How do you present a festival of forward-looking music when the innovators and shit-disturbers of previous eras are still largely unknown or under-recognized? How do you reconcile a commitment to the sounds of today with the desire to honor the contributions of past masters? That's the dilemma faced by the curators of the Vision Festival. While they have sometimes been accused of being, in their own way, as insular, preservationist, and stylistically dogmatic as the Wynton Marsalis-Stanley Crouch axis over at Lincoln Center, I think the overall scope of year's lineup is commendably diverse, and shows a genuine effort to find a balance between past and present. Day 2 was dedicated to a Lifetime Recognition Celebration of Bill Dixon, who is 82 years old, and so the focus on Wednesday was on older artists, most with some connection to Dixon -- but that doesn't make the music presented any less vital.
I am almost wholly unfamiliar with Bill Dixon's music, but my curiosity was definitely piqued by this post by Taylor Ho Bynum. The handpicked ensemble he brought to the Vision Festival was decidedly bottom-heavy, including not just bass (Andrew Lafkas), tuba (Joe Daley), bass clarinet (Will Connell Jr.), and bari sax (John Hagen), but the rarely heard subsonic sounds of bass sax (J.D. Parran) and contrabass clarinet (Michel Côté). The (as-yet-untitled) new work opened with a single sustained pitch on soprano sax (Andrew Raffo Dewar). As his note began to split and wail, it was quickly enveloped by dark, billowing stormclouds. It was difficult to pick out individual instruments from this emulsified group sound -- occasionally, one voice would peer out from the texture, but only for the briefest instant before being re-absorbed. It made me think of the more atmospheric, tranquil bits of Michael Gordon's Decasia, which I'd heard performed in this space back in January -- not in the details so much as the transfixing but deeply unsettling effect the music had on me.
When the first definite melody emerged, it was slow and solemn, in a uncanny and deep group unison. Everyone dropped out as Taylor Ho Bynum cried out in a series of squeezed bursts, before the contrabass clarinet began to sweep up underneath him, followed by the rest of the orchestra. There would be a series of climaxes as the sound became bigger and more saturated, with Dixon controlling the shape of the piece with emphatic cues and gestures. His gruff manner and steely gaze reminded me a bit of my own musical mentor, Bob Brookmeyer, as did the glacial patience with which Dixon allowed his music to unfold.
Dixon did not touch his trumpet until his sound-world had been unequivocally established -- I didn't time it or anything but I'd guess it was almost half an hour into the piece. As with the previous cornet and fluegel solos, the band dropped out and Dixon was able to conjure his unique timbres without accompaniment. The sounds emanating from his horn are often barely identifiable as trumpet sounds in the first place, and this effect was further magnified by a long electronic delay. These extraterrestrial sonorities led so seamlessly into long tones, and then spare melodic playing, that the usual distinctions between "noise" and "notes" seemed arbitrary.
Dixon's solo was followed by a long, tumultuous, almost Mahlerian, buildup, with rolling cymbals and timpani fueling the advancing juggernaut. But again, it felt less like a group of individual musicians and more like a swarm of sound, gathering on the horizon, then surging toward you and, finally, enveloping you. This section ended with a fierce climax, abrupt cutoff, and a sudden explosion of applause, but the piece wasn't over -- after a long pause, the music resumed with an airy, fluttering postlude, ending with a languid unison theme much like the ones we'd heard earlier.
This was a really powerful work, not just on its own merits, but because it's imbued with virtues that are often frustratingly absent from "free jazz" (or most jazz, for that matter) -- mood, focus, development, momentum, balance, cohesiveness, clarity, scale -- and most of all, silence. Though Dixon was born in 1925, this music felt both bracingly contemporary and, somehow, ageless.
The new Henry Grimes (bass) - Marilyn Crispell (piano) - Rashied Ali (drums) trio came together for the first time on Wednesday night. As noted in the program, Grimes and Ali are the same age -- they are both from Philly and both seminal 1960's jazz musicians who started out backing more traditional players before becoming increasingly associated with the "new thing." But before this year, the only time they'd ever played together was on a 1965 Archie Shepp date. Grimes famously vanished from the scene at the end of the '60s, but since his return to active playing in 2003, Grimes and Crispell have performed together with relative frequency (often in a trio with drummer Andrew Cyrille). And earlier this year, Grimes and Ali started playing some duo hits together. So the Grimes-Crispell-Ali trio would seem like a natural outgrowth of those two projects.
However, these are three musicians with very distinct and forceful musical personalities, and their performance often felt like a spirited disagreement. I don't mean that in a bad way -- after all this performance was dedicated to Bill Dixon, who thinks people ought to get into fistfights about aesthetics. This wasn't a fistfight by any means, but everyone did seem intent on protecting their own aesthetic turf. Grimes began on violin with a kind of perverse bluegrass-through-the-looking-glass fiddling, briefly pausing to mention that they were playing a Dixon tune from the '70s. Ali followed with a light touch, taking the music to a more abstracted place, and when Crispell finally entered with sparse, impressionistic chords, the mood shifted again, this time towards consonance and harmonic stability. Grimes moved to the bass and Ali began playing some beautiful, swinging time -- time that Crispell would obliquely acknowledge but Grimes would determinedly push against.
Overall, the sound support was much improved after the first day's missteps, but Angel Orensanz remains a sonically treacherous venue, and out in the room, Grimes's bass sound was often somewhat indistinct. This was frustrating, as his phrases are often densely packed with notes, and you really want to be able to hear all of them. Marc Ribot has an interesting take on Grimes's current style (which is very different from his playing in the 1960's):
Henry has unbelievable ears and what he plays will always relate to what’s going on in some completely unpredictable and beautiful way. It’s tempting to write off the density of his playing as just him going off the deep end, but when you listen to it, you hear the melody of the tune you’re playing sped up, counter-pointed, harmonized, attacked, distorted, played backwards. He’s really a Cecil Taylor of the bass.
This was especially in evidence in a quieter passage near the end, with Ali on brushes and Crispell playing chordal passages that had a kind of rustic, open lyricism. Grimes would be bowing furiously, more texture than pitch, but every so often he'd drop down momentarily and reinforce Crispell's left hand with a long tone on the chord root. Crispell kept moving through different key areas and Grimes nailed it each time. It was a beautiful moment, as if after a long set of each musician asserting their individual vision, the three of them had finally found common ground.
Joe McPhee isn't from Chicago, but my understanding is that thanks to Ken Vandermark, McPhee has become somewhat associated with the Empty Bottle scene over there. (Dan, is that more or less correct?) The group he brought to the Vision Fest is made up of two Chicago-based musicians, Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) and Michael Zerang (drums) plus the leader on alto sax and fluegelhorn. I don't know if there was ever a "Survival Unit I," but a 1971 concert featuring "Survival Unit II" was recently issued on Hat Hut, and McPhee calls this band "Survival Unit III."
I had trouble hearing the shape in this trio's performances -- to my ears, they seemed a bit static. Lonberg-Holm's pedal effects were way out of balance and when he started to manipulate the cello feedback, it tended to wash out the other two musicians in a wail of skronk. But mid-set, Zerang started up an ear-catching dialog with himself, playing some nice brushwork figures that were periodically interrupted by a weird rubbing effect -- I couldn't see exactly what he was using to create it, some kind of soft rubber mallet maybe? Anyway, it was a very cool moment, especially when McPhee began to play tenderly and melodically over the scraping bits. Later, McPhee switched from alto to fluegel, beginning with a soft, airy "thunk, thunk, thunk" effect that sounded vaguely like a fan blade, gradually leading into a brief, mournful, spacious melody. (It sounded like maybe he was paying tribute to Dixon here?) Anyway, the band sounded a lot more hushed and spacious playing under McPhee's fluegel than they had when he was playing alto in the first half of the set, and within this more intimate vibe, I was able to more or less shelve my concerns about the lack of directionality in the music and just enjoy it for what it was.
More pictures below the fold...
Tickets provided by the Vision Festival.