Beginning with a birthday party and ending with a wake, the ninth Vision Festival sought solace in ceremony. The opening night’s ode to Marshall Allen found the newly minted octogenarian brandishing flowers and extinguishing candles amid the blaring refrain of “Happy Birthday,” Arkestra-style. Allen, cicada-like in a gold-sequined bike helmet, goggles, and cape, coaxed fluttering screeches and staccato squawks from his alto saxophone. Then his fellow Sun Ra disciples paraded down the center aisle, producing the week’s inaugural highlight. Stanching an encore for scheduling reasons, director Patricia Nicholson Parker promised more. “All the courses are delicacies,” she declared, “and they all have their own flavor.”
The Vision Festival appeals to an aficionado’s palate, dishing out art that requires gastronomic expertise. This edition was rich in memorial and protest—the former exemplified by a tribute to the late bassists Wilber Morris and Peter Kowald, and the latter implicit in the slogan “Vision for a just world.” The event served its constituency foremost, turning inward to tend to its own. But even neophytes among the folding chairs might easily have caught the spirit, as legends resurfaced, regulars recombined, and boldface names were invoked in mantras sacred and profane.
Fittingly, for a community still tethered to the lofty ’70s, the most highly anticipated set was a reunion of the Revolutionary Ensemble, which hadn’t convened publicly in nearly 30 years. Their comeback consisted of a series of small formal exercises, over which violinist Leroy Jenkins and bassist Sirone fashioned intertwining vapor trails. Drummer Jerome Cooper was almost genteel behind them, breaking a sweat only with the fusillade of paradiddles that capped his solo. In fact, the entire performance was oddly decorous—at times suggesting not a Revolutionary Ensemble but a Modern Jazz Quartet. A few days prior, a similar ceremoniousness had supplied the Henry Grimes Trio with a heart to match its soul. Grimes, last year’s human-interest story, made a bramble of his marathon improv with Marilyn Crispell and Andrew Cyrille. So when Crispell’s drip-canvas chords shimmered near the set’s end, the effect was tingly—yin meets yang.
A handful of the Vision Festival’s 30 proper performances provided comparable frissons. James “Blood” Ulmer played stratospherically, expanding on the root-cellar funk of Calvin Weston and Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Pianist Matthew Shipp, drummer Whit Dickey, and bassist William Parker interlocked uneasily but effectively, like the gears on an overheated machine. In his “Five Outer Planets” suite, bassist Mark Dresser proved that he still plays the world’s most forbidding creaky ship hull. And several minutes into a heartrending melody by Barre Phillips, Gunter “Baby” Sommer tossed up a fistful of confetti—then whisked a pair of fluorescent feather dusters around his drum kit, with no hint of a smile. These and a few other irreducible moments lingered in the memory longer than the occasional mishaps and plentiful indulgences.
Conduction, the improv semaphore devised by Butch Morris, emerged as the festival’s Esperanto and most beguiling ritual. Burnt Sugar employed the process to full effect, beginning with a tattoo of tom-toms and applying successive striations of texture: vocal incantation, a violin scrim, a half-time trip-hop beat. Up through the soup came Vijay Iyer’s piano, pointing toward Matana Roberts’s searing saxophone and Latasha Nevada Diggs’s metaphysical verse, the best poetry of the festival. Jeff Schlanger’s painterly translation of the set, hung up to dry during a break, placed conductor Greg Tate in the center foreground—a transparent hulk with talismanic hat and dreads. Four nights later, Tate’s mentor Morris was more opaque in his concert voodoo, layering harp, woodwinds, and electronics together for a subcutaneous chill. Helga Davis’s forthright alto pierced the fog, pronouncing a memento mori along with expressions of love. The set began and ended with a requiem—in tribute to Morris’s older brother Wilber, who died in 2002.
The festival finale, a free-improvising bass choir comprising Parker, Grimes, Sirone, and Alan Silva, had similar aims. Along with Morris, they saluted Kowald, whose drawings adorned the north wall. The elephantine ensemble, joined by saxophonist Charles Gayle, could have used a dose of conduction, or at least a time limit. But like the Vision Festival at large, its motives were irreproachable and its execution full of life.