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Thursday June 16 was billed as the day to celebrate the Fred Anderson Lifetime Achievement Award, honouring the Chicago tenor sax elder statesman and operator of the fabled Velvet Lounge. Previous Vision Festivals have honoured dedicatees like Don Cherry, Jimmy Lyons, and Julius Hemphill, but this was the first time a "living" legend has been so fêteda welcome case of what Jackie McLean once termed "giving them their flowers while they're here. Fred Anderson was very much here and featured in two of the evening's bands, while the rest of the bill featured alumni young and old from Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). But, before we got to the music, the Vision Festival demonstrated its conscience with an illustrated talk on Schools of Hope in Afghanistan from Zak Sherzad, one of the Festival's voluntary helpers.
Fred Anderson's '60s Quartet
Fred Anderson's '60s Quartet got the music underway. Anderson was joined by two fellow veterans of his '60s groupsJoseph Jarman on alto saxophone and bass flute, and Alvin Fielder on drumsalong with a more recent Chicago associate, Tatsu Aoki, on bass. Though they were billed as the '60s Quartet the band made no attempt to play in a style reminiscent of the period, in that their set was very much of a piece with Anderson's recent work: fluent improvised jazz without compositional signposts.
Anderson led off alone with a blues rhapsody. Aoki picked up on one of his motifs and a free flowing loping group improvisation ensued, with Jarman on alto and Fielder keeping a pulse on cymbals. Anderson and Jarman spilled out a gorgeous lyrical free counterpoint over Aoki's walking bass. As the rhythm became looser, the horns responded with squalls and squeals, before leaving Fielder to sweep around his kit with energetic rolls on toms and snare before peppering his cymbals, at which time Aoki rejoined. A slow meditative passage ensued with Jarman blowing pastoral on bass flute as Fielder set down a rolling shuffle with his brushes.
Overtones from Jarman prompted Anderson to become ever more animated, until they ended up with both horns flying. Jarman picked up Anderson's phrases and played them back at himriffs, licks, and honksuntil Jarman introduced an earthy riff, which Anderson picked up, and they took it out, blowing wild to a drum-rolled conclusion. Could it be any more perfect? Only if they had played for longer and Jarman had cut loose even more. But that's unnecessarily picky, and besides we already had another set from Anderson to look forward to.
At the conclusion of the set, Jarman and Fielder both spoke about working with Anderson 45 years ago. Jarman described taking a 45 minute train ride to take lessons with Anderson. Fielder mentioned being in the studio for the making of Song For, Anderson's debut recording, under Jarman's nominal leadership: "It was like waking up in Paradise, he said.
Joseph Jarman Ensemble
During the changeover for the next set, there was a short illustrated talk from Emma Zghal about the loss of Iraqi cultural artefacts, then subsequent campaigning by New York artists.
The Joseph Jarman Ensemble followed, with Jessica Jones on tenor sax, Doug Ewart on flutes, didgeridoo, and sopranino sax, Samuel C. Williams on piano, Thurman Barker on marimba, Levy Jones on bass, and Rob Garcia on drums. They contributed a surprisingly melodic set based on compositions, including Jarman's "Rondo for Jenny and "Lifetime Visions for the Magnificent Humans. Jarman recited and sang as well as playing alto and flute, though the most intense solo was left to Doug Ewart's sopranino, cutting loose with roller coaster runs in the penultimate number.
Nicole Mitchell Trio
One of the great things about a festival is the chance to check out new names who you might not see otherwise. The Nicole Mitchell Trio, new to me, was one of the festival's hits. Mitchell is one of the current generation of AACM improvisers and a rarity in creative music in that she specialises on flute. She was accompanied by bassist Harrison Bankhead and drummer Isaiah Spencer, both of whom have worked with Fred Anderson in the past.
All three went into a huddle centre stage, holding hands, before the set commenced with Mitchell's "Afrika Rising. Bankhead set up a twisting riff over Spencer's mallets on toms and cymbals, and Mitchell essayed sashaying bursts of flute, before leaving Spencer to emboss the rhythm alone. They all rejoined to run down the rolling theme, and then headed off for the wide open spaces. The trio's palette was enriched by Mitchell's vocalised embellishments as she played her flute, and Bankhead's wordless singing as he played a pulsing bass riff over Spencer's circling rhythmic variations. A funky bass/drum interlude led to a rootsy bass solo in which Bankhead doubled his infectious dancing lines with his voice. A tuneful drum solo followed, Spencer pounding out the rhythm and melody together, before the group restated the opening theme.
Nicole Mitchell's compositions proved the springboard for a wonderful inside/outside mix. Mitchell herself demonstrated the benefit of concentrating on the flute as her main axe, manifested by her ability to supplement her full tone with separate vocalised lines and flourishes as she played: whether bubbling sequences of notes and yelps, whooping slurs, or low growling harmonics. Her bandmates were equally adept at funk or free styles. Bankhead has a distinctive buzzing woody tone, which he frequently augmented with wordless singing accompaniment. Spencer mixed up the rhythms with a big grin on his face as he played, recalling the style and even some of the licks of his buddy Hamid Drake. He used the tuning of his drums to perfection in the heads and also made use of his elbows and even his feet (a la Han Bennink) to modify the tuning as he played.
An excursion for Mitchell on an African harp further varied the fare on offer. She picked out repeating sequences reminiscent of a thumb piano as Bankhead bowed high and sweet, like exotic birdsong. Together with Mitchell's wordless singing and playing, it evoked a timeless feeling of rural Africa. They closed the set with a funky riff over which Mitchell sang "Make it a better day, to the accompaniment of some doo-wop vocals from Bankhead. A short burst of garrulous flute and Mitchell stilled the band to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. A musically excellent set with an infectious good time feel to boot.
Kidd Jordan/Fred Anderson Quartet
There was a palpable buzz in the air before the next band: the Kidd Jordan/Fred Anderson Quartet. The two tenor sax titans have one excellent recording to their name (Two Days in April, on Eremite). But apart from a round of festival appearances following that disc and occasional reunions in Chicago, they get together all too infrequently, perhaps due to their respective bases in New Orleans and the Windy City. The quartet is rounded out by the premier rhythm section du jour of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake. Vision Festival goers had the privilege of witnessing this supersonic duo in tandem on no less than five occasions during this Festival, but this was definitely one of their finest outings.
Jordan led off with a fusillade of splintered tones. Anderson launched into the fray and immediately honks and squeaks abounded, before giving way to a more delicate horn tracery. There is some serious chemistry between the two men, manifested in their contrasting yet simpatico styles. Like soul brothers, they crouched together centre stage and unleashed a chorus of angels. Parker began picking out sturdy supporting lines and soon Drake was working hand in gloveand the audience was already euphoric.
Jordan wailed over Anderson's muscular phrasing. Drake picked up Anderson's runs and echoed them on his snare. Both horns had radio mics. Although Anderson remained rooted, Jordan made full use of his freedom to prowl the stage, swinging from side to side towards the drums as he expelled incendiary upper register runs and some of his trademark whinnying squeals. Anderson responded with a guttural honking riff and the two horns continued to pour forth until Jordan broke off to mop his brow. Anderson paused too and the rhythm duo held sway, laying down the constant quilt of shifting rhythmic patterns which they do so well.
Anderson tended to mine the middle registers of his horn, evolving motifs and investigating them exhaustively. Jordan favoured the higher reaches, intoning falsetto cries contrasted with stentorian bellows. Nonetheless, the blues inform both men's sound. Though abstracted, it's still the blues, to be sure, and it lies at the heart of their chemistry.
Drake echoed Anderson's licks as he played themthe result of years of playing together. At one stage, while everyone else mopped their brows, Drake fashioned a monster solo, majoring on his hi-hat: his up and down strokes became a blur as he pummelled his kit, almost as if he had something to prove following Isaiah Spencer's appropriation of some of his licks. Parker also is a virtuoso instrumentalist. In one solo he contrasted high bowing against the bridge with a second voice simultaneously brought forth by strokes and later plucks on his lowest open string.
The closing episode in the seamless improvisation saw Jordan wailing over arco bass, before expostulating strangulated yelping cries while the rest of the band stood motionless. Slow vibrato worrying the upper registers drew Anderson back in, echoing and bending notes for a mirror image of the opening duetmarked by the way they listened and responded to each otherthen both hit a high rising note and finished in harmony. The audience exploded into applause for a marvellous, pleasingly symmetrical end to a high octane setand yet another standing ovation!
Thurman Barker's Strike Force
The final set offered another Chicago connection featuring Thurman Barker, a veteran of the AACM who has played with many of its leading lightsAnthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, and Roscoe Mitchellas well as Cecil Taylor later, among others. Strike Force, his all-percussion ensemble, featured Bryan Carrott on vibes, Ray Mantilla on congas, and Eli Fontaine and Wilson Moorman on assorted percussion.
The stage was festooned with all manner of strikeable objects: tympani, marimba, vibes, congas, frame drums, and xylophone, as well as Barker's drum set. All five men were reading from scores, which were essential to organise all this firepower into a coherent sound and deliver Barker's layered compositions. Barker directed operations from behind his kit. Fontaine carried the tune of the first piece on xylophone over a cadenced riff from the vibes, before the group explored Barker's charts. Carrott later soloed expansively on vibes over a pre-ordained shifting backdrop, until a gong signalled the transition to a theme restatement, this time by all the tuned instruments.
The next piece started in a very measured fashion with Barker alone at his kit before the theme kicked in with chord changes from the tuned percussion. The piece included features for all the band members within its fabric, starting with an action-packed conga solo from Mantilla and moving through layers of overlapping sound.
I was too tired to stay after the second number and stumbled out into the night in search of a cab and the solace of my bed. After all, there was another long day in store tomorrow...