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Vision Festival X - Day Five, June 18, 2005 (Part 1)

John Sharpe By

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Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 | Day 6
Saturday afternoon at the Vision Festival, was given over to emerging artists. First off there was a session of readings by local poets Brian Boyles, Chavisa Woods, James Hoff and Cat Tyc, which I missed. But I did arrive in time for the music which kicked off at 2.00 pm, in front of a small audience comprising the diehards and the simply curious in about equal measure.

Tyshawn Sorey

The first set featured Tyshawn Sorey on solo piano. If he is known at all, it is as a drummer, having worked with Dave Douglas and Steve Coleman, and featured on a recent live recording of the Sirone-Bang ensemble. Seated at the piano, clad all in black, Sorey struck an imposing presence. He began low key, with restrained renditions, following scores, of two compositions mining a similar terrain of slow, sparse, almost romantic playing, leavened by occasional more emphatic stabs. What came next was more energetic: five improvisations, starting with a pounded investigation of the keyboards extremities, which he developed as a motif in the ensuing improvisation. Sorey approached the piano very much as a sound generator, not only exploring under the lid, but all around the Festival Steinway. He even used his scores to modulate the strings, dampening the sonorities and producing distorted, almost electronic buzzing tones. Later he scrumpled up the scores and rubbed them across the keys before throwing them to the floor, eliciting yells of approval from sometime pianist Cooper-Moore, lying prone in front of the stage!

Sorey also took a drum stick to first the keyboard, then the strings and finally the frame of the piano itself. Almost everything at hand went inside the piano at some stage, including his jacket! It wasn't all contrivance though, his antics were blended with more conventional playing, sometimes gentle, others ferocious. In the last piece his manipulations drew first a koto like twanging from the keyboard, then the sound of pealing bells. After stalking around the piano, and delving once more into its innards, he came back to the keyboard and set up a hyperkinetic blur across the keys, before a forearm smash led to a violent crescendo, concluded by slamming down the lid and leaping up from his stool to great applause from the small audience. Energising stuff, and for some of those present this was the set of the Festival so far.

Otic band

Bassist Todd Nicholson's Otic band was up next, with an unusual all brass frontline. Alongside him were Nate Wooley on trumpet, Tatsuya Nakatani on percussion and Lower East Side trombone stalwart Steve Swell, who together play in a free improv trio under the Blue Collar moniker. Nicholson has played with many luminaries of the NYC scene, including Billy Bang, Frank Lowe and Butch Morris, and was leading an equally talented band here. The three compositions by Nicholson showcased a wide emotional and musical range.

Rumbling drums and ominous arco bass heralded a convoluted horn fanfare, read from scores, before digging in to set up a rolling groove. Swell's trombone chortled sweetly and purposefully over powerful walking bass. Wooley's clean trumpet lines mutated into blistering runs and spurts, then half valve growls. He supplemented long tones with a vocalised buzz, before forcing out gobbets of split notes in a fantastic solo that used extended technique for truly musical ends.

The second piece was looser more like a free improv, developing incrementally from the spectral filaments of Swell's muted vocalisations and Wooley's tremulous multiphonics. Swooshing trombone engaged trumpet blurts and vigorous arco rubs on the bass in a three way conversation, with Nakatani bowing fizzing elongated tones from the side of his snare before contributing clattering percussion. Swell stuttered rapid fire bursts with his slide at its furthest extension, then subsided into a gentle wind, from which emerged the melancholy jointly voiced theme. More improv followed incorporating breath sounds, Nakatani blowing on paper, and minimalist snorts, before the ensembles plaintive lines whispered to a mournful close.

The final piece boasted a joyful up tempo theme over walking bass and a regular pulse on the cymbals. Wooley took another fine solo, boppish, but still incorporating halfnote effects and growls, with Swell voicing supporting riffs. Swell soloed with angular lines around the beat and articulated blaring runs at breakneck speed, while Wooley blew muted fanfares in support. Swell's slide almost touched the floor, then was pointed skyward as he wailed, eyes closed, with a soulful vibrato. Nicholson soloed over light cymbal splashes, his richly toned speech-like lines becoming increasingly animated until he sped into a joyful restatement of the theme. At the close Nicholson said that the pieces didn't have names, but that Wooley called the last piece "Skippydoo, which would do fine. An excellent and engaging set in which the younger members of the band proved a substantive match for the seasoned Swell, with Wooley, in particular, a name I'll be watching out for in the future.

Guillermo E. Brown's Cut-Up Quintet

The Cut-Up Quintet is described by drummer Brown, best known for his tenure with David S. Ware, as "a project devised to cut up the fake book and rebuild compositions from those paper shards, in the same way that digital technology allows us to take pre-existing material and interject our own ideas . Alongside Brown's drums and electronics, the band featured Matana Roberts on alto saxophone, Peter Evans on trumpet, Shoko Nagai on keyboards and electronics and former Braxton alumnus Keith Witty on bass.

They traversed Brown's scores across three pieces to deliver a smorgasbord of styles encompassing jazz, funk, noise and rap, mixed into a cohesive whole. Brown directed from behind his kit, demonstrating an ability to manage smooth transitions between styles, whether dealing out powerful rhythms, or pitting himself against a sampled drum track. Brown also sang with a high soulful voice and rapped over an electronic rhythm. Nagai concentrated on coaxing textures from her keyboards, ranging from subway rumbles to electronic whooshes and crackles, but she also tackled the piano strings in solo spots, and locked into repeating patterns, remorselessly tapping at the highest notes. Witty proved an unobtrusive but solid rhythm partner whether contrasting his slow bass strums with the wild horn play or blasting syncopated funk. Evans on trumpet was the stand out soloist. His entry on the first piece was explosive: his cheeks puffed out, like Dizzy Gillespie in his prime, only to expel the air in a fearsome controlled blast which almost levitated him off the ground. He contrasted explosive bursts with small squeaks, balloon blowing farts and buzzy half valve tones, in some great solos. By contrast, Roberts tended towards longer tones, spinning clean melodic lines and providing a foil for Evans in the horn interplay. Another exciting set, and another trumpeter to watch out for.

Tatsuya Nakatani's NRA

The last band of the afternoon was NRA - their name derived, not from any affinity for firepower, but from the players initials: Tatsuya Nakatani , once again, on percussion, Vic Rawlings on electronics and cello, and Ricardo Arias on balloons. The unconventional instrumentation was contradicted by a rather sober appearance, like three bank clerks. They were the only band of the festival to wear ties. The single improvisation was predicated upon extended technique, focussed on extracting and merging long tones varying in pitch and volume.

Arias tortured an array of balloons of various sizes to produce sustained squeaks by incessantly rubbing them with polystyrene or pulling strings across them. Nakatani's contribution to the sonic landscape entailed scraping cymbals across drum heads, bowing pure tones from metal bowls and even blowing raspberries against his drum skins. Rawlings scraped and tapped his cello and at one point applied a tuning fork to the cello body, but avoided any conventional note making. His electronic washes provided a unifying thread holding the performance together. The piece progressed through high pitched squeals, creaks, wails, susurrations, whinnies and gratings, punctuated every so often by a bang as one of Arias' balloons gave up the unequal struggle against his frottage. The instrumentation was in a way irrelevant as there was little qualitative difference in the sounds produced by cello, percussion or balloons. Fascinating as it was to watch, for me the set went on too long for its limited sound focus. The improvisation would have benefited from a greater sense of structure, of the kind displayed in Bill Dixon's set, which similarly abjured jazz idioms.

So a mixed afternoon, but nonetheless it was reassuring to hear such a diverse range of music from these young artists, taking forward the creative music flame through the medium of avant-garde jazz. I dashed out to a nearby Turkish restaurant for some sustenance before the long evening ahead, of which more in due course...

Continue: Part 2

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