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Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra
William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra opened the final evening of the tenth Vision Festival in resounding fashion. An active unit now for over 11 years, many of the Orchestra's core members remain unchanged over that time. That experience counts for a lot: combine the world class improvisational skills of the band drawn from the cream of NYC free jazz talent, with the familiarity with Parker's working methods and you have some amazing potential, realised more often than not. The Orchestra is organized into stations which can be self conducting. Each player also has the freedom to create their own part if they feel it would be better than the written part at that moment. The overall result can be something like one of Charles Mingus small groups writ large, with garrulous ensemble playing opening out into collective improvisation.
The extended 20 piece Orchestra was already assembled when Parker took the stage, resplendent in a gleaming orange suit with a yellow tie, which drew marvelling shouts from the band. Parker led off with a forceful walking bass line, and right from the first notes it was clear this was going to be a classic performance. Andrew Barker's drums picked up the beat, joined by an augmented percussion section including Parker's son Isaiah and three friends, along with Dave Hofstra's tuba and Shiau Shu Yu's cello. The alto saxophones came in with a riff over the top, then another riff from the trombones, another from the tenor saxophones, another from the trumpets and we had lift off, propelled upwards by the glorious noise.
Special guest "Juice , tenor saxophonist Alan Glover, took an extended solo, at first with the support of the trombones, but then over a loose cacophony from the other sections too. Glover played with Parker back in the early 1970s when he ran a loft called the Firehouse. He preached over the orchestral anarchy in fluent post-Ayler style with more than a hint of Sonny Rollins, eschewing upper register screams for the middle ground. The horns dropped out to leave Leena Conquest singing "Rocket ship to the moon , giving a strong hint to the pieces title and dedicatee - "Gilmore's Hat , for the Sun Ra Arkestra mainstay, tenor saxophonist John Gilmore - Glover returned to duet in counterpoint to Conquest, before continuing his exposition.
Further solos bubbled up from the orchestral melting pot, with Alex Lodico on trombone, and Matt Lavelle and Roy Campbell on trumpets, holding forth over frothing instrumental eruptions and commentary. The opening figures emerged once more part way through, then quietened to allow Conquest to reprise the lyrics over the funky rhythm. A riotous swing developed with the different sections of the orchestra arranging their own riffs - the trombones of Lodico, Steve Swell, and Masahiko Kono swaying from side to side as they riffed - before Parker used his hand to signal a decrescendo, finishing the piece to ecstatic applause.
The second piece was titled "Land Song and began with a slow soulful bass figure with percussion punctuations. Conquest sang Parker's lyrics over just the bass, with lissome fills by Charles Waters on clarinet, before the sour tones of the other saxophones joined the simmering stew in a slow burning blues. A long flutter on a single note signalled a serpentine Darryl Foster solo on soprano saxophone, with the drums kicking in below as he testified. Lewis Barnes scabrous trumpet was next up, with Lodico actively organising the trombone section interjections in support.
At one point Parker began singing "This democracy is killing me as a backing refrain, and was joined by the rest of the orchestra in a vocal chorus, while Conquest expounded the lyrics of the tune, before the rhythmic motif was taken up by the saxophone section.
A dense rhythmic passage from the percussion section acted as a launch pad for Sabir Mateen on tenor, who rocketed into the stratosphere with altissimo wails, before being joined by Rob Brown's alto for a high energy duet. Parker then waved the other saxophones to join in until there was a fiery five horn blowout, behind which he orchestrated slow blocks of sound from the brass sections. The wild excitement inspired the elegant Conquest to dance in front of the stage, before returning to sing over a mournful trumpet theme to close to a well-deserved standing ovation. Superb. I hope the set was recorded and sees the light of day. Music like this demands to be heard as widely as possible.
Karen Borca Quintet
The task of following the wonderful opening set fell to the Karen Borca Quintet, with Rob Brown, a holdover on alto saxophone, the twin basses of Reggie Workman and Todd Nicholson, and Newman Baker on drums. In the same way that it only became clear after his demise what Jimmy Lyons brought to the music of Cecil Taylor, Borca's contribution to the music of Lyons, her musical mentor and partner, perhaps becomes clearer now. Long complex themes subtended improvisations which unfurled like elongated streaming banners in the wind.
Borca was ably assisted by Brown who, while not a Lyons clone, possesses a similar capacity for inventive flowing lines which renew themselves at regular intervals, without hitting the upper register as the default option. Borca is one of a very select band of jazz bassoonists, but she surmounted any intrinsic difficulties posed by her horn to produce a marathon solo in the first piece, probably the longest solo exposition in the Festival, using elements of the convoluted theme to refresh and redirect her creative impulse. Brown supported her with choppy phrasing and alto fluttering, before his own solo.
The horns were underpinned by a dense thicket of bass and a continuous drum pulse from Baker. Nicholson, whose rich dark tone contrasted with Workman's woodier rasping sonorities, was in no way outshone by his more celebrated partner. The two worked in tandem: in the second piece a delicate pizzicato solo from Workman was underpinned by melodic arco lines from Nicholson, before leading to a bass duo. Workman doubled the time and played with a circular strumming motion, before picking out riff leading back to a theme restatement. Baker unobtrusively but adroitly kept the band moving whether by clattery clip clop textures on his snare or native American cadences, through the course of the two long satisfying pieces.
Joelle Leandre & India Cooke
The next set was from the unlikely pairing of Bay Area violinist India Cooke, who has played with Sun Ra, John Zorn and Cecil Taylor, and French improvising bassist Joelle Leandre. Their association pre-dates Cooke's 1996 recording debut "Red Handed , but they have played together many times since, including a set at last years Guelph Festival which has just been released on Red Toucan Records.
In terms of audience response, this was the set of the Festival, drawing forth standing ovations not just at the end, but after each of the six pieces, belying the usual festival dynamic of rewarding the lowest common denominator. I guess that says something about the sophistication of the Vision Festival audience. The freely improvised music in no way pandered to the audience, but it was communicated directly and with passion. They opened in a fast free unison, which unsurprisingly given the instrumentation, had a chamber feel, with unison bowing giving way to aching violin. Leandre, a fount of prodigious bass technique throughout, strummed as she bowed while Cooke introduced a bluesy edge into the neo-classical stream. Both women, eyes closed, played arco most of the time: two strands interweaving into the same fabric, until their lines subsided into inaudibility and they stopped. Cooke appeared both surprised and delighted by the enthusiastic audience response.
There was a strong sense of communication between the two women, with Cooke leaning towards Leandre with a smile on her face and eyes closed , through a passage of breakneck bowing. They shouted and encouraged each other on - Cooke's upper register squeal responding to Leandre's breathy grunts and slapped bass. Leandre's vocal antics are an important part of her armoury with her wordless shouts and more tuneful cries giving the performance a theatrical edge.
Each took the spotlight in a solo section: Cooke bowed with an abstract blues feel, interspersed with beautiful slurs where she slid her fingers down to the bridge. High thin bowing contrasted with legato strokes across the strings to sound two separate voices, but still incorporating an earthy swing.
The string tour de force finished with more arco interplay, the two talking as they played. Cooke set down a locomotive rhythm, while Leandre scraped below the bridge as she vocalised. Cooke responded in kind, Leandre screamed, both still bowing frenetically, until first Leandre and then Cooke dropped their bows to the floor and continued vocalising croakily to close mock staggering across the stage in unison. Excellent set.
Rob Brown Trio
Rob Brown certainly has stamina: he was back next for his third appearance of the evening, this time leading his own band featuring Daniel Levin on cello and Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. They played initially against a video by Brown's partner Jo Wood Brown, with dance from the Nancy Zendora Dance Company, featuring Rochelle Austin, Maria Baker-Lee and Juan Merchan.
Tentative percussion and cello scrapings introduced a lengthy suite like piece featuring composed sections read from scores with freer extemporisations. Brown embellished the opening theme with distorted cadenzas at the end of each line, before Levin plucked a bluesy cello riff over rolling percussion from Takeishi. As for his appearance with Anthony Braxton at last years London Jazz Festival, Takeishi sat on a low dais before a customised kit, comprising gongs and frame drums, which gave the ensemble a distinctive chamber sound. The space allowed by percussion and cello provided a good setting to really appreciate Brown's restlessly creative outpourings: his distinctive sour sweet tone, whole phrases made out of wrong notes with extensive use of split tones and bent timbres.
The video pictured faces and bodies rendered in broad brush strokes by Wood Brown, which the dancers echoed. In one striking passage, they lined up across the stage and each took it in turns to arrange the posture of the others to match the paintings, before being posed in their turn. The music was well attuned to both the dance and the video, with Brown noticeably checking on progress as he played to synchronise the endings.
They played a second piece without accompaniment, introduced by a reflective alto soliloquy from Brown, before a walking cello line slipped in behind and Takeishi marked time on a cymbal. As the pulse freed up, it lead to fractured, agitated lines from cello and alto. Levin made the most of the cello's ambivalence to switch between rhythm and front line, tapping the bow on the strings before sawing once more to lead in a three way improv with multiphonics and overblown distortions. Buoyed up on a climax of thrashing percussion and hard bowing, Brown turned on a sweet note to conclude another excellent set.
Matthew Shipp Quartet
Pianist Matthew Shipp lead his quartet of Sabir Mateen on reeds, William Parker on bass and Han Bennink on drums in an exhilarating free blowout. Bennink has appeared with Shipp before, in duet and as part of the Spring Heel Jack collective (I saw them in London a couple of years ago), but it was soon clear that he saw tonight as some sort of challenge. Within the first minute, he was displaying his tricks, using his foot to modulate the sound of his snare as he played. He whipped up a ceaseless percussion maelstrom to which the others were forced to respond. Mateen is a good man to have on your team in such a situation, having gained years of experience with NYC free jazz collective TEST. He blew long and high in a stream of crescendos, with yelping lines with a blues edge, blurring runs with howls and whistles then a split note blare featuring both at the same time, in a tsunami of sound. Shipp adopted various strategies to engage: pounding darkly repeating patterns in the bass register in a circular motion, stabbing at keys in urgent morse code, and unleashing crashing abstract clusters,. Parker alternated muscular lines with arco sawing to be heard above the percussive storm. Red-faced, Bennink barely let up, prompting a shake of the head from Mateen, although it was hard to be sure whether in admiration or incredulity.
Even Bennink couldn't maintain that intensity throughout and in the quieter sections, Shipp was able to lay down a procession of bell like chords or pluck dissonances inside his piano. One pastoral passage saw Mateen on flute over Shipp's romantic chording, before the increasing Bennink-inspired turmoil resumed. This time Mateen deployed unhurried cool tenor lines over the boiling rhythm. Gradually though he blurted, honked, squealed, hopping from foot to foot before planting his legs firmly apart, and leant back to really go for broke. Parker walked powerfully and Mateen built again from the lower registers, girding himself for another assault. However the pulse slowed, Bennink marked time on his cymbal and Shipp's repeated one note stabs developed into lyrical lines, in duet with Mateen's now pensive tenor to close over a slowing rhythm. Another standing ovation.
Dennis Gonzalez Yells At Eels
The final act of the Festival, coming onstage at 1.30 am way beyond their allotted time, was trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez Yells At Eels, with his sons Aaron on bass and Stefan on drums, with special guest Oliver Lake. They played five pieces, starting with a recitation from Gonzalez père: "Hymn for the elders , over bass and drum rumblings. A bass ostinato and slow building pulse ushered in D Gonzalez pocket trumpet, to pour forth long held notes with a piercing tone, muted with his hand and wah-wahed over an hypnotic beat. Lake took a burning solo on curved soprano, with punctuation from the trumpet. He contrasted whimpered long tones and spiralling flurries of notes until the rhythm section stilled, leaving Lake alone, to draw to a tender conclusion. A forceful bass solo ensued, working out of the riff, but still maintaining the pulse. A drum solo led back into a rhythm duo, before the horns meshed in loose counterpoint to revisit the opening theme.
Gonzalez has long struck me as an imaginative band leader and organizer of sound, rather than a virtuoso soloist, and so it seemed this evening. His solos were generally concise, with fanfares, mariachi band sonorities and repeated motifs, usually hewing close to a melodic core. His compositions were never less than interesting, even the short "Document for William Parker and "Document for Toshinori Kondo which featured driving thrash solos. On this showing, the virtuoso in the family is Aaron Gonzalez on bass, who demonstrated a strong tone and solid technique in his solo spots as well as on the button syncopation with his brother's kick ass drums. Stefan Gonzalez also contributed a notable tune "Elegy for a slaughtered democracy to further demonstrate the breadth of the family talent. Lake was just the cherry on the cake, his trenchant caustic solos, providing the sharper edges to the satisfying and well rounded set.
They finished after 2.00, leaving me just 4 hours until I needed to set off for JFK for the return flight back to England, with the music from this fantastic week still spinning around inside my head. Watch out for next years line up - the Vision Festival is unlike any other festival on the planet and it needs your support.