June 23rd 2009 11:19 am
Copyright © 2009 Lyn Horton
Response to the Vision Festival, held in NYC for the past fourteen years, resists prosaic declarations and superlatives. Rather the Festival inspires poetry because the senses are stimulated beyond simple sentences; it is a cultural event that includes visual art, dance and music. In the words of William Parker: “There is nothing not to enjoy.”
The 2009 Festival was held in two venues: the Abrons Art Center on Grand Street and the Angel Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk.
The Abrons Center provides more of a space for dance and theater than a place for music performance. But, the raked floor packed with padded seats and the proscenium arch that frames the stage set up a point of view and an acoustic range that focused the sound more than satisfactorily. The ambiance remembered from past festivals did change somehow; yet the appreciation of the music and the socialization did not, especially when everyone migrated to the Orensanz Foundation on the last night.
At the Abrons Center, audience members packed the house and at break times wandered through the halls and foyers where cds and DVDs and books were being sold. In a room further away, home-cooked food was being served and on a patio through a door even further down the hall, hamburgers were being grilled and eaten, feeding the ravenous appetites of musicians, merchants and listeners who sacrificed meals for the sake of the music.
I cannot summarize the total experience of the Festival. I missed Wednesday night when tribute was paid to altoist Marshall Allen, longtime member of the Sun Ra Arkestra and the musician responsible for keeping the Arkestra alive. I missed the invocation on Tuesday. I missed Billy Bang’s group and McPhee’s Ayler project. I missed Bill Cole, Butch Morris, Ernest Dawkins, Sunny Murray, Ras Moshe and Charles Gayle. I missed many dance performances and several poetry readings. But the three nights I did attend at the close of the week had to have been as intense and fulfilling as the previous five days and nights.
There were many trios: Rob Brown’s, Steve Swell’s, Eri Yamamoto’s, Fred Anderson’s, Lisa Sokolov’s, Peter Brotzmann’s and Joe McPhee’s. Larger groups included Milford Graves’ quartet, Michelle Rosewoman’s Quintessence, Joe Morris’ ten-piece GoGo Mambo, William Parker’s Quartet and Jason Kao Hwang’s string orchestra. The blending of tonalities, the instrumental singing of songs, and the push to discover dimensions beyond our own impressed me as being the prevailing destinations for the journeys the musicians took.
The members of trombonist Steve Swell’s trio, Planet Dream, with Daniel Levin on cello and Rob Brown on alto, interacted as if the improvisational plan was based on the probabilities that the three would converge in harmonic unisons. Their separations were both active and silent, each taking a turn to exercise their fervor to enhance time and transfer that energized time to the next player. Swell’s scattered yet sensible abstractions often consumed the space, muted and not. Levin bowed the cello with no less seriousness, rarely succumbing to the pizzicato. Brown’s twinkling discrete notes on his alto expressed more than enough the disguised distance among the instruments so as to make their synchronicity all the more satisfying and beautiful.
In contrast, Spontaneous River, the string orchestra enlisted to play a composition by violinist Jason Kao Hwang, opened with a single violin overture. Hwang conducted the orchestra, signaling multiple basses, violins, violas, cellos and guitars when to come in and when to stop, building the improvisation as each section’s playing overlapped and coincided. The guitars offset the waves of motion with playful undercurrents, which tended to allow the piece to breathe. The drums constructed the bridge from one wave to the next in an unobvious, nonetheless staccato fashion, giving impetus for the continuation of the flow. An abrupt stop of all the instruments yielded to Hwang as he turned from the orchestra to the audience and played an utterly poignant, high-pitched, gripping line. He had isolated his instrument at the beginning and at the end to bracket a tightly woven fabric of similar colors and threads.
It is common knowledge that Fred Anderson has extended the ethic of Charlie Parker, one in which melody and improvisation are finely balanced. The influence of William Parker and Hamid Drake, who brought exotic instruments to Anderson’s field, altered his approach to the tenor ever so slightly, as was evidenced in his trio’s performance when Drake played frame-drum and Parker, doson gouni. The influence was measurable in how Anderson shaped the notes and runs on his horn, which were not necessarily as broad and deep as when he played in a more conventional format with Drake on the kit and Parker on bass. Then, the music pulsated and the focus was the continuity of the tenor’s song. Anderson occasionally dipped into his sax’s low register, but bounced back into clearly articulated arpeggios and carefully timed breaths between phrasings. Anyone who has seen Anderson perform knows how he stands: bent over to coalesce his senses for one purpose. When the set was over, and the applause mounted, he stood straight up, smiled gingerly and offered his horn to the audience in appreciation.
Celebrating its eleventh year in existence and returning to the Vision Festival stage at the Orensanz Foundation, Trio X, with Joe McPhee on tenor and pocket trumpet, Jay Rosen on drums and Dominic Duval on bass, honored, paid tribute and offered heartfelt thanks to those musicians “on whose shoulders we stand,” as McPhee aptly put it. McPhee wrote “Old Eyes” for Ornette Coleman years ago, but its tuneful resurgence was as fresh as the day it was born. Rosen’s restrained and precise drum solo opened “Taking It to the Max,” an improvisation that musically stretched and bent the memory of how Max Roach formed his music. When McPhee put his pocket trumpet to his lips, a love song sprang forth, wrapping itself around the melody of Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.” The trio ended its set with “Remembering ‘The Call’,” a gift to bassist Henry Grimes, who was sitting right in front of the stage and whose first session as a trio leader was recorded on ESP in 1965 as “The Call.” Though the members of Trio X all wore dark glasses, it was not to prevent light from penetrating their eyes, but rather for the purpose of looking inward and, through their instruments, shining light on history and its immutable bearing on the present.
Peter Brotzmann’s trio, FULL BLAST, including Michael Wertmuller on drums and Marino Pliakas on electric bass, forged a tonal chasm into which the audience could do nothing less than plunge. The music started as if an electric switch had been thrown, not the kind that turns on some sort of appliance, but one that completes the circuit activating an entire electrical grid system at a power plant. The sound was huge, pumped through amplifiers that sat in the corners of the floor of the Abrons Center stage. The group gradually mollified the initial thrust enough to allow the improvisation’s basis in continuous-ness infiltrate the arena. When the envelope is pushed like FULL BLAST pushed this one, nothing short of believing in this musical art form takes hold. It takes bravura, drive and a deep desire to keep moving in one direction to break barriers, invisible barriers, in order to reach metaphysical zones. The volume did not matter; the skilled process of the convergence of constant fingering on the guitar, expressionistic pounding on the drums and trancelike arpeggiation on the tenor and alto, did.
In the same vein, in a solo piano performance, Matthew Shipp sat at the keyboard to map his way to the stars and the intergalactic dust whose constituent particles are the same material as our own. If ever an alteration of time-space took form, it was during his performance. Shipp hit every piano key as if it were the last one that would ever sound. Not one note was missed, nor muffled. The fire in his fingers was tractable; the disposition of his fingers could be matched with the way in which they touched the keys. The flow of the music was physical as much as it was aural. Shipp strove to discover what it feels like to burst through to a simultaneous state of everything and nothing. Shipp has displaced the detail of ostinatos for expanding within larger parameters. His conception of the keyboard is as a whole unit, not white and black keys, not bass, mid-range and treble notes, but as one keyboard. The eighty-eight keys expose the possibilities for endless texture, particular designs, placed next to each other, erecting a stairway out of mind, through the heart and soul to another stratum of existence.
Only one performance made no sense in the context of the Festival. Michelle Rosewoman’s group played in the shadows of the past somewhere between Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea with Pat Metheny and John McLaughlin thrown in. It was sad, really, that such a large ensemble had no more to say than what has already been said many times previously.
Concluding the Festival, the William Parker Quartet (Hamid Drake on drums, Rob Brown on alto, Lewis Barnes on trumpet) was joined by James Spaulding on tenor and Bobby Bradford on trumpet. Only at the Vision Festival is this kind of camaraderie possible. These two veteran players fit into Parker’s ensemble with ease, as if they were meant to participate. The Quartet became a band, a swinging band. The rhythm took over and rocked the house. Applause followed each band member’s solo. The concision of the playing was not hidden. Finally, the music defined a place to stop, but only for a while.
The Vision Festival brings to mind that the music which experienced improvisers deliver, moving spontaneously from one anchoring conceptual or thematic phrase to another, is not arcane. It is so alive that it can bite and surprise, but never cause harm. The music can reach into the caverns of the unknown fearlessly, where there is no resolution… only the next swish of a cymbal, the next buzz on a mouthpiece, the next key stroke on a piano, the next vibration of a reed and the next pluck of a string.
In the presence of an audience, if musicians do reach the other side, the non-physical dimension that is pure energy and beyond description, does the listener go as well? Let’s hope so, because divisiveness, derision, war, hatred and ignorance severely disconnect culture from the individual and the resurrection of the collective human spirit, which dwells in the magnificence of pure energy, must always be beginning.