Bassist and ecstatic-jazz community organizer William Parker told his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra to wear red for the NewOrleans-style parade that inaugurated the 5th Annual Vision Festival, which runs through the 29th. Parker looked very much the jongleur as he grand-marshaled 10 musicians down East Village streets last Friday in a ruby cap and bright shoes to match, with dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson sharing the lead in a flared skirt. For all its sartorial splendor, the procession’s real pageantry was aural. Schooled in collective improv, the Orchestra marked time with martial steps while blowing embellishments that were adopted spontaneously into new riffs.
The parade picked up 80 or so friends and stragglers by the time it spilled into the New Age Cabaret, the former site of the Electric Circus, where the likes of Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, and Jimi Hendrix once played. If this historical resonance isn’t enough to make the musician-and-artist-run grassroots festival seem a throwback, the decor is—looming macramé ornaments strung from black ceilings and walls that fairly beg for light shows. In an age when corporate sponsorship transforms festival concerts into so many sonic banner ads, the Vision Fest’s 11 commercial-free nights lend it the fresh air of a jazz vanguardists’ family reunion.
Mardi Gras comes before Lent, and the processional was followed by Joseph Jarman’s opening invocation, an austere prayer-chant by members of his Brooklyn dojo. The crowd had some trouble mustering appropriate reverence after the cathartic revelry—as dazed as a bunch of Bourbon Street celebrants suddenly shuttled into a quiet sanctuary. But the opening night’s program was engaging, with a set from drummer Reggie Nicholson’s group followed by a trio of improvising Germans—bassist Peter Kowald, trombonist Conrad Bauer, and drummer Gunter Sommer—who closed out their North American tour here. Pianist Matt Shipp, Parker, and expatriate drummer Sunny Murray delivered some classic avant-garde trio jazz, their provocation moderated by interplay, with a beautifully forceful melodicism from Shipp. It was Shipp who finally resolved any outstanding quarrel between the sacred and secular; he sacrificed no festivity in the liturgy of his large, sweeping chords. ÑMichelle Mercer
Avoiding C, D, and E
A scalper last Monday night was wondering aloud who Wire were—this band he’d never heard of who’d sold out Irving Plaza, whose fans were 10 years older than the usual crowd and so responsible they’d almost all bought tickets already. The answer is that they’re an underground shibboleth: the band that made punk rock brainy, terse, and arty, that gave songs to Minor Threat and My Bloody Valentine and Elastica, that fearlessly sloughed off its past again and again. When Wire first reunited, in the ’80s, they declined to play their punk-era stuff; since they dissolved again a decade ago, they’ve individually headed off toward arch instrumental electronica. So it wasn’t clear whether this tour’s return to guitar-bass-drums and their old repertoire would be a victory or a surrender.
In the end, the only complaint I heard, and I heard it a lot, was that their set was much too short (just under an hour). Wire’s songs work like perfect little machines, and they’d figured out how to streamline them even further—”from A to B, again avoiding C, D and E,” as a 23-year-old song they reprised puts it. They excised one chord from “Pink Flag” (a neat trick, considering that it started with two), truncated a few other songs, and ditched most of the words to “Drill,” for which Band of Susans guitarist Robert Poss joined them. As much of a thrill as it was to see the Actual Original Artists playing “12XU,” Wire are essentially non-musicians interested in rock as an art-making process, and the point appeared to be less reliving past glories than touching base with first principles before heading out into fresh territory.
They haven’t been flogging this material for 20 years, after all, and they looked genuinely psyched to play it again, an impression supported by their eccentric and pretty much hit-free song selection. The set’s dips into their ’80s catalog rectified that incarnation’s mistakes—fussiness, vagueness, reliance on synths—and reorganized the songs around their severe, meticulous rhythm section (drummer Robert Gotobed was reportedly the one who insisted they go back to what singer-guitarist Colin Newman once dismissed as the “beat-group” format). The one new song they played was an excellent sign, too: This might be the first oldies tour that makes the band’s next move an exciting prospect. ÑDouglas Wolk