20/20 Visionaries

After being housed in a church basement, a rehab center, and the Knitting Factory, the Vision Festival—now in its seventh year and ranging over 16 nights and 60 performances—found an appropriate home in a Lower East Side community youth center and the basement of CBGB. This avant-jazz gathering (May 23 through June 8) is a truly alternative community. Unlike supposed "alt-rock," the VF family is distinct from its mainstream counterpart, creating uncommercial experiments that majors don't want to know about. And where else are you going to find a collective where poets sell merchandise, pianists distribute flyers, and bassists serve sandwiches?

This year, the organizers decided to shun sympathetic rockers (past performers have included Yo La Tengo and Cat Power), group the dance programs at the end, and use CB's Lounge (host of its own biweekly jazz series), which had difficulty accommodating some of the larger ensembles and crowds. The song-and-dance combinations at the Center were an embarrassment of riches: Jean-Laurent Sasportes's lovely, pathetic characters emoting to master bassist-chef Peter Kowald, Miriam Parker's yearning gestures in response to Charles Gayle's saxophone, Christine Coppola and Mat Maneri's ambitious multimedia Greek mythology, and the comic psychodramas of K.J. Holmes with trumpeter Roy Campbell.

Jayne Cortez seeks her excellent pocket trumpet.
photo: Ziga Koritnik
Jayne Cortez seeks her excellent pocket trumpet.

Most encouraging for this scene bellwether is that the seasoned groups (none of them more than a decade old) were matched by the younger ensembles. Relative old-timers included Bill Cole's roaring Untempered Ensemble, William Parker's majestic Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, the Gold Sparkle Band with its greasy r&b, and the delightfully hyperventilating Daves—all in top form. No less inspiring were newer projects like poet Oluyemi Thomas's wailing trio, Matthew Shipp's austere String Trio, the hard-swinging Freedom Land (with CB's organizer Dee Pop), and Sonny Simmons's gloriously flailing Cosmosamatics.

Thematically, the fest was "A Vision Against Violence" (just like last year), and September 11 informed many of the artists' works. What came across was a stubborn perseverance, ranging from Jade Sharma's crazed poems to Oluyemi Thomas's snapshots of a battered city to political organizer Omowale Clay's conspiracy speeches to Joseph Jarman's opening Buddhist invocation. Many of the stirring instrumental performances were dedicated to the victims of the attacks, alternating meditative passages with wild, passionate blasts of sound—in all, a better balm than Mr. Bush's scare tactics. The VF embraces peace as a spiritual goal, and even if we reach a relative state of political calm, they'll still have the right idea. —Jason Gross

Law and Disorder

"It all comes down to money and pussy," declared jazz poet Hattie Gossett during one of the Vision Festival's more articulate moments. So far as the festival itself is concerned, however—and since I'm a newbie, you'll have to correct me if I'm mistaken—it all comes down to police and thieves: The outlaw festival needs its Jazz at Lincoln Center alter ego just as much as a nuanced neocon like Wynton Marsalis needs the energy-ripping bravado of a William Parker. And vice versa, of course.

Yet it came as something of a shock to discover how retro the Vision Fest, for all its purported future macking, actually was. As I walked in on May 24, poet Steve Dalachinsky was declaiming, "I'll acknowledge that there's hope if you play me another solo, John Coltrane!" over Matthew Shipp's tynering piano. And as I walked out 17 sets later on June 7, festival co-director Patricia Nicholson was connecting the dots between Jackie Chan and a classic Jules Feiffer dance-to-whatever cartoon accompanied by the good old-fashioned modernism of Joseph Jarman, Billy Bang, and Cooper-Moore.

Browsing was the order of the festival, I found. Much of it—including sets by guitarist Joe Morris's quartet, multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore's confusing Uncle Remus-inspired project, saxophonist Paul Dunmall's trio, and many more—had the feeling of a spontaneous (or unrehearsed), timeless Now that listeners could slip into and out of at random. The music was often performed at a sort of Pentecostal fever pitch punctuated by bass and drum solos—Vision Fest being all about that old-time religion.

The holy spirits of the late Don Cherry and early Ornette Coleman hovered over the festival's first week. For many, the brightest moment arrived with the May 24 return of saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc's Muntu (with Parker, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and drummer Rashid Bakr). Twenty years since their last recording, Muntu were a positively incandescent refraction of Coleman's classic quartet. "I dreamed I lost my excellent pocket trumpet," recited Jayne Cortez during an evening-long tribute to Cherry two nights later. She fronted a band led by drummer Denardo Coleman, who provided musical themes in his father's key. Leading a quartet, former Cherry/Coleman cohort Dewey Redman sent a cool breeze through the Center, an underventilated gymnasium.

Liberationist free-blowing is a gas, until it isn't. Impressions of unearned intensity, or the feeling of being subjected to someone's endless rap, would send me outside for a breath of fresh air. I'd often make a new and wonderful discovery upon my return, such as Parker's Raining of the Moon material, as sung by the otherworldly Leena Conquest, which felt refreshingly structured and rehearsed. Perhaps Parker isn't so much an outlaw as a double agent. —Richard Gehr

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