Enough Is Enough

At two prominent jazz festivals, bright moments and cloudy forecasts

The panel-discussion query about "serious music" was begged by one interesting fact: This year's Vision Festival was marked by a succession of large-scale pieces, some performed with scores laid out on music stands. (Of course, all likely made use of real-time group improvisation à la Butch Morris's "conductions.") Such was the case with "Fifty Violins for Leroy Jenkins," a memorial salute for the pioneering free-jazz violinist who passed away in February at the age of 74, assembled by Jason Kao Hwang and conducted by Billy Bang, two of Jenkins's disciples. OK, I counted just 36 fiddles, and that only by including the two cellos and seven basses in the ensemble. Still, they filled out the stage nicely and provided a truly orchestral palette for Bang to work with. The piece, drawn from music that Jenkins had composed, made great use of all those strings. Sometimes they bowed in unison, sometimes they plucked as one; in other spots, a melodic solo by, say, Hwang, took hold, while the other strings functioned as, well, string-section backing. Jenkins's lovely themes were clearly in evidence, but so too were the in-the-moment directions that Bang gave to his musicians. The piece was compact (25 minutes), diverse (conventional-sounding here, cacophonous there), and unlike anything else heard at either festival.

Though they run concurrently, the Vision and JVC festivals hardly compete: They largely represent separate worlds. The only musician I saw listed in both programs was pianist Vijay Iyer, who performed a stirring opening-night Vision set with his Fieldwork trio and an equally notable JVC duet with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa at the Rubin Museum. If there was one JVC set that could've fit comfortably with Vision Fest's offerings, it was saxophonist Lee Konitz's Zankel Hall concert. He played in a variety of contexts, from trio to solo-with-string-quartet to nonet to big band, mixing it up with tenor saxophonists Joe Lovano and Ted Brown and drummer Paul Motian, among others. At one point, he played Louis Armstrong's "Struttin' with Some Barbecue," treating the string quartet as if they were the Preservation Hall crew, with Lovano playing clarinet lines on soprano sax. Contexts aside, it's Konitz's tone—wide, breathy, precise, and carrying little vibrato—that's the real attraction, as radical today as it was 60 years ago.

Both the JVC and Vision fests were studded by that tried-and-true lure—the supergroup. During a four-part Ron Carter show at Carnegie Hall, intermission gave way to what first appeared like a dream (with Miles Davis as the subtext): bassist Carter alongside pianist Herbie Hancock, tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and drummer Billy Cobham. Carter's mere suggestion of the familiar grooves to "So What" and "All Blues" tickled the crowd. Shorter's subtly inventive playing on "Seven Steps to Heaven" brought on knowing smiles. And jaws dropped during Hancock's solo on "Stella by Starlight." It was all over in some 25 minutes (no encore)—glorious though it sounded, one had to wonder why, after assembling such a quartet, you'd pull the plug so soon.

Not quite 50, but certainly a many-violined tribute to Leroy Jenkins at the Vision Festival
photo: David Atlas
Not quite 50, but certainly a many-violined tribute to Leroy Jenkins at the Vision Festival

The Vision Festival's final night ended with a very different dream team: Billed as "Louis Moholo and Friends," the quartet featured Moholo (a South African drummer rarely heard in New York), the ubiquitous Parker on bass, Dave Burrell (a pianist of sublime and versatile gifts), and Kidd Jordan, a legendary educator in his hometown of New Orleans, as well as a singular, ever-questing tenor saxophonist. Parker started things with some multiphonic bowing, but soon settled into powerful, hard-plucked grooves. Jordan poked at shards of melody here and there, then bent his knees deep, reached up into his horn's highest register, and issued overtones that floated above the growing din, somehow seeming to direct it all. At first, Burrell offered logical chord progressions (it could've been a Gershwin tune), but before long, he too was chasing something larger and more obtuse. And Moholo kept this sonic juggernaut moving surely, with little to no bombast. His brief snare rolls and carefully placed cymbal crashes served like road signs, while his sure bass-drum kicks kept the fuel coming.

After an hour or so, the music ceased. Patricia Nicholson, in her role as producer, stepped up to the stage, signaling with thumb and forefinger as if to say: A little more? Parker smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, and shook his head. Enough is enough, he seemed to reply. And it was.

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