Vision Festival XI, Angel Orensanz Foundation For The Arts, NYC - Day One, 13 June 2006

John Sharpe By

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The Angel Orensanz Foundation for the Arts on Norfolk Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side hosted the Vision Festival in it's Eleventh incarnation. The Vision Festival is an artist run event which is the world's pre-eminent gathering of free jazz, avant-garde jazz, call it what you will, talent. The roster was a mix of familiar downtown faces and invitees from the further reaches, including a sizeable European contingent. This year's event boasted 33 performances spread over six glorious days. The inherent promise of the cast inspired me to abscond from familial duties to cross the Atlantic for an early summer NYC break for the second year in a row.

In what has become a venerable Vision Festival tradition, the opening night kicked off with an invocation from Art Ensemble of Chicago stalwart Joseph Jarman. A repeated pure ringing tone gave notice that the proceedings were underway, presaging the emergence of Jarman, this year assisted by William Parker, Hamid Drake, David Budbill and Patricia Nicholson, from the depths of the building. They processioned, chanting, up the central aisle of the former synagogue, with Parker blowing double flute, Drake on frame drum, and poet Budbill on shakuhachi, in accompaniment to Jarman's singing.

After an initial circuit of the hall they lined up on stage for a series of otherworldly recitations in praise of the universal spirit. Each took turns to recite over a vocal and instrumental chorus. Budbill captured the ethos in his plea: All we want to do is make music. It's not time for war. Parker switched to doussn' gouni as the gentle rhythms cushioned the flow of words. Nicholson danced and murmured imprecations at the front of the stage. After some twenty minutes, Jarman struck the prayer bowl once more and they embarked on a valedictory circumnavigation. In Budbill's words, now they had purified, transmogrified, dignified and stir-fried the space, it was time for the proceedings to begin.

Raphe Malik Tribute Band

The late Raphe Malik had been invited to perform the first set at Vision XI and had assembled an all-star band for the task. Although bereaved at Malik's passing, the group decided to honour the late trumpeter by performing in a memorial tribute. The original band was to have included Sun Ra alumnus Marshall Allen alongside Sabir Mateen, but Arkestral duties called, freeing up a berth for altoist Jemeel Moondoc. Malik's part was taken by trumpeters extraordinaire Roy Campbell (who also performed on pocket trumpet and flugelhorn) and Lewis Barnes, to complete a dream team front line. The rhythm section of Dave Burrell on piano, Warren Smith on drums and the ubiquitous William Parker on bass was no slouch either.

A furious piano trio blasted out of the starting gate, with Burrell bouncing up and down from his stool, his sweeping runs punctuated by plinking discords. Burrell's stuttering rolling rhythms were briefly interrupted by a unison horn line over free bass and drums. The following sequence of solos, underpinned by a nexus of fine interactive support, set a winning template for the rest of the set. Mateen, acting as musical director, explained that Malik rarely performed his compositions twice, so we were privileged to hear some of these pieces again, having only previously been aired at Vision 8. The first piece, "FMP , was followed by a multi-sectioned composition by Warren Smith entitled "A Toast to Raphe , written right after Malik's death, and then two more Malik pieces - "Problematic and "Café Society in a wonderful hour long set.

The sound was a little unbalanced and some of the ensembles a touch ragged early on, but it had all come together by the bravura rendition of "Café Society . A fast solo bass introduction from Parker resolved into up tempo walking, with a jaunty layered theme, loosely delivered in almost Dixieland style by the horns, atop Monkish dissonances from Burrell. These guys can eat this kind of thing up all night and it inspired some excellent solos. Mateen span out an unfailing sequence of bubbling liquid lines and finely controlled upper register squeals, before leaning back and launching into the stratosphere.

Campbell delivered an incisive exposition, his typically volatile slurred lines never quite settling on a definite note before concluding with a rasping burr. Moondoc bobbed up and down, one shoulder hunched up, as he strived for that elusive edge. He alternated long held blues cries with convulsed runs, over walking bass, all delivered in his distinctive acerbic vocalised tone. Barnes' whispered splurts, squelches and breaths contrasted with staccato trills before stretching out in a fanfare of tart brassiness. Burrell paraded his particular brand of off kilter rhythms and fractured ragtime feel, before disintegrating into freeform clusters. Drum explosions and a horn blow out heralded a final theme restatement. Glorious, life affirming and celebratory, this formed a fitting tribute to Raphe Malik and an energizing opening to the Festival.

Klaas Hekman Trio

A change of pace next, with a trio comprising Hekman on the giant bass saxophone, Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and Veryan Weston on piano. This sort of pan global blend, with musicians in this case from Rotterdam, Chicago and London is increasingly commonplace, reflecting the international flavour of "jazz and its attendant cross cultural fertilisations. In 1980, Dutch saxophonist Klaas Hekman was walking past a music store in London, when he saw a giant bass saxophone in the window. He purchased the horn, and the rare instrument has been Hekman's specialty ever since. The trio sounded how you might expect from the instrumentation: spiky, cool, and a chamber feel, with dense improv flowing from the complex, almost impenetrable, arrangements.

It was a total surprise to me when Hekman said that the first piece was "Tips by Steve Lacy, in an arrangement by Weston. The set was dedicated to Lacy and supposedly there were other compositions by the late sopranoist, but the voicings were such that, like this one, they passed me by in the dense instrumental ebb and flow. Just as well the interplay was so dense given the high volume chatter from the rear of the hall.

Hekman, seated at his gargantuan axe, was capable of moments of surprising delicacy, blowing gentle multiphonics in a particularly pleasing combination with Lonberg-Holm's nuanced arco lines. Lonberg-Holm was especially virtuosic, tendering fluent romanticism or scratchy rubbing and sawing as the moment demanded. It was harder to get a fix on Weston whose playing varied from delicate pecks to muscular flourishes. They played four pieces over a brief but absorbing 35 minute set.

Borah Bergman Quartet

The next set was the highlight of this first evening. Pianist Borah Bergman was joined by Rashied Ali on drums, William Parker on bass and Louis Belogenis on tenor and curved soprano saxophones, for a high energy free flowing forty minute set. Belogenis was an important late addition to the published group and he brought a coherence that ensured that the whole yielded more than the sum of its parts.

The gentle start with insistent probing piano lines against pattering percussion and measured arco bass belied the tumult to come. Belogenis on tenor added a multiphonic breeze to the mixer, soon becoming a stiff north-easterly, with distorted cries laid atop a quickening piano maelstrom. Belogenis alternated keening cries with a distorted edge and squalling shrieks, his fingers dancing off the keys as if they were on fire. As he became animated, he repeatedly pushed his sax towards the mic, like a man trying to provoke a fight. Ali watched Bergman and Parker intently, a half smile on his lips, as he kept a constant hihat pulse, with polyrhythmic commentary on snare and cymbals.

Bergman was similarly intense, his brow furrowed in concentration. He was largely immobile, except for his hands sweeping up and down the keyboard spieling out endless fragments, clusters and chordal patterns in contrapuntal runs. There was a lot of listening going on at one stage evidenced by Bergman's repeated staccato phrases echoed first by Belogenis, then emphasised by Ali on his snare.

Parker was the rock anchoring the performance. Later Bergman interjected a lyrical line, instantly buoyed up by big fat bass notes from Parker, poised, with his eyes closed and mouth open, shaking his head from side to side as if he couldn't believe the rightness of the notes flowing through him.

At the end Bergman stood impassive behind the piano as Ali cried "Borah, Borah Borah and the crowd rose for a well deserved ovation.

Dave Burrell/Billy Martin duo

The honour of closing the first night fell to Dave Burrell and Billy Martin. They played together on the first night of last year's Vision Festival, as part of a group co-led by Matt Maneri. Since then, they have toured as a duo and are clearly well attuned to each others roving styles. Burrell began his second appearance of the evening with trademark syncopated lines, shadowed in tickety tock counterpoint by Martin first on gongs, then assorted percussion devices spread over the stage and finally from behind his kit. Burrell morphed into "Expansion from his Full Blown Trio CD of the same name, with Martin in funky accompaniment, picking out the tune around his kit. Burrell's sound is a fine coalescence of the old and the new encompassing blues, romanticism, free and stride. Martin's varied accompaniment was a perfect marriage of multifarious textures with lockstep echoes of Burrell's changing rhythmic patterns. An incongruous pairing perhaps, but it works.

Burrell weaved tunes into the free flowing improvisation in an organic way. A gathering storm of pealing bells would contrast with arpeggios, by turns thunderous and delicate, before morphing into another composition with laid-back swing and a churchy feel.

Martin deployed a compendium of rhythmic techniques: dampening the drum with his arm or rubbing his fingers on the underside of his drums. An explosion of shakers on the drumheads prompted some high end pecking from Burrell, which gently dissipated into silence. Martin continued alone, retrieving a stream of objects with percussive potential from a box and explored blowing, rattling, shaking or crumpling them, before somehow ending up back behind the drum kit at just the right moment to maintain his rhythmic attack.

At only just over 30 minutes their excellent set was way too short in time, but still high enough in quality to send me immediately off to the CD stand where I sought out the duo's rewarding recent CD on Amulet Records.

Overall the programme kept pretty much to time, though at the cost of curtailing some of the music. Given the choice I would rather have fuller sets even if it did result in overruns. Nonetheless it was a good start to the festival, more than living up to the promise that had lured me back, and leaving me wanting more.

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