Avant Listening: The 17th Annual Vision Festival

If ever there was a time I could be two people, I wish it was this week during the 17th annual Vision Festival. Founded by Patricia Parker in 1996, the festival is the temporal sonic canvas for Arts for Art, Inc., “a multicultural, artist-initiated and artist-run organization whose purpose is to build awareness and understanding of avantjazz and related expressive movements.” The festival, which began last Monday and continues through June 17, is only a part of a myriad of performance projects presented by Arts for Art. The organization’s website lists several events in their “Evolving Series,” which includes the work of Karen Borca, Maryanne DeProphetis, Daniel Levin, Gianni Mimmo, Katie Bull, Tiffany Chang, Rema Hasumi, Max Johnson, Lisa Sokolov, Shoko Nagai, Satoshi Takeishi, and Elliot Sharp. There are also as many events listed as groups: FATE, Mike’s Pride, AZARES, Chonto/Tamura Sound Insurgency, Pet Bottle Ningen, The Sound Band, Vision Vagabonds, Four Women with an Ax to Grind, Aggregate Trio, Electrified ExPosed Blues. These groups feature many of the names previously mentioned as well as Fay Victor, Anders Nilsson, Tim Dahl, Ches Smith, Brad Jones, Patricia Nicholson (a.k.a. Patricia Parker), Mazz Swift, Kris Davis, Tiffany Chang, Dave Sewelson, Jason Hwang, Todd Nicholson, and Tatsuya Nakatani. Unfortunately, their calendar only lists events in May and June, and only the current month includes any detail about them. I hope that when the Vision Festival is over, the staff of Arts for Art will have the time to update the calendar.

I attended Vision’s opening night and would like to share a few observations about it.

Vision 17 is being held mostly at Roulette’s new Brooklyn venue. The space is much larger than their previous Manhattan location and its physical appearance is similar to Irving Plaza, also in Manhattan. It’s a renovated Art Deco concert hall from the 1920s that seats about 400 people. It was previously part of the Brooklyn YWCA and its entrance, although listed at 501 Atlantic Ave., is actually around the corner at 30 Third Ave. Other venues for this year’s festival include Clemente Soto Velez (107 Suffolk St., Manhattan) and the basketball court at Rutgers Housing (200 Madison St.).

It’s great to see a venue like Roulette dedicated to presenting music that was once considered too esoteric for mainstream venues. The rise of the Knitting Factory from its modest Houston St. space, to its multi-level Soho location, and on to its fall and rebirth as the upscale and pricey City Winery left many of the so-called “downtown” musicians scrambling to play in other cramped New York venues with little chance of amassing large audiences in a single performance. John Zorn’s spacious club, Tonic, had potential, but had a somewhat difficult location near the off-ramp of the Williamsburg Bridge in Manhattan’s Lower East Side (why drive into Manhattan with all of the venues in Williamsburg presenting new music?). His extant club, The Stone, is an intimate Mecca for new music in Manhattan, but can’t seat much more than 50 people and is pretty uncomfortable when the weather is hot. Although Roulette has been in Brooklyn for almost a year, I haven’t had the chance to attend its events before. Because of conflicts in my schedule, I missed two concerts I wanted to see last month (the Eclipse Quartet performing the music of Morton Feldman and Roscoe Mitchell and Pete M. Wyer’s The Invisible, featuring vocalist Thomas Buckner, who also now brings his music series, Interpretations, there). But I’m glad I went Monday and hope this venue becomes a very long-lived success story, bringing an affordable alternative to BAM and further enhancing the development of downtown Brooklyn’s cultural identity.

The “Opening Invocation,” which started a little later than the advertized time of 6 p.m. (which was good for me, since I had to park about four blocks away and would have missed it) was a fantastic improvisation by Patricia Nicholson, Kyoko Kitamurra, Fay Victor (vocals), William Parker (contrabass), Hamid Drake, and Gerald Cleaver (drum sets) on three poems by Nicholson: “Freedom For Sale,” “Revolution,” and “Spirits Arise.” These were performed without a break, so I wasn’t certain which of the last two pieces invoked the contrapuntal style of Albert and Donald Ayler, but the vocalists improvised a part that reminded me of Ayler’s “Bells.” I don’t know if it was just coincidence, but the Cleveland natives, who were hailed by musicians of the 1960s like John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman as the shining light of a nascent avant-garde movement in jazz, brought a sound and ideology to music that was as powerful as Jimi Hendrix, only not as popular in the “mainstream” music industry. Still, their mark, usually attributed solely to Albert, is indelible and has become more and more recognized as invaluable to an American musical identity that still goes unacknowledged by the American Culture Machine—there was music before Albert and Donald Ayler, and then there’s music after them.

The second band to perform, Kneebody, featured Ben Wendel (tenor sax and melodica), Shane Endsley (trumpet), Adam Benjamin (keyboards), Kaveh Rasteger (bass guitar), and Nate Woods (drums). Their performance was supported by a grant from Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Specifically, the grant was to present Wendel’s composition, Singularity, which was intended to be in collaboration with electronica artist Daedelus on monomer, a versatile programmable sequencer. Daedelus was unable to attend; Kneebody, however, delivered selected movements from the piece and compositions by other members of the band in a fantastic display of musicianship and technical wizardry. The group makes extensive use of signal processing (delay loops, distortion, ring modulation, pitch shifting, etc.) and their performance contrasted brilliantly with the “acoustic” groups (as much as one can call a highly amplified performance “acoustic”).

The third group was an improvised collaboration by Paul Dunmall (saxophone), Matthew Shipp (piano), Joe Morris (contrabass), and Cleaver. The performance was continuous for their hour (each group was given an hour to perform) and moved through what I perceived as five sections that featured each member of the group as well as the group as a whole. These sections weren’t distinguished by instrumentation, but rather by texture; dense versus sparse, loud versus quiet, fast versus slow, etc. At first I expected to hear a self-absorbed display of simultaneous rambling, but the performer’s artistic integrity disallowed that from happening. One of the things that impressed me was that, while the music was not locked into any particular tempo or time signature and very seldom used a common pulse, I found myself dancing in place to the performance. When I realized this was happening I looked around and, from my vantage point at the back of the hall, saw that nearly everyone was rocking their bodies and/or bobbing their heads to the group’s music, although at different rates!

The next group was the duo of Tracie Morris (spoken and sung words) and Elliott Sharp (guitar and bass clarinet). The last time I saw them perform was last year at a fundraiser for the Jazz Foundation of America. I’ve been a fan of Sharp’s for decades, and am now also a fan of Morris’s. The two engaged in a balancing act of tradition/avant garde and content/context that seamlessly flowed through juxtaposing idioms and vernaculars. Their first piece was a reconstruction of the Mann/Weill/Leiber/Stoller classic, “On Broadway,” where Sharp’s extended technique guitar playing intimated the sounds of Times Square and the stress of the music industry. This was followed by a bass clarinet/voice duet that I didn’t hear the title of. The last piece, “Mahalia Theramin,” featured Sharp playing bottleneck slide guitar with an EBow (which the sound technicians appeared to think was unintentional feedback) against Morris’s emulation of melismatic gospel singing. I found it interesting that it was the only piece the entire evening performed with the ubiquitous syncopation that marks the origins of African American music.

The last group, the Mark Dresser Quintet, is one I’d heard twice before. Anyone who knows me probably knows that I am a fan of Dresser’s multiple-meter compositions and use of extended contrabass techniques. Their set featured music from a larger work, Nourishments, that describes the parallel relationships of humanity/music and humanity/food. The performance, however, focused more on his alto saxophonist, Rudresh Mahanthappa, than on Dresser’s command of the bass. I say this because he had the lion’s share of solo space—but not to the detriment of the overall performance. I did miss hearing more of the rest of the group, but only because I’m familiar with the work of Denman Maroney (hyperpiano) and Michael Dessen (trombone) and know them both to be virtuosos with unique approaches to their instruments. The drum chair, usually filled by Tom Rainey, was covered by Michael Sarin, who did an excellent job with Dresser’s seemingly impossibly difficult music. My only problem with the performance was that, because of the late start of the concert, I had to run out to get my car before the Brooklyn constabulary issued me an invitation to appear at one of their performance venues.

And my only problem with the festival is that I have to work, which means that I’ll be missing the larger part of the performances until Sunday. The festival is dedicated to trumpeter/saxophonist Joe McPhee this year, and he performed on Wednesday. Today’s (Friday, June 15) performances include three sets at the Rutgers Housing basketball court which start at 3:30 p.m. and go until 5 and feature: a gathering of two groups of poets, Peace Poets (Luke Nephew, Frank Lopez, Emanuel Candelario, and Frantz Jerome) and Tribes Poets (Edwin Torres, Latasha Diggs, and Sheila Maldonado); a trio set, “Music Is Mine,” with William Parker (contrabass, reeds), Cooper-Moore (percussion, diddley bow), and Hamid Drake (drums); and The Mystery Ensemble, where the trio is joined by Kidd Jordan (sax) and Jean Carla Rodea (vocals). The festival resumes at Roulette at 7 p.m. with performances by Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton (vocals), Jack Wilkins (guitar), and Cameron Brown (contrabass), followed at 8 p.m. by Yoshiko Chuma (dance), Akihito Obama (shakuhachi), and Roy Campbell (trumpet). At 8:30 is the duo of Roy Campbell and Ehran Elisha (drums) followed at 9:30 by Henry Grimes (contrabass, violin) and Wadada Leo Smith (trumpet). The final performance starts at 10:30 with Pheeroan akLaff’s Dear Freedom Suite, featuring Jun Miyake (saxophones, flutes), Angelica Sanchez (keyboards, voice), Santi Debriano (contrabass, electric guitar), Pheeroan akLaff (percussion, mixed media), and special guest Amiri Baraka. I’m really sorry I’ll miss Saturday’s performance, which includes one of my contrabass heroes, Reggie Workman (who was interviewed on WBAI yesterday on Basir Mchawi’s show, Education At The Crossroads, and can be accessed from the station’s archives; they discuss the Vision Festival in a little more detail and include some examples of Workman’s music) and another CMA supported work, Burning Bridge by violinist Jason Hwang.

Vision Festival 17 also features visual art. On the walls of Roulette, several murals collectively called Bird Calls which the artist, Maura Sheehan, describes as an allegory to “waiting in the wings.” I would humbly add an allegory of the relentless urge to create music as epitomized in the life of Charlie Parker. All throughout the performances, a collage of live video, manipulated by Phyllis Bulkin Lehrer and her crew, is projected on a screen above the stage. Like a meeting between Nam June Paik and the Joshua Light Show, the effect enhances the performances without detracting from them.

If you are in New York and have the time, I recommend going to the Vision Festival. While most of the venues aren’t free of charge, the price is very reasonable. There are venues that charge a lot more money for a lot less music that can be heard pretty regularly on the radio for free, while much the music at the Vision Festival will only happen there. And, while Arts for Art only serves beverages at Roulette, there is excellent dining available within feet of the venue and, if you decide (like I did) to “tough-out” the six-hour long presentation, late-night dining is available within a short cab ride.

And if you don’t live in New York, but are the type who travels to attend music festivals, there’s always next year. I know you’ll find it well worth the trip.

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