Vision Festival, NYC, Days 6-7: June 16-17, 2012
Exemplary musicianship was in evidence from the git go in the set from Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House. The German saxophonist gave the nod to guitarist Mary Halvorson, whose slurred and pitch-bending pontifications introduced a series of overlapping interjections from around the band, and later resurfaced in more urgent guise in a conversational exchange with drummer Tom Rainey. It was a bold start, displaying all the strong points of the band: unpredictable compositions that masquerade as improvisation, varied instrumental amalgams, and unusual sonic signatures, especially from Halvorson and the leader.
Sheaves of scores festooned the music stands, but their influence was barely apparent in delivery until an unmistakably preconceived unison phrase or vamp emerged from the middle of a seemingly unfettered discourse. Each of the three numbers followed sometimes mysterious form through multiple sections. As the first progressed, a tricky unison eventually unfurled for the saxophone and piano, shadowed by John Hebert's surefooted bass, before opening out for a puckish interlude of piano, cymbals and spare guitar chords, then signing off with a restatement of the earlier material.
Since moving to New York from London in 2008, Laubrock has continued to take impressive strides in both preordained and unmapped terrains. She has co-opted the free jazz saxophone vocabulary as part of her armory, but this day consistently wrong-footed listeners by placing those sudden snatches of impassioned, overblown tenor in contexts other than the usual roiling ensemble. She pulled the opposite trick, too, steering serene soprano over a thorny backing, then sailing on in an unexpected trajectory as the backing degenerated into a bubbling morass, complete with discordant, scratchy picking from Halvorson.
But the individual talents were largely subsumed to the needs of the music, manifesting only in flashes of individual brilliance. Pianist Kris Davis' longest feature came on the last tune, interacting with a choppy funk rhythm worthy of the dedicatee, Henry Threadgill. Illustrative of the search for unorthodox textures, which also saw Davis delve under the bonnet and Halvorson mimic a detuned koto, Rainey began the third selection by rubbing wet fingers across his drum heads to create a booming sigh, while the tight interaction between Rainey and Hebert was manifest in the start of the second tune, where a drum crash presaged an extended, ominously edgy rhythmic duel, before melding a garrulous soprano and arco bass.
Such involved arrangements depend upon the life breathed into them. Exhilarating at their best, when Anti-House created seamless and spirited transitions from the written to the extemporized, the cerebral nature of events took their toll as interest flagged along with the tautness of the interplay. No doubt with more time to fully inhabit these pieces, the band will scale the heights of their eponymous debut recording (Intakt, 2010).
There was barely room on the Roulette stage for all 16 musicians of Burnt Sugar, who formed quite a spectacle. There was more than a touch of showman about leader Greg Tate who commanded the spotlight wielding his guitar, directing and even orchestrating the band in real time, as when he alternated riffs between the vocalists and horn section, and coaxed an alluring a capella section from the four horns. One noteworthy sequence posited a twosome for Lewis Barnes' waspish trumpet and Avram Fefer's burly tenor saxophone over a steady tempo. The highlight was an extended version of Max Roach's "Driva Man," belted out with gusto by one of the three female vocalists. One cool-looking saxophonist, bedecked in shades and attitude, played curved soprano and alto saxophone simultaneously in an enjoyable set which brought some to their feet in applause at the conclusion.
Rob Brown/ Daniel Levin
The pairing of alto saxophonist Rob Brown and cellist Daniel Levin has an increasingly intertwined back story. Levin, featured in Brown's trio responsible for Sounds (Clean Feed, 2007), was also part of Planet Dream (Clean Feed, 2009) alongside the reedman and trombonist Steve Swell, and perhaps more pertinent to this evening's appearance, combined to sensational effect with Brown on the splendid duo Natural Disorder (Not Two, 2011). What the twosome shared, and perhaps Levin in particular, was that quicksilver facility of ultrafast reactions which meant that the rapport went beyond the means of its transmission.
Of course with Brown, you can never quite get away from his stupendous control of the air passing through the tube of his alto saxophone, as he demonstrated throughout this concert in multiple passages of carefully marshaled overblowing which created a searing, emotionally charged litany of barely suppressed screams and strangled cries. Expressionistic, abstract, spontaneously created. One of the remarkable aspects of Brown's art is that he doesn't repeat himself, and he produced a stream of ideas, one stemming from another in sequences of unbroken invention. He allied prodigious technique with boundless imagination, evoking angst, alienation and a strange beauty, as shown in his unaccompanied feature for the third piece.
Brown stood immobile, as distinct to Levin who, although seated, swung, cocked his head and seemed to live each note. This was a meeting of equals in that Levin never opted for the supporting role the cello sometimes takes as an ersatz bass. Here it was much more akin to another horn. Levin wore his skill lightly but his mastery was readily apparent. At one point he essayed a deep drone while interpolating harp-like plucks. Cello and alto made a compelling blend, complementary as when both intermingled on same note to finish their second piece, but sometimes contrasting and percussive and just occasionally lyrical. Their swansong was low key and lyrical, although by this time they were competing against the noise from the lobby.
Kidd Jordan Quintet
To close out the festival, a star-studded cast had been assembled around New Orleans saxophonist Kidd Jordan to play to his strength of spontaneous, high energy expression. JD Parran largely played the role of colorist on bass saxophone, filling in behind Jordan, although he enjoyed one striking outing in which he alternated histrionic screeches against staccato foghorn blasts. Charles Gayle appeared with his tenor saxophone promising a fine clash of the titans, but in actual fact spent much of the set at the piano. Helming them all was the mighty coupling of drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker who eschewed the grooves which has made them such a sought after rhythm team for a more abstract pulse. But even so, there was still opportunity for Drake to exchange rhythmic attacks with the leader in a sustained middle-register assault.
There was always a link to the tradition in Jordan's freewheeling universe, whether it was a reference to "Chasin' the Trane" or blues intonations amid the excursions into the upper partials. Although Jordan sounded slightly tentative to begin, he came into his own as he quoted "Motherless Child" and channeling Coltrane he edged majestically into his characteristic pliant falsetto, at one point going so high as to lift himself up onto the tips of his toes. Meanwhile, Gayle dropped bombs into the discourse, using clusters belayed with the flats of his hands and block chording, but functioned primarily as a further colorist, in contrast to other pianists who traded in this currency this weeklike Cooper-Moore, Dave Burrell and Chris Forbes. While he imparted passion, his flurries lacked depth and didn't quite go beyond the expected forearm smash to the keys. In a more effective gambit he stabbed repeated patterns from selected portions of the keyboard to convey a rhythmic counterpoint.
Only when Jordan had received the five minute warning, did Gayle strap on his tenor saxophone. By this point the intensity had already ratcheted up a notch with both Jordan and Parran braiding lacerating hollers. Once Gayle added his incendiary melismatic honk it was as if the music of the gods were bestowed upon us, and enough in itself to bring forth a standing ovation when they finished.
2012's Vision Festival matched the best in recent memory with outstanding sets, spread liberally throughout the week. Those which particularly stuck in the mind were the explosive pairing of Matthew Shipp and Paul Dunmall, the whole of the second nightbut especially the sets by Farmers By Nature and In Order To Survive, Joe McPhee's collaboration with The Thing, Eternal Unity, the duet between Wadada Leo Smith and Henry Grimes, Steve Swell's Quintet and Trio 3. With such a vibrant feel to the event it would be no surprise were the Vision Festival to continue to thrive in Brooklyn in future years. As the prime showcase for free jazz NYC style, one can only hope that continued artistic success continues to trump the hostile economic climate.
All Photos: John Sharpe