 2010).

There was barely room on the Roulette stage for all 16 musicians of Burnt Sugar, who formed quite a spectacle. There was more than a touch of showman about leader Greg Tate who commanded the spotlight wielding his guitar, directing and even orchestrating the band in real time, as when he alternated riffs between the vocalists and horn section, and coaxed an alluring a capella section from the four horns. One noteworthy sequence posited a twosome for Lewis Barnes' waspish trumpet and Avram Fefer's burly tenor saxophone over a steady tempo. The highlight was an extended version of Max Roach's "Driva Man," belted out with gusto by one of the three female vocalists. One cool-looking saxophonist, bedecked in shades and attitude, played curved soprano and alto saxophone simultaneously in an enjoyable set which brought some to their feet in applause at the conclusion.

Rob Brown/ Daniel Levin

The pairing of alto saxophonist Rob Brown and cellist Daniel Levin has an increasingly intertwined back story. Levin, featured in Brown's trio responsible for Sounds (Clean Feed, 2007), was also part of Planet Dream (Clean Feed, 2009) alongside the reedman and trombonist Steve Swell, and perhaps more pertinent to this evening's appearance, combined to sensational effect with Brown on the splendid duo Natural Disorder (Not Two, 2011). What the twosome shared, and perhaps Levin in particular, was that quicksilver facility of ultrafast reactions which meant that the rapport went beyond the means of its transmission.

Of course with Brown, you can never quite get away from his stupendous control of the air passing through the tube of his alto saxophone, as he demonstrated throughout this concert in multiple passages of carefully marshaled overblowing which created a searing, emotionally charged litany of barely suppressed screams and strangled cries. Expressionistic, abstract, spontaneously created. One of the remarkable aspects of Brown's art is that he doesn't repeat himself, and he produced a stream of ideas, one stemming from another in sequences of unbroken invention. He allied prodigious technique with boundless imagination, evoking angst, alienation and a strange beauty, as shown in his unaccompanied feature for the third piece.

Brown stood immobile, as distinct to Levin who, although seated, swung, cocked his head and seemed to live each note. This was a meeting of equals in that Levin never opted for the supporting role the cello sometimes takes as an ersatz bass. Here it was much more akin to another horn. Levin wore his skill lightly but his mastery was readily apparent. At one point he essayed a deep drone while interpolating harp-like plucks. Cello and alto made a compelling blend, complementary as when both intermingled on same note to finish their second piece, but sometimes contrasting and percussive and just occasionally lyrical. Their swansong was low key and lyrical, although by this time they were competing against the noise from the lobby.

Kidd Jordan Quintet

To close out the festival, a star-studded cast had been assembled around New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan to play to his strength of spontaneous, high energy expression. JD Parran largely played the role of colorist on bass saxophone, filling in behind Jordan, although he enjoyed one striking outing in which he alternated histrionic screeches against staccato foghorn blasts. Charles Gayle appeared with his tenor saxophone promising a fine clash of the titans, but in actual fact spent much of the set at the piano. Helming them all was the mighty coupling of drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker who eschewed the grooves which has made them such a sought after rhythm team for a more abstract pulse. But even so, there was still opportunity for Drake to exchange rhythmic attacks with the leader in a sustained middle-register assault.

There was always a link to the tradition in Jordan's freewheeling universe, whether it was a reference to "Chasin' the Trane" or blues intonations amid the excursions into the upper partials. Although Jordan sounded slightly tentative to begin, he came into his own as he quoted "Motherless Child" and channeling Coltrane he edged majestically into his characteristic pliant falsetto, at one point going so high as to lift himself up onto the tips of his toes. Meanwhile, Gayle dropped bombs into the discourse, using clusters belayed with the flats of his hands and block chording, but functioned primarily as a further colorist, in contrast to other pianists who traded in this currency this week—like Cooper-Moore, Dave Burrell and Chris Forbes. While he imparted passion, his flurries lacked depth and didn't quite go beyond the expected forearm smash to the keys. In a more effective gambit he stabbed repeated patterns from selected portions of the keyboard to convey a rhythmic counterpoint.

Only when Jordan had received the five minute warning, did Gayle strap on his tenor saxophone. By this point the intensity had already ratcheted up a notch with both Jordan and Parran braiding lacerating hollers. Once Gayle added his incendiary melismatic honk it was as if the music of the gods were bestowed upon us, and enough in itself to bring forth a standing ovation when they finished.

Festival Wrap Up

2012's Vision Festival matched the best in recent memory with outstanding sets, spread liberally throughout the week. Those which particularly stuck in the mind were the explosive pairing of Matthew Shipp and Paul Dunmall, the whole of the second night—but especially the sets by Farmers By Nature and In Order To Survive, Joe McPhee's collaboration with The Thing, Eternal Unity, the duet between Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes, Steve Swell's Quintet and Trio 3. With such a vibrant feel to the event it would be no surprise were the Vision Festival to continue to thrive in Brooklyn in future years. As the prime showcase for free jazz NYC style, one can only hope that continued artistic success continues to trump the hostile economic climate.

Photo Credits

All Photos: John Sharpe

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