The Fourth Annual Vision Festival

Steve Koenig

[August 1999. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:1.]

The Vision Festival program states that it “is poised to take the disparate strands of the world’s improvising communities and weave them together…” The majority of the performances were music: jazz/improvisation, but more than any other arts festival of its kind, it featured painting, sculpture, dance, and poetry on stage in tandem with the music. This year’s edition was dedicated to the memory of drummer Denis Charles. The variety of music ranged from total free improv to composed pieces to the verbal rhythms of Amina and Imiri Baraka’s poetry, to a five-drummer choir led by Billy Higgins.

In four short years The Vision Fest has grown from a single weekend to two weekends, to, now, the weekend between two long weekends. The venues have changed as well, and this years’s festival was held in the comfortable, large but usually packed, basement of the East Village’s St Nicholas of Myra Church, two blocks from Tompkin’s Square Park. Fifty four performances in eleven days. The fourth annual Vision Festival has just ended and I’m still trying to catch my breath.

The breadth of Vision Festival was impressive. The visual arts component of the festival was called TuRf, and highlights were a sculpture with a bassist and dancer, and painter Jeff Schlanger, who has trademarked himself Music Witness, making live paintings of each performance as it was happening, himself an improviser of colors and action. Each painting was hung on the walls and front of the stage seconds after that performance ended.

There was much that you might easily overlook if you didn’t look. There was a hypnotic sound/video installation by Phyllis Bulkin Lehrer in an obscured corner, and Whitfield Lovell’s beige curtains with formal, black-ink portraits painted on them could easily have been mistaken for a normal part of the church’s basement.

The ambience of the 1999 Vision Festival is different from any other jazz festival you might attend. You get a sense this is an event, and you would enthuse, but never brag, to a non music/art/dance-lover that you went to the Vision Fest. It’s simply not trendy enough. It had minor NYSCA sponsorship, but no funding from anyone who could make you seem cool, or kool, by smoking or oil-rigging. This was a festival with a mission of bringing together the various arts, often in collaboration. Whoever didn’t meet onstage had a chance to meet and socialize in the back, where artists, audience, all kinds of people got to converse about what they love.

Friday night, night one, May 21, began with musician Joseph Jarman (AACM, Art Ensemble of Chicago), now a Buddhist minister, leading an opening invocation, chanted by his choir alternately in Sanskrit and in English. The first piece was a major event. Alan Silva, one of the originators of this music in the 1960s, with discs on BYG and ESP, and active since them in Europe, was leading his first large orchestra in over thirty years. I wish he had led with a piano rather than a synth. It was like listening to ELP with a great jazz orchestra, with standout solos by saxophonist Sabir Mateen, Taylor Ho Bynum on flügelhorn, trumpeter Roy Campbell, long-time favorite of mine bassoonist Karen Borca barely audible, and others: this was a large orchestra, with a preprogrammed video of Marion Brown with yellow- and blue-tinges surf mixed with interview. The video wasn’t working well, but the whole project was ambitious and filled with love, as was this whole festival.

The most moving performances of the night was by a trio: bassist Joelle Léandre, and dancer Aleta Hayes, with a sculpture by Alain Kirili. Léandre’s eyes were hypnotizing, clearly on dancer Hayes, who interacted with the music and the space, using the sculpture less as an object than as part of the entire performing space, although she used it to singing, herself Cooper-Moore, multi-intrumentalist, though I should simply tag him “musician,” got the house silent and attentive with a short but fun set of pieces on lap-held harp, harmonica, and drum kit. He set a batucada rhythm and then…silence. A cymbal accidentally went flying: “For you, Denis!” This year’s festival was dedicated to drummer Denis Charles. Cooper-Moore played a blues on a harp, which from the side linked like a giant bellows. Then a stride piano. What? “The Hokey Pokey”? yes, done New Orleans-style, playing giant clusters with his forearm, with glimpses of Nancarrrow and Stallings. This kind of music is not to be dismissed lightly; it cannot be done well without a thorough grounding in all phases and faces of music. Cooper-More told me his set was basically “entertainment,” and when I replied, “which is a necessary thing,” he was in sincere accord. Catch him play “free”? Coop is always free. We agreed it was a refreshing entr’acte, before drummer Whit Dickey’s high-energy set with sax Rob Brown and bassist Chris Lightcap. Brown played an intense series of solos and I again appreciated Lightcap’s strengths: he listens to everyone, and does little to show off, always keeping the music propelled and commenting on the other players. The audience gave Dickey major applause, although I still need to get insight into his playing, which this night was much more sensitive than the other performances I’ve heard.

Sunny Murray’s concluding quartet consisted of the always-solid Wilber Morris (check his Wilber Force on DIW Japan) and two intense saxophonists, Byard Lancaster, a major 60s player living in Jamaica for some time, and Louie Belogenis, probably now most famous now for playing in Prima Materia with Rashied Ali. Belogenis played fiercely. Lancaster played so strong and sensitively, I long to hear more of him. I overheard Cooper-Moore tell him, “You’re the only man who ever made me cry.” I believe all I have of Lancaster on vinyl is from the WildFlowers: New York Loft Jazz Scene, the series of five discs this year reissued on CD in the same short abbreviated versions of longer performances. He’s also on the Odeon Pope Saxophone Choir’s excellent The Ponderer on Soul Note. Lancaster promised me he’d keep La Folia up to date with his current work.

This was just the first night. I admit I skipped three of the eleven nights, and left once or twice before the fourth or fifth act. I felt vindicated the night Milford Graves admonished us, in a list of positive things, to get enough sleep and rest. In that spirit, I’m just describing my personal highlights, or this article would be a book. The second night’s highlights were poet Steve Dalachinsky’s work, both as emcee and performer, lovingly parodying Jarman’s invocation of the previous night, and then a strong set of poems, including one for Denis Charles and another for lamented poet Bob Kaufman. The self-deprecating Dalachinsky is a strong poet and I, judging from his live performances these months, greatly anticipate his Knit CD due July 20th.

This night was billed as the “day of Sun Ra’s arrival.” Marshall Allen, leading the Arkestra, brought us “Greetings from the 21st Century,” in this Ellington centennial year bringing us not a big band but an orchestra. The horns brought tears to my eyes. In Sonny’s spirit, pun intended, the Arkestra played free, did chants, dances and marches around the audience, and invoked the sounds of duo wop and rock groups too, in the “Cosmic Hop.” A special treat for me was a Leroy Jenkins solo set, with themes and variations bringing to mind both Bartók and Kentucky blue. He wore an orange shirt, purple pants, and a grey coat, seconding all the colors he summoned from his violin and viola. One tune brought to mind “Danny Boy,” another had loud sawing and pizzicato, the final one was a sort of a flight of the yellowjacket. Jenkins presented a unified, diverse American music all within a framework which left me breathless with joy.

Sunday’s highlights were the under-recorded and amazingly musical, multi-reed Bill Cole playing the shenai, flute, horn, didgeridoo, and bells, in duet with Joe Daley on tuba. “Song for Clifford Thornton,” Cole’s mentor and advisor who died in 1984, was elegiac but forward-looking in beauty. “The Short Life of Amadou Dialo,” who is still alive despite a police beating (maybe I heard the title incorrectly), had Cole on French horn. The sound of Cole’s instruments began to take a weird tonality, and sure enough, I spied Daley on a keyboard, sampling his and Cole’s sound, slurring and distorting it in very musical ways. The sound of Cole’s wood flute was strikingly beautiful, the lines sometimes echoed by Daley’s tuba. This was playing with spacing and rhythm, teasing and prodding each other to try new things which worked.

I had met Andrew Lamb socially at the fest, but never heard him until this night, and his playing and his group were slamming. He dedicated the set to people with handicaps. This sax and flute player needs to be recorded, and engineered well, for he has a deep, gorgeous sound that needs to be heard because it has something to say. Master percussionist Warren Smith was simply amazing on vibes and everything else, no slight to bassist Eugene Cooper and drummer André Strobert in Lamb’s quartet. Tired as I was, when I got home I had to pull out Smith’s duet disc with Hemphill on Black Saint 120146-2.

Poet Sarah Jones gave a strong set saying the good thing about the “avant-garde means you can say whatever the fuck you want” to without fear, and she was fearless and not self-indulgent. Joe Maneri with Mat Maneri with Randy Peterson is a known quantity and quality; unknown to me was dancer Christine Coppola, who used a varied dance vocabulary which was at one in this quartet, she being a fourth among equals. Even her facial gestures gibed with the musical sonorities and silences, Mat Maneri producing slabs of violin sounds, Peterson full of energy. Joe Maneri smiled in the music, at once kvelling and praying with his hands held out, then he grabbed his clarinet and Coppola carved out space with her body the way musicians do with their tools. In “Prelude to a Kiss,” they traced the outlines and skirted the melody. These performers made my life rich.

Tuesday’s performance highlights included JD Parran’s quartet, introducing me to an incredible pianist, Vejay Iyer. I asked Parran about him, and Parran told me that “He’s going places. In fact, he’s already there.” I asked Iyer if he were related to famous Indian carnatic vocal dynasty of the same name, and he smiled indulgently, saying probably somewhere. Parran has his own disc out, and also is part of the amazing New Winds trio along with fellow multi-reedmaster Ned Rothenberg and flutist Robert Dick, with discs on Victo and Sound Aspects. Daniel Carter joined Boston violinist Jonathan LaMaster’s group Saturnalia, his horns giving solidity to the string-based Saturnalia’s ethereality. Their beautifully packaged 7″ unintentially became part of the visual art presentations at the Vision festival. For sale at the artists’ counter, this disc is immediately striking to the eye: a corrugated paper square (I chose the only black one, others were grey and red) and two beautiful inserts wrapped with a violin string, I assume one used by LaMaster. [Saturnalia SLRV 1001, about fourteen minutes.] Sounding like chamber music in texture, but jazz in tonalities and spontaneity, I asked LaMaster if indeed it were all improvised. He replied, “All free-improv, but many have commented that it seems composed, as the strings function as one unit rather than three. Most importantly, what do you think?” There’s the other important theme of Vision: the audience responding as it will, rather than being pre-prorgrammed. Look for an upcoming Carter-Saturnalia CD, on LaMaster’s Sublingual label.

Poet Amiri Baraka was equalled by his wife Amina, and although his work is still strong, he’s slipping into too-easy clichés despite saying a lot of what needs to be said; there were too many rhymes designed to sound clever without being so. Backed ably by bassist Wilber Morris and saxist Herbie Morgan, Baraka gave a good show. I first encountered him live, many years ago at the Frederick Douglass’ annual Black Roots Festival at the Ethical Culture Society. I was not looking forward to hearing him then, as he was subbing for an ill Jimmy Baldwin, and I had only known his Black Nationalist and sometimes racist work. He won me over that night with a long piece that covered the whole range of the Black diaspora with humor, both cutting and warm, blaming and loving all in the sad story of our history. At an Ayler tribute a few years ago at Washington Square Church, Baraka was absolutely riveting, accompanied fine musicians and they spurred each other on. This night, Amina Baraka, having an accent and style reminiscent of Thulani Davis (I’m supposing, because of age, Amina came first) performed poetry that in text and delivery had wit, warmth and soul.

Wednesday, the Crispell-Hemingway-Dresser trio was solid, which is no slur on these long-term collaborators and for a decade, the other three-quarters of Anthony Braxton’s quartet. Next was Arthur Brooks Ensemble V and the Giants of Sciants, which began with trumpeter Brook’s clarion from offstage, Matthew Westin’s rattles sounding like nuts going down a pipe. The dancers interacted with each other as if they were living sculptures. The piece seemed to be about control and trust, and also about forces trying to harm them. Joseph Jarman’s quintet, including Myra Melford and Alan Silva on an undermiked bass, began with poetry, then unison horns, Jarman sounding like a cross between Ayler and Barbieri (both first appeared here on ESP-disk, remember.) After turning to harmonium, Jarman chanted a mantra, imploring the audience to “chant with us,” which we did, making a major noise. Jarman sprinkled the room with sound from his long, wooden Tibetan trumpet, then a shenai. Silva, feeling the spirit, rocked his bass back and forth against the bow; this was a rocking piece.

Thursday again began with another classic group doing well what it does best, Die Like a Dog, featuring Peter Brötzmann, William Parker, and Toshinori Kondo. The treat for me, though, were the next two groups of younger players, some previously unknown to me, but it won’t stay that way. Ori Kaplan’s quartet was a find. His alto sax tone was lush and beautiful, often subtle, using changes of volume. He seems to bring out the best in the players he surrounds himself with. Pianist Andrew Bemkey also had a rich tone, and even when he was all over the keyboard like a swarm of bees, he didn’t sound like CT or Crispell. Bassist Tom Abbs buoyed the group without walking; the group didn’t need that. He also played didgeridoo it in its traditional use as a voice modifier, but in the jazz context. Abbs was not out to merely impress that he knows how to blow the immense tube, the way too many do. Drummer Geoff Mann made sheets of thunder on the cymbals in the one total improv piece, while Abbs simultaneously growled on didj and bass. After, Abbs told be, “It’s the texture, man!” The quartet played a loud, fast piece, rounding off the set to a turn. Kaplan is a good program-builder.

Four horn squawking against a one-note riff, and excellent introduction to the Chris Jonas quintet. They used lots of silences and hits of splatter within the group sound, creating thick slabs of improvisation. It was just beautiful watching the play and interplay of trumpeter Cuong Vu, trombonist Curtis Hasselbring, long-time alto and bari madman Sam Furnace (who smokes whatever setting he’s in), and drummer Andrew Barker, known best from the Gold Sparkle groups, but a major asset to every band I’ve seen him in. At times, Barker gave the drum skins a flute-like sound in counterpoint to the horns’ motif, Furnace creating wicked variations on a theme. Another high point was the return of Joëlle Léandre with Joe McPhee and Gerry Hemingway. It was the fifth performance of the night and I just sat back, taking few notes, just enjoying, especially Hemingway’s seven-minute solo.

Friday was special. Again starting with two tried-and-trues, the duo of John Zorn and Milford Graves was everything you’d dream from them, in high energy. Zorn beamed at Graves and they obviously were a spirited match. A great discovery for me was pianist John Blum, with tubist Joe Daley and drummer Jackson Krall. I’ve never heard Krall play so well. Some audibly muttered about Blum, “another Cecil clone,” but they were not listening. It’s true Blum is a Cecil aficionado, and Krall plays in Taylor’s current American band, but these people simply did not listen. Blum took some Cecil-ian chords, true, but he also took off in romantic rhapsodies that integrated beautifully with everything else he had done. My first opinion was confirmed a few weeks later at a William Hooker-led concert of overlapping duos at St Peter’s Church, where Blum had a romantic, fun, slamming, high-energy duet with Jonathan LaMaster, who played in a much diffrent style than with his Saturnalia group. In this duet LaMaster was a fiddler possessed, dancing entranced with his instrument, totally in sync with what Blum was playing. Listen for this man. Both of them.

The always emotionally-moving Rob Brown had a quintet featuring the best: trumpeter Roy Campbell, bassoonist Karen Borca, viola/inist Mat Maneri, and Gary Joynes on tenor, and each played up to their reputations, and made a wonderful assemblage. The sixth and final act of the night was Chicagoan legend Fred Anderson with Hamid Drake and William Parker. I was the sole dissenting view in the audience, judging from the explosive applause and ovations, but to me it was Jazz at the Philharmonic. I took the weekend off, as Milford Graves had told the audience to take care of health, and I returned for the final night, called “We Remember Denis.” First on was the Andrew Cyrille Quartet, featuring Andrew Bemkey, in one piece bringing to mind Joanne Brackeen at her best. Other times he played a witty piano, punctuated by chords sounding like garbage clans being smashed together. Mark Helias brought crying sounds playing arco on the bridge of his bass, then long rich tones. Cyrille, hand-slapping his skins, sounded like the thunder of a Step Team.

Dancer Patricia Nicholson, the organizer of the festival, turned out to be an amazing dancer. She began with slow movement and gesture. Her vocabulary incorporated language from classic to forms Eastern and modern, yet it was all synthesized to a unique voice. Physically small, Nicholson is muscular and strong, and in total control of delicate movement. She was partnered by William Parker and Joseph Jarman, and they worked as a trio. The grand finale was a Drum Choir for Denis Charles, featuring masters Rashied Ali, Andrew Cyrille, Sunny Murray, Warren Smith, Billy Higgins and a surprise appearance by Jimmy Hopps, best known from Music Inc. They began with a vocal wail and cry for Denis, all the drum kits going ffff to pppp, Higgins conducting, and taking a solo, stick on stick, teasing, with an impish grin. Cyrille led the next piece by doing his face-clapping thing (see Geri Allen’s JMT disc “The Printmakers” for an excellent example of Cyrille doing this), leading the audience in what he termed the “hand jive,” over which he scatted, and Smith and Ali doing cross-rhythms. This wasn’t ’jazz’ but it sure was music and everyone left the festival happy and feeling a part of it.

Next year? Keep in touch with www.visionfestival.org.