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Vision Festival X - Day Four, June 17, 2005


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The Friday night crowd brought an eager buzz to the fourth night of the Vision Festival, though there was still room for more. The intimate atmosphere meant that it was possible for fans to rub shoulders with their heroes and meet like minded souls from across the US and further afield. It is perplexing that the roster of cutting edge jazz creativity assembled for the Festival each year, doesn't result in sell out shows, but I guess it is common knowledge that jazz is undervalued in its homeland, and all the more so when it revels in its sharper edges. The festival needs all the support it can get though. The late switch of venue from a city owned facility to a private performance space, necessitated by the non-installation of fire prevention measures, means that the organisers are looking at a $16,000 hole in their budget. Go to the Vision Festival website for details of how you can help.

Other Dimensions In Music meets the Sound Vision Orchestra

The first set of the evening promised an intriguing marriage of Other Dimensions In Music, one of my favourite free jazz improvising ensembles, and the Sound Vision Orchestra. Other Dimensions are Roy Campbell on trumpet, flugelhorn, pocket trumpet and flute, Daniel Carter on reeds and trumpet, William Parker on bass and Rashid Bakr on drums. The Sound Vision Orchestra is an aggregation of NYC improvising talent, twelve pieces on this occasion, whose mission is to provide large ensemble support for some of jazz's most visionary performers. They have performed in the past with such giants as Cecil Taylor, Alan Silva and Bill Dixon. There are many strategies to organise an improvising large ensemble, ranging from compositional signposts to the conductions of Butch Morris and Alan Silva. The strategy for tonight was a first: the game plan was for the members of the Orchestra to follow the lead of the appropriate member of Other Dimensions, so Campbell would guide the horns, Parker the strings and so on.

They opened in typical Other Dimensions fashion with a loose unison between Carter and Campbell on tenor sax and trumpet respectively, over free rhythm. Campbell matched his upper register arabesques against Carter's long high tones before embarking on a caustic solo. A brief flurry of saxophones hurried Campbell on his way, with punctuations from the vibes of Warren Smith and the darting strings. Slow extemporized lines emerged from the collective brass of Campbell, Steve Swell on trombone and Stephen Haynes on trumpet, like grinding tectonic plates, as Carter's flute propounded drifting melodicisms over Parker's more urgent pulse.

There was so much happening that it was difficult to know where to focus. The orchestral tumult took on the organic nature of waves crashing on the shore. The galaxy of talent on hand was largely sublimated to the whole, with just brief moments in the sun, before being subsumed into the orchestral mass. However, within the dense ocean of sound, there were many marvellous episodes.

At one point, Haynes pocket trumpet stuttered short flurries of notes, over a dawn chorus of horns coming in behind. Swell really went for it, shaking blustery squalls from his trombone. Campbell, now on pocket trumpet, and Carter, on trumpet too, contributed to the brass convocation, slowly switching to elongated tones as Swell finally exorcised his ghosts.

Later, the lyrical interplay of Carter's alto saxophone in collusion with Campbell's trumpet stilled the orchestral traffic jam, as Bakr morphed into time on his cymbals. Mark Hennen comped on piano and a lush chorus of horns coalesced behind the duo. Emerging from the throng, Jason Kao Hwang's high pitched bowing on violin blended with a flowing singing line from Rob Brown on alto. Campbell gestured for the other saxophones to join Brown, and Scott Currie enthusiastically accepted the invitation, wailing on alto, as the band reached a crescendo of fanfares around him.

Campbell increasingly took an active role in shaping the performance, at one stage signalling a piano solo from Hennen, who pummelled the keys, his whole body shaking. Parker and Bakr's furious underpinning quietened to leave Hennen in a lucent duet with Smith's xylophone, before becoming submerged once more in the glorious noise.

As the evening progressed the orchestra seemed to take its signals less from the core quartet and actively organised themselves, whether Bang and Hwang improvising a backing motif while Daniel Levin soloed on cello, or Swell and Haynes joining to riff behind fiery fanfares from Campbell.

Towards the conclusion, Carter turned in a tenor excursion with a heartfelt bluesy edge, with the saxophone section pulling together riffs in support. Carter continued his aching outpouring, crouching to excavate low notes and bobbing up and down in a circular motion. The saxophones blasted long tones and all the constituent parts of the Orchestra came together as sections before breaking loose again in a braying maelstrom. Carter and Campbell exchanged long winding-down tones and finished. It took a little while before the rest of the orchestra picked up the cue, but one by one they too subsided into silence. While they may have deviated from the original template, they nonetheless achieved a successful encounter and avoided the pitfalls of some free jazz blowouts, with chiaroscuro replacing chaos, and the ebb and flow delineating the characteristic arc of a classic Other Dimensions in Music performance. An excellent set!

Whit Dickey Quartet

Drummer Whit Dickey has been one of the fixtures of the Festival over recent years. Tonight he was leading a quartet featuring Roy Campbell on trumpet, Rob Brown on alto and Joe Morris on bass, performing against a backdrop provided by an interactive video by Phyllis Bulkin Lehrer. The group was closely confined to the right side of the stage to allow projection onto a screen centre stage.

"In the heart. "In a heartbeat, Dickey intoned by way of a prelude before a rapid fire solo drum workout, mainly on snare and tom-toms, anchored by a hi-hat pulse. The solo ended with a unison theme statement from the horns, before Brown stepped into the spotlight, building from the theme in sinuous phrases, examining each carefully before mutating into further abstractions. As Brown's lines lengthened and ascended on an upward scale, Campbell joined on trumpet and picked up Brown's altissimo stutters to begin his solo.

They played a continuous, well-rehearsed set, whose movements flowed seamlessly, covering a wide range of moods from exuberant to mournful. The horns formed a natural pairing: they have fronted many sessions and it showed in their high level of interplay and effortless rapport. Campbell muted his pocket trumpet with his hand, squeezing out wah-wahed smears, then growled low as Brown's distinctive sweet sour tone splintered and distorted into spinning shards. As the trumpet's voluminous whale calls rumbled on, Brown's alto soared, dipped and exulted in multiphonic hollers. Throughout the set their intertwining dialogue illuminated the loose suite like arrangement. Dickey has a busy style, deploying the tumbling rhythms of his one time mentor Milford Graves at merciless tempos, rolling his head as he plays. Morris was also fleet fingered in support, contributing to a dense group sound. There were clearings amid the rhythmic thickets though, where taps and cymbal splashes had chance to breathe.

I found the interactive video accompaniment projected behind the band disappointing, comprising geometric patterns which moved in seemingly preset and predictable ways, neither reflecting the overall flow of the piece or the detailed evolving group conversations.

They eased down following another Dickey solo, with a slow tattoo introducing a languid declamatory theme from the horns and a mournful feel over sparse drum cadences to finish all too soon, at just over half an hours playing.

Positive Knowledge

The next set was from Positive Knowledge, an improvising unit of some twenty years standing, built around the core of Bay Area based Oluyemi Thomas on bass clarinet and C melody saxophone and his wife Ijeoma Thomas on poetry and vocals. They were joined tonight by Harrison Bankhead on bass and Michael Wimberley on drums, with special guest Kidd Jordan on tenor saxophone.

A twittering spacey start to the set grew incrementally, until Oluyemi's woody bass clarinet was sparring full bloodedly with Jordan's overblown squeals and Ijeoma's wordless yelps. The five musicians were strung in a line across the stage, though Jordan's radio mic gave him license to roam. The two horns missed no excuse to raise the roof, with Bankhead strumming frantically over Wimberley's stickwork. A Bankhead solo was more muscular and less melodic that his outing the previous evening, joined by delicate filigrees from Jordan's tenor. I Thomas recited/sang a poem, cushioned by Oluyemi Thomas' tinkling bells and Wimberley's brushes, while Jordan voiced a Coltranesque counterpoint, until Ijeoma Thomas' falsetto pirouettes interweaved with Jordan's controlled high pitched whistles.

Jordan and Oluyemi Thomas had similar styles, in that they both displayed a preference for high pitched sonorities, often in a continuous climax of shrieking howls. This is not to say that no-one was listening: Jordan frequently followed Thomas' lead, his raised eyebrows giving him a quizzical twinkle as he did so. Thomas, dressed in flowing robes with matching headgear, majored on bass clarinet, contrasting vocalised pops and yelps, with guttural honks and a mellifluous woody tone in the lower register.

The freely improvised set pulsated with frequent crescendos, stoked by the churning rhythm section, taking its lead from the front men. In the quieter interludes Ijeoma Thomas resumed her sprechsang recitation with commentary from horns, bass and sparse percussion until the group interplay inspired a riff, and they rocketed skywards once more. The visceral excitement they conjured up had been something of a surprise and the set drew a well deserved standing ovation from the audience at the end.

David Budbill

The poetry of Cleveland born, Vermont based, poet David Budbill was accompanied by William Parker on flutes and percussion and Hamid Drake on drums. The grey tonsured and bearded Budbill selected his poems from a book for a matter of fact recitation with gentle understated accompaniment from wood flute and brushes. After he finished one poem, Budbill would leaf through the book until another took his fancy.

The accompaniment was not directly related to the content of the poems, continuing in the same vein even when a new poem started. Budbill's poems were expressed in a downbeat vernacular: "This evening on the news, The Emperor said he had not yet ordered a war, as if ordering a war was as easy as ordering a pizza. The rhythm interludes appeared naturally, while Budbill paused to select another poem or to take a drink of water, with Parker blowing shakuhachi or gently smiting gongs while Drake traced rhythmic patterns with hands or sticks.

Bill Dixon Quintet

There was an air of expectancy surrounding master trumpeter Bill Dixon's group, as he appears so infrequently in NYC. He brought with him long time associate Stephen Horenstein on baritone saxophone and bass flute, Warren Smith on vibes, percussion and tympani, Tony Widoff on synthesizer and keyboards and Andrew Lafkas on bass. Dixon dedicated the performance, which he termed a work in progress, to French photographer Thierry Trombert. The group played against a projection of a wonderful sequence of Dixon's drawings, paintings and etchings, (familiar to anyone who has any of his later recordings, the sleeves of which they adorn).

The baritone sax introduced the performance alone with fluttering lines interrupted by juddering yawls and interspersed with a delicate tracery of squeals. A brooding atmosphere congealed around the sax with rumbling tympani, dark washes of synthesized noise and bowed bass. Dixon selected his moment to return to centre stage, quieting the band to blow bubbly breath sounds into a mic equipped with a delay so his exhalations reverberated around the hall. Lafkas snatched airy strokes across his strings and Smith rubbed a wetted finger across the tympani skin to produce a resonant squeak.

The piece proceeded amid a meditative calm. Dixon, a painter of sound, carefully placed subdued blurts over the groups subtle dark underpinning, with only occasional pointillistic accents from Smith's vibes or tympani. As Dixon became more emphatic, the group responded: Horenstein essayed a catalogue of baritone squawks and Smith clattered the shells of the tympani. Dixon, listening attentively signalled the keyboards to come forward in the mix as a counterbalance. The performance allowed ample space for sounds to dissipate into silence and timbral contrasts of light against the shade of the predominant bass tonalities of which Dixon is so fond.

Dixon used reverb to striking effect, sending bright trumpet bursts echoing around the hall, then layering deep resonant growls against the decaying echoes. The arco scrapings, baritone flutters, keyboard creaks and vibe clusters blended to form a shifting quilt of sound beneath him. Lafkas was constantly in motion up and down the fretboard, while his bow skated over the strings bringing forth whirring drones. The keyboards were used largely for textural nuance - electronic washes or judders. The performance stood in sharp relief to much of the Festival in its organic pacing, eschewing of pyrotechnics and painterly emphasis on the overall sound, with individual contributions largely subsumed to the greater good. The ambient, submarine sounds of Dixon's music are so sui generis that they transcend jazz idioms and demand to be judged on their own terms.

The piece concluded with Dixon alone blowing subterranean growls with the trumpet bell placed over the mic, followed by a litany of farts, blurts and slurs, all with echo, left to disappear into silence. The conclusion was greeted with a standing ovation from the attentive and enthusiastic audience and a delighted Dixon shook hands with all his band before they left the stage.

Eloping with the Sun

The final act of the evening, Eloping With The Sun, featured Joe Morris on guitar and banjo, William Parker on doussn'gouni and sintir and Hamid Drake on frame drum. Already late, they were scheduled to play against a video projected through an arrangement of transparent draperies. However hanging the draperies proved so problematic and time consuming that the three musicians had settled into a small conclave centre stage and started laying down their groove long before the MC, Zero Boy, was given the go-ahead to introduce them.

Parker laid down a bass pattern on sintir (an African three stringed bass lute), embroidered by Drake's hypnotic syncopation, with Morris overlaying accelerating patterns on banjo. Drake intoned an Arabic chant and Morris jacked out a riff as they drifted into a mesmeric trance music, with one or other musician initiating changes in the shifting patterns, but not affecting the timeless groove. At the conclusion of the first piece Morris said this was the first time they had played this music in public, since having recorded their CD.

For the second piece, Morris switched to guitar and Parker picked up his doussn'gouni (an African hunter's guitar). There was less of a flow to this piece until Drake settled into a groove (or rather series of grooves). The music evoked images of a dusty road through an African village, in spite of Morris' sporadic diversions into more overtly jazzy phrasing. At the finale, Drake rubbed his fingers over his drum skin extracting a sweeping brush sound, signalling the close, as they brought the long evening's music to a gradual halt.

Another great night!

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