Visions Near and Far:

The Eleventh Annual Vision Festival

By Kurt Gottschalk




Sam Rivers

Photo by Peter Gannushkin


There are two kinds of festivals within the six nights (and one day) of the Vision Festival. There's the festival for people who travel to get there and the festival of people who travel to play. Vision is the highest concentration of New York energy jazz in the world, a fact that year after year seems to eclipse its "world class" (if there's reason to use such a phrase) nature. It is at once a chance to hear within a tight schedule (this year sticking closer to advertised times than ever) the cream of NYC's hard improv: Sabir Matteen, Roy Campbell Jr., William Parker, Borah Bergman, Daniel Carter, Rob Brown, Steve Swell, Billy Bang, Henry Grimes and (for the last time as such) the David S. Ware Quartet. But their presence, and that of such perennial associates as Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, Bill Dixon and Joe Morris, shouldn't overshadow the sweet surprises each year brings.


This year, the schedule also included Veryan Weston and Paul Rutherford from Britain; Canadians Torsten Muller, Dylan van der Schiff and Peggy Lee; German trio Day and Taxi; Klaas Hekman from The Netherlands; and American ex-pat Barre Phillips, who lives in France. In addition, there was the homage element, always a big part of the festival. Tribute was paid not just to Sam Rivers (with a lifetime achievement award), Raphe Malik and John Coltrane but  --  if only by their presence and longevity, George Lewis, Bill Dixon, Grachan Moncur III and Roscoe Mitchell. All of that  --  along with the incorporation of dance, poetry, visual arts, film and video, makes it much more of an arts festival than it gets credit for. Art is everywhere at the Vision Festival  --  not just the music in the air but painters Jeff Schlanger and Jorgo Schäffer positioned on the floor and interpreting the energy on paper, the photographs, paintings and installations filling the room, and the poetry and dance incorporated into the program.


But the formal, Vision tribute was given to Mr. Rivers, who  accepted the honor not just with his big band brought up from Florida but  --  and more to the point  --  a versatile trio with Doug Matthews doubling on bass and bass clarinet and Anthony Cole switching between drums, sax and piano, along with Scramble Campbell doing live painting at the back of the stage. Rivers played soprano and tenor saxophones, flute and piano, stretching out more with the trio, but neither of the sets compared to the WARM Quartet (Reggie Workman, Rashied Ali, Rivers and Roscoe Mitchell), a definite high point from last year. Still it was an impressive set, with generous unaccompanied solos and a nice horn trio.


A pair of groups remembered players no longer with us, John Coltrane and Raphe Malik. The John Coltrane Tribute Band included two Trane alumni (drummer Rashied Ali and bassist Reggie Workman) as well as Roy Campbell, who has shown his remarkable ability to transpose Coltrane's sheets of sound to trumpet with his band Shades and Colors of Trane. Equally proficient in post Trane hard playing was tenorman Louis Belogenis, while Andrew Bemkey countered with melodic piano flourishes. Poet Steve Dalachinsky joined them at the beginning of the set, reading a poem that worked like an invocation of Coltrane's spirit. Dalachinsky possesses a great ear for jazzic timing, developed sitting in the audience of thousands of gigs, as well as a talent for writing both inside and ouside himself, being at once intro- and extrospective. With poetry taking up the fore, the band stayed in a thick, slow, Alice Coltrane/Jimmy Garrison groove, like raw honey with bits of comb suspended in it. And following the timing of such classic Trane albums as \work{Live at the Village Vanguard Again}, the band built to a slow frenzy after the poem ended.


Trumpeter Malik, who died on March 8 at age 57, was remembered by a strong tribute band with dual trumpets (Campbell and Lewis "Flip" Barnes) joined by Jameel Moondoc, Sabir Matteen, Warren Smith, William Parker and Dave Burrell. The group premiered Smith's "A Toast to Raphe," but there was something about hearing Malik's compositions not played by him but by those who knew and worked with him that brought out the compositional elements in a music people tend to think of as made-up-as-it-goes-along.


Trombonist George Lewis and trumpeter Bill Dixon were among the elders whose very presence felt like a tribute. Lewis began their duet by requesting the lights be turned down as much as possible. "This is gonna be a séance," he said, introducing a long and gorgeous set of slow, hanging tones. Lewis's long foray into electronic and computer-driven sound has been bumpy, but recently (as with a quintet he presented as part of the AACM series in New York this spring) he has found a more eloquent, almost cinematic approach. It wasn't entirely integrated  --  the computer tends to go down when he picks up his horn  --  but that may have been just as well, since the real promise was a brass duo, a promise they more than kept. At times they built to nice, choral drones, Dixon's trumpet with heavy reverb, Lewis holding tones on horn filtered through laptop. At moments, it was electrifying.

A projected video of Dixon's paintings behind them, however, added little except the realization that it's high time DVD prompts and company logos be removed from the screen and from the concert hall.


June 13 the first night of the festival, was the only all-piano night and presented a diverse set of players with Borah Bergman, Veryan Weston and two sets featuring Burrell. In addition to the Malik tribute, Burrell played a duo with percussionist Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin and Wood, the group that took swinging jazz back to the campus. There are 1,000 melodies in Dave Burrell's fingers, and Martin approached what Burrell has called the "Jelly Roll Joys" not as a rhythmist but as a second melodist, making for a strange, slightly superfluous but still satisfying duet. Bergman played a solid set stopping just short of a sparring match with drummer Rashid Ali, with Louie Belogenis riding the wave. Weston appeared in a trio led by Dutch bass saxophonist Klaas Hekman and with Chicago cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm. They played what were probably the most thoughtful compositions of the entire festival, which unfortunately were marred by a muddy sound mix.




Hamid Drake

Photo by Peter Gannushkin


If in addition to the Lifetime Achievement Award Vision handed out a Most Valuable Player award, that would again have gone to Chicago percussionist Hamid Drake, who appeared in three sets this year. He accompanied dancer and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson (along with William Parker) as well as a set with members of the Donald Byrd Spectrum Dance Theater, and presented the concert premiere of his own group. Sometimes it's good to have a groove (especially when sitting through five or six hours of deep improv), and often times it's Drake that brings it. His group Bindu (the first group he's led on record) is an evolving project with varying personnel, and for this appearance was stripped down to a sax quartet with percussion. In a sense they represented the leader's ties to both New York and Chicago: Daniel Carter and Sabir Matteen represent more than anyone else the Lower East Side history of pedal-to-the-metal jazz jams, while Ernest Dawkins and Greg Ward inhabit the more structured tradition of Chicago. And while we're halving, it was equal parts charted themes and free-blowing, a meeting of 1960s Blue Note and Impulse, perhaps. They opened with a rolling piece dedicated to drummer Edward Blackwell and then moved into a beautiful meditation for horns and tablas, and were one of the high points of the week.


Another group providing a welcome bit of groove was Day and Taxi, who were no doubt the least known to the most people. Sadly that meant that much of the weary audience was on coffee break. But with tight, lively compositions and graceful yet spirited playing, theirs turned out to be one of the satisfying and immediately enjoyable sets of the week. Neither the hard nor soft forms of Euro improv, but a happy, innovative medium.


The festival peaked on Saturday, and the word of the day  --  as suggested by Michel Levasier, director of the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville in Quebec, who came down to take in Vision  --  was \fébrile, meaning feverish or, idiomatically, a buzz in the air. From a great afternoon set by Matana Roberts's Mississippi Moonchile (as part of "The New Generation" matinees) to Roscoe Mitchell's Chicago Quartet and an inspired pairing of Joe Morris and Barre Phillips to a damn fine closing by the trio By Any Means with Charles Gayle, William Parker and Rashied Ali, Saturday was the pinnacle of the week.


Roberts's set was an exploration into familial roots in music and prose, at times reminiscent of some of Mingus's long form works (such as Cumbia and Jazz Fusion), if only by structure and development. Bassist Thomas Kneeland, with a few solid notes, would suggest settings  --  bright, bluesy, pre-jazz sorts of melodies  --  and the band would join in but then dissolve, creating ten-minute-give-or-take sections before the bull fiddle would suggest another motif. Roberts's delivery of the spoken segments  --  presumably the words of her older Mississippi relatives  --  grew bolder until  --  with rosebuds in her hair and her face painted silver  --  she projected pure theater, a sweeping southern gospel, nonlinear Flannery O'Connor.


Mitchell's quartet rode the current of febrile, starting exhilaratingly quietly before the horns (new Art Ensemble of Chicago trumpeter Corey Wilkes with Mitchell, who can sound like at least three saxophones at once) on soprano) pushed forward, and before long it was a relentless fury, an attack by masters. Mitchell's multiphonics against Wilkes's simultaneous trumpet and coronet with electronic effects built to high energy. After a spirited solo by bassist Harrison Bankhead, they entered a second section of countering melody lines with Mitchell switching to alto and Wilkes muting his trumpet. Drummer Vincent Davis was perhaps the weak link, but by the time they went into a vintage Mitchell head and outro, the quartet was dead on.


Over the last several years, Joe Morris has developed an acoustic style very different from his electric guitar playing, or at least has broadened the palette of his picking. Playing chord structures and using the plectrum in variously muted and scratching ways gave him a lexicon that worked well, fantastically well, with Phillips's voicings up and down (and behind and to the side of) the neck of his bass. The duo were mesmerizing, and have recorded a disc for release on the Portuguese label Clean Feed.


Le febrile also brought the biggest variations in instrumentation of the week, ripping asunder the hegemony of the saxophone for at least a couple of hours. Following the bass/buitar duo was a bright trumpet-and-strings set from Jason Kao Hwang's The Edge. They were bright, bouncy even, with Taylor Ho Bynum sitting in for Herb Robertson. But the saxophone can't be suppressed for long, and By Any Means closed the night with the best of New York hard playing. With a growing number of projects and instruments, Parker's deep, soulful improv has grown scarce. But this trio was a time machine. With a name referencing 1960s black nationalism and a history together that goes back almost as far, they more than anyone at the fest represented the best of the New York school.



David S. Ware

Photo by Peter Gannushkin


After Saturday, the final day of the fest couldn't help but feel like a bit of a let down, but it was bookended by two interesting sets: koto player Miya Masaoka in a trio with Peggy Lee and Sylvie Courvoisier and Peggy Lee, and the much-hyped last U.S. appearance of the David S. Ware Quartet.


Miya Masaoka's trio with Sylvie Courvoisier and Peggy Lee was one of the better groups she has found to work with. Her koto when plucked attached itself nicely to Courvoisier's harplike use of the piano and, when bowed, joined with Lee's cello, making for an interesting, fluid trio.


Despite what the program might have implied, the David S. Ware Quartet won't be gone tomorrow. They're booked as far ahead as March, 2007, for a European tour. But it marked the end of an era anyway, after close to 20 years together.


So what is lost with their disbanding? Ware will continue to work, presumably, and likely with the individual quartet members again, in one setting or another. What we're potentially losing, though, is 1) the backline of Guillermo E. Brown, Matthew Shipp and William Parker  -- a backing group so strong it makes Ware look like a free jazz James Brown  --  behind a single, powerful horn; 2) Ware as a composer for his pianist  --  no one has written better settings for Shipp except Shipp himself; 3) the very existence of a group with an 18-year history together, something all too rare in jazz; 4) Brown as a drummer in acoustic jazz settings, given the direction his own recordings have gone; 5) as with By Any Means, a setting for Parker to play fast and free; and 6) a hard improv group not scared to push the volume. And those are losses, to be sure. Their set generally acknowledged much of that, with long segments of the trio playing Ware (the arrangement they used on their 2004 CD The Trio Plays Ware and the Shipp/Parker duo. The group can turn on a dime, and Ware put them through many turns through a long and celebratory set.


It was the Ware quartet's last appearance at the festival, but not their first, and repeat bookings continues to be a criticism often lobbed at Art for Arts, the artist collective that organizes Vision events. Regular invitees run the risk of becoming their own tough act to follow. Dixon was good with Lewis, but not like the quintet he presented last year. And the members of last year's WARM Quartet had all placed a bar to high to cross this year in their various groups. None of which should be taken as a function of age but rather (or at least more likely) of context and personal taste, and the willingess of great improvisers to keep on improvising. Playing it safe is hardly visionary.