Walking in the rain down Norfolk Street last night, past the remains of Tonic, you can understand why festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker opened the Vision Festival with a prayer. Accompanied by a tranquil groove laid down by William Parker and Hamid Drake, she called for "a million million tones, all ascending, taking all the willing travelers with them." But beneath the unreconstructed flower-child spirituality, there is a undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. This year's theme is "The Revolution Continues" but with venues for the kind of creative new music the Vision Fest celebrates getting wiped away by unchecked, unsustainable development in New York (and elsewhere), you get the feeling there might be an implied question mark -- "The Revolution Continues?"
Following the opening invocation, William Parker presented the premiere of "Double Sunrise Over Neptune," an old-school hour-long extended jam for 15 players. The piece is anchored by three different bass ostinatos, but Parker delegated the bass duties here to Shayna Dulberger, who along with drummers Hamid Drake and Gerald Cleaver, did an admirable job holding everything together. Full ensemble passages were used sparingly -- instead, there were many solos and duets, often bookended by Sangeeta Banerjee's melismatic vocal improvisations. The piece is dedicated to the late shehnai master Bismillah Kahn, and there were several passages where both Bill Cole and William Parker would go at it with dueling double reeds. Despite some excellent solo turns, especially from Joe Morris (guitar), Rob Brown (alto sax) and Shiau-Shu Yu (cello), the music sometimes felt a bit tentative and shapeless, and was plagued throughout by truly horrendous amplification (Dave Swelson's first entry on the bari sax was deafening and distorted beyond recognition; Jessica Pavone's viola solo was all but inaudible, etc.). But the ending, with Banerjee singing English lyrics for the first time, and some beautifully phrased string passages, was dramatic and affecting.
Fieldwork -- a collective trio featuring Vijay Iyer (piano), Steve Lehman (alto sax), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums) -- exists at the imaginary intersection of Milton Babbitt and King Crimson. Basically, they rock out on algorithmically generated rhythmic structures and fiercely angular intervallic ideas. This might sound like a terrible idea, but it is redeemed by the warmth and conviction Vijay injects into even the most austere and deterministic material. Tyshawn Sorey is the ideal drummer for this outfit -- he's a wild card who brings a real loose-sounding vibe to the group. In the quiet moments, he can seem like he's floating above the time, but on closer listening you realize he's still locked into the grid. And when he and Vijay build up a head of steam together, the momentum can be downright scary. Steve Lehman is less uninhibited than the other two -- he's a smart and sophisticated player with tremendous control and precision, but his playing often seems to emphasize the music's most depersonalized qualities. Fieldwork is harder to warm to than the quartet Vijay brought to the Bang on a Can Marathon, but they are really pushing the limits of the post-Steve Coleman math-jazz thing and the bass-less trio thing, so you've got to respect their dedication and focus.
Next up was Cooper-Moore's Keyboard Project. They opened with trombonist Willie Applewhite's plaintive rendition of "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child," while the leader prowled the stage and began to testify: "Jazz! Jazz ain't nothin' but a fuckin' word! Jazz ain't got no Mama!" His theatricality was matched by a Mingusian earthy intensity from the band, especially the horns (Applewhite, Darius Jones and Assif Tsahar) and the deep grooving of drummer Chad Taylor. Cooper-Moore didn't even touch the keyboard until well into their set, but when he did, he played like a mad scientist, his stabbing and skittering triggering a metallic organ patch. Dancer Marlies Yearby seemed to feed off of the leader's wild energy, as well as the sick Dominican-based groove Chad and Isaiah Parker (on percussion) were laying down. The vibe was irreverent but good-natured, and it was fun to hear all these great players I'd never heard before.
Marc Ribot probably has more genuine rock cred than any other jazz guitarist out there, thanks to his contributions to records like Elvis Costello's Spike and Tom Waits's Mule Variations. It was really interesting to hear him so close to last weekend's Television hit, since Ribot's tangly, twangy sound is so indebted to another punkrock guitar hero, the Voidoid's Robert Quine. Spiritual Unity is a band dedicated to performing the music of the primal, blistering saxophonist Albert Ayler, and to that end Ribot has recruited respected free jazz veterans Henry Grimes (who played with Ayler back in the 60's) and Roy Campbell, but the music is definitely filtered through Ribot's own sensibilities. He's trying to draw parallels between the intensity and liberation of Ayler's music and the the intensity and liberation of the early punk scene, and his skronky guitar sound is the bridge between those two worlds. They opened with a beautiful, jangly chorale that built up from a low rumble to rhapsodic intensity and ended in a wail of feedback. Roy Campbell played trumpet (harmon-muted and open), pocket trumpet and fluegelhorn, bringing his entire arsenal of sounds, from clarion long tones to fluid freebop lines to barely squeezed-out cries. Henry Grimes was interactive and conversational, and at one point even picked up a violin for some fluttery high-register contrast. Chad Taylor unscrewed the top hihat cymbal and set it on his snare drum, using his hand to coax strangled sounds from it. But the foundation for all this sonic variety was Ayler's tuneful, anthemic melodies. Ribot talks about Ayler's music in terms of its religious/ritual qualities, and that aspect of the music was in full effect last night.
I'll be back at the Vision Fest tonight for Barry Wallenstein, Bill Dixon with the Sound Vision Orchestra (see Taylor Ho Bynum on this), Henry Grimes with Marilyn Crispell and Rashied Ali and Joe McPhee's Survival Unit III.
More pictures below the fold...
Tickets provided by the Vision Festival.
See also David Ryshpan's take.
See also David Ryshpan's take.