A soundman desperately tried to signal the set's end, but WARMan elder-statesmen quartet comprising bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Pheeroan Aklaff, and saxophonists Sam Rivers and Roscoe Mitchellpaid no attention. They were lost in a glorious balladic tune, transported to some delicate, unbound space. And the crowd that packed the Angel Orensanz Center was right with them, never mind the time. It was an inspiring Tuesday-night start to the 10th annual Vision Festival, as fine and focused a celebration of free-jazz improvisation as we have and an event full of heroic hookups that regularly transcended limitation.
Two such performances bookended Thursday night, which honored Chicago-based tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, who is admired for his subtle mixture of lyrical swagger and post-bop invention and for providing two generations of musicians with a place to play: his venerable South Side club the Velvet Lounge. Opening was the Fred Anderson 1960s Quartet, which reconnected Anderson with homeboys Joseph Jarman on saxophone and flute and Alvin Fielder on drums and included Chicagoan Tatsu Aoki on bass. Anderson, who stoops over when playing, holding his horn close to the floor, began by blowing gentle figures that gradually gained more volume and complexity. Jarman, on alto, added precise harmonics that created subtle halos around the tenor lines. When Jarman switched to bass flute, he played Asian-sounding flutters, with Anderson adding softly phrased lines that extended into long tendrils of bebop expression. The rhythm section stuck for the most part to a reactive rumble, calibrated throughout to the tone and energy of the horns.
Later, Anderson was joined by fellow tenor saxophonist and septuagenarian Kidd Jordan from New Orleans for a quartet that included Chicagoan Hamid Drake on drums and bassist William Parker, a ubiquitous presence throughout the festival. Jordan, who has a peculiarly beautiful style of producing squirrelly squeals from his horn, stooped down to match Anderson's characteristic posture as he did so. Anderson reached into the upper register of his horn's overtones to match Kidd's pitch. Parker worked his way in with strong undergirding lines that also lent potent melodic suggestion. Drake joined in with a brief bombast, which settled quickly into an insistent swing, and they were off on a riveting display of brute force blended with tender beauty, the two tenors issuing lines that flapped like ribbons in the wind, tethered to the flagpole of Parker and Drake's groove.
Saturday night featured two of jazz's finest violinists in two very different contexts. Billy Bang fronted a quartet with bassist Todd Nicholson and two Asian musicians, Japanese drummer Shoji Hano and Ngo Thanh Nahn on dan tranh, a Vietnamese instrument that resembles a zither. Inspired by his Vietnam War experiences, Bang has lately focused on fusing jazz with Southeast Asian folk music, emphasizing the string tradition in both cultures. Bang moved fluidly from tender lyricism to funky blues riffs, the latter punctuated by his dazzling solos. Violinist Leroy Jenkins followed, playing solo in tandem with dancer Felicia Norton. Bowing mostly drones, Jenkins explored the tensions of individual tonalities as Norton's deliberate yet graceful movements offered release.
This year as in the past, downtown favorites shone: Pianist Matthew Shipp led a dazzling quartet on closing night, and trumpeter Roy Campbell impressed in a variety of settings, especially his Pyramid Trio. Bassist Henry Grimes, who resurfaced only recently after 30-plus years, displayed fresh form and vigor. The duet was a recurring format, ranging wildly in style and feel: Saxophonist Joe McPhee and clarinetist Lori Freedman interwove intricate phrases; bassist Joelle Leandre and violinist India Cooke staked out a challenging, sometimes humorous terrain; drummer Nasheet Waits found elegant and inventive ways to withstand saxophonist Peter Brotzmann's bombast.
The most thrilling performance was turned in by the Little Huey Big Band, led by bassist William Parker, a father figure to this whole scene. With the additions of vocalist Leena Conquest, a cadre of percussionists, and special guest saxophonist Alan "Juice" Glover, the group moved confidently from pithy blues to sections of free improvisation in a complex and high-spirited manner: deep, forceful, and celebratory all at once.
All this was nearly enough to make you forget that the JVC Festival was simultaneously under way at concert halls uptown. Underneath the peeling paint that adds flecked beauty to the Orensanz, originally one of the first synagogues on the Lower East Side, the Vision Festival faithful were presented with a still-vital aesthetic that needs no corporate sponsorship, answering instead to a higher authority.
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