Vision Festival XI, Angel Orensanz Foundation For The Arts, NYC - Day Four, 16 June 2006

John Sharpe By

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Donald Byrd Spectrum Dance Theater

No, not that Donald Byrd. This Donald Byrd is currently artistic director of Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle, WA, not that he was in evidence this evening. The performance featured two dancers: Danielle Wilkins and Julia Wilkins accompanied by percussion shaman Hamid Drake. Drake seated at a reduced kit, started on brushes, laying out a rich rhythmic tapestry. The first dancer approached the stage from the rear of the hall gyrating in time to Drake's free flowing rhythms as the spirit took her, which meant very fast. There were no concessions from Drake and this turned into a high energy workout for the dancers. Drake shifted into repeating patterns on his hihat and its stand, as the second dancer joined in rapid juddering movements, following Drake's polyrhythmic lead. As she gave it her all, her colleague recuperating at the rear of the stage, shouted encouragement, until she left the stage still dancing to disappear down the hall. A short reprise by the first performer and then she also departed. Short and sweet, but just a taster for the main course.
Hamid Drake and Bindu

While not the first time Drake has led a band, this was the debut performance of Bindu, bringing to fiery life the somewhat understated beauty of their intriguing 2005 RogueArt CD. In addition to Drake on drums and tablas, Bindu featured a mouth-watering selection of free jazz horn talent, combining NYC stalwarts Sabir Mateen and Daniel Carter with Chicago habitués Ernest Dawkins and Greg Ward. So, was it going to be a scaling up of Drake's freeform duos with various saxmen (Brotzmann, Tsahar, Mateen) or the WSQ with drums? Well neither really, or rather bits of both, in that that stellar solos were leavened by a loosely phrased horn chorus and energetic and intense supporting interplay. They played a knockout hour long set based around lengthy renditions of two pieces from the CD: "Bindu #1 and "Meeting and Parting , and one shorter improvised piece. Drake was situated stage right with the four hornmen strung across the stage level with him.

What was fascinating was seeing how the four horns generated variety and the strategies they adopted to avoid the default blowout option. In "Bindu #1 , Ward was faced with the unenviable task of following three barnstorming solos, each raising the ante for the next. By way of contrast he elected to resolutely reside in the middle registers of his thickly toned alto sax, building from phrase to phrase, in a manner akin to the late Jimmy Lyons, while Drake whipped up a storm in support. Ward only briefly hit the higher registers towards the close with a subdued squeal, repeated as the other horns slipped in languidly behind, before gradually winding down to leave Drake in the spotlight for a powerful solo.

In the same piece Mateen demonstrated why he has become MVP on the free jazz scene, with yet another soaring and masterfully fluent, crafted solo. Drake provided a launch pad for Mateen's tenor, maintaining a double bass drum beat motif, while mixing up the rhythms over the top. The reedman obliged with altissimo hollers replete with overtones, before building again from the lower registers via hoarse honks, and dog bothering squeals. Carter encouraged him with tenor screams of his own, and then vocal ululations, causing Mateen to glance sideways while continuing to blow. As he redoubled his efforts and spiralled into the furthest reaches once more, Carter crouched to dig out some subterranean tenor honks in support before Mateen wound down.

"Meeting and Parting , with its beautiful bittersweet melody atop a dancing tabla rhythm, gave Carter the opportunity to take a different tack. Eschewing reeds for trumpet, he judged his contribution on the needs of the music, to provide a neat contrast to the other horns. The cool bluesy understatedness of his abstract lines was punctuated by resonant hoots summoned forth by placing the bell of his horn over the mic.

Dawkins, attired in flowing white robes, was an integral part of the band, whether supporting Drake with a variety of percussive devices, providing impromptu backing for the soloists, on alto, tenor and wooden flute, or constructing his own great solo edifices. He served notice of his intent on the first piece, building from choppy short phrases into a torrent of vocalised cries, worrying notes and phrases, and stomping one foot to ease out multiphonic shrieks at the climax.

Drake was simply magnificent radiating an aura of calm, even while summoning a tempest around him - he is the ultimate drummer for this sort of rhythmic free jazz - seamlessly moving between rhythms, accenting the detail, while still leaving enough space and air for the others to weave in their threads. The group closed their excellent set to a richly deserved standing ovation. Drake was all smiles. He said earlier of the horns that he was truly happy that they had graced him with their playing, and that sentiment was heartily endorsed by the gathered crowd.

Rob Brown Quartet

I was looking forward to the Rob Brown quartet as this was his only appearance in this year's Festival (in contrast to five appearances last year). Brown has been a mainstay of the NYC downtown scene ever since his emergence some 20 years ago and his distinctive vibrato laden alto squawk has graced the bands of William Parker since 1993. Brown composes music and improvises for film, poetry, dancers and performance art. Even though he operates across the spectrum, his recorded output under his own name has generally been composition based, small group jazz. His two most recent offerings, "The Big Picture on Marge and "Radiant Pools on RogueArt are outstanding and betoken a growing artistic maturity. Brown was joined by the inevitable William Parker on bass, Gerald Cleaver on drums and Craig Taborn on piano for three lengthy pieces over the course of a forty five minute set.

Parker drove the first piece from the off with a muscular riff. Taborn added an electronic wash and random tinkles before locking in, with Cleaver in his slipstream. Brown whinnied over the ominous driving rhythm, all slurred and bent notes, before setting out a simple theme and then unfurling a marvellously convoluted extemporisation over the shifting rhythmic quilt spread by the band. The endlessly inventive Parker rang the changes even within the confines of the driving ostinato. Taborn took a great solo - stabbing morse code with his right hand as he bounced back and forward and up and down the keyboard over the hard driving rhythm. Pealing chords gave way to double handed pounding and sweeping runs before he leapt back from the piano at the conclusion. Parker deconstructed the riff in his feature and it was impossible not to revel in the sheer physicality of his playing which underpinned an explosive start to the set.

The long flowing angular piano alto unison theme of the second piece, inspired Brown's best solo of the evening, featuring an inventory of fast runs, falsetto cries, false fingered notes, vibrato drenched squeals, and overblowing. Taborn cut loose in febrile support, while Parker plucked frantically and Cleaver invoked a percussive storm. Brown dug deep for repeated highs, his brow creased in concentration, in an excellent, almost desperate excursion. Drum rolls at the end segued into the final piece with a potent exposition from Cleaver, full of fast crisp rolls, hit so hard that one stick flew ten foot into the air. As the ferment calmed, Taborn picked out music box sonorities with added electronic beeps, over which Brown and Parker, in arco mode, essayed a short downbeat line leading into an open dark brooding improv. It closed with Parker lightly circular bowing while Brown added long distorted dissonant tones. Parker extracted unsettling creaky door sonorities bowing high just above the bridge, before subsiding into silence. An excellent set, packing a visceral punch one would perhaps not associate with Brown, and garnering another well deserved standing ovation.

Billy Bang Quintet

After a twenty minute pause to change over, Billy Bang took the stage with regular cohorts Andrew Bemkey on piano, Todd Nicholson on bass, James Zollar on trumpet and Newman Taylor baker on drums. As with much of Bang's recent work, this evening's programme was deeply rooted in his experiences as a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, drawing on the repertoire from the Vietnam the Aftermath book.

Zollar's piercing trumpet fanfares over staggered tattoos from Baker heralded the introduction to "Yo Ho Chi Minh is in the House , with Bang plucking his violin guitar fashion. Bang picked out the oriental sounding pentatonic theme, quickly doubled by Nicholson on bass with Baker kicking in behind. Bemkey dropped in spare chords and then finally when the tension had reached an unbearable peak, Bang bowed the theme riff a couple of times and the band was firing on all cylinders. A sequence of fiery swinging solos boosted excitement levels and captured the crowd's attention.

Bemkey had a wonderful turn in the second piece, full of crashing chords and wildly exciting runs. Another lovely, more laid back feature followed, in Bang's beautiful and moving "Moments for the KIA MIA in memory of fallen comrades, but on this occasion dedicated to the late pianist John Hicks. Bang called Nicholson "our pulse and Baker "our heartbeat and the rhythm section was suitably vital throughout. Bang himself was irrepressible bowing and swinging wildly with great rhythmic attack as well as taking a gorgeous lyrical solo on "Moments .

Much to Bang's distress, time constraints meant that MC Lewis Barnes attempted to curtail the set, but the audience's demands won him a reprieve and Bang was able to launch into a fourth piece. Perhaps as a result of the reduced time, after a fast band unison, piano, trumpet and violin all soloed at once, until Bang cut them out to leave him in duet with Zollar, before a reprise of the theme. At this point the wily Bang gave us two for the price of one, by plucking out another theme with bass accompaniment, introducing a Cuban flavour, with a stirring rendition of the Buena Vista Social Club classic "Chan Chan . A muted exhortation from Zollar and a final gritty display of rhythmic virtuosity from Bang brought the fifty five minute set to a raucous conclusion, drawing another standing ovation from the enthusiastic audience.

Henry Grimes/Sekou Sundiata

The closing set was a curious choice to round off the Friday evening, with Henry Grimes bass providing the sole accompaniment for poet Sekou Sundiata. This was reflected in the dwindling audience as festival goers set off early for the After Fest party. Grimes has played with an ever widening litany of musicians since his rebirth into the free jazz world in 2002, including David Murray, Bill Dixon, William Parker, Marshall Allen, Sunny Murray and he now tours the globe with a variety of projects. Sundiata, born in Harlem, came of age as an artist during the 1960s and 70s. He has recorded and performed his poetry with a variety of musicians including David Murray, Craig Harris, Nona Hendryx and Vernon Reid.

Grimes dedicated the set to a friend Polly Jones, who died recently in California, before plucking a rapid fire torrent, on his green bass Olive Oil, gifted him by William Parker. His labyrinthine lines resolved into repeated melodic kernels, enticing Sundiata to begin his recitation. Sundiata's witty and sometimes apocalyptic poems were delivered in a low key, though theatrical style: "one star turns to another and says, we are here to preserve democracy, not to practice it .

Grimes stream of consciousness timbres rarely settled into any pattern, let alone a groove, and provided an ever-changing soundscape over which Sundiata declaimed. Pauses between poems were filled with bass expositions, including a bowed tour de force which drew shouts of appreciation from the audience. That's not to say that Grimes was unresponsive: a breathless rapid fire delivery from Sundiata drew an up tempo walking from Grimes and when Sundiata paused, so did Grimes. They ended in unison at a quarter after midnight, after a thirty five minute set, to yet another standing ovation.

Exhaustion got the better of me, so I didn't get to the After Fest party held in a nearby club, featuring Dennis Gonzalez Yells At Eels, with various guest musicians. By all accounts it went well with some great jams. I wasn't the only one who didn't make it. Grimes who went along after his Vision set finished was unable to gain entry with his bass because the joint was so full there was literally no room.

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