The large, multicolored image hanging high above the Abrons Arts Center stage to commemorate the 14th annual Vision Festival looked like a fish when viewed from the right. From the left, it formed something with four legs and a tail. What four-legged creature, I’m not sure, and what Jorgo Schäfer’s painting signified overall, I’m still deciding. But I’m certain what the work was not: a corporate logo.
“The Vision Fest is the scrappiest, most self-sufficient scene on the block,” said Michael Ehlers, head of the scrappy, self-sufficient free-jazz label Eremite, from the seat behind mine last Sunday night. Meanwhile, 80-year-old tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson stooped low to urge out high-pitched overtones, William Parker plucked delicate patterns on a dous n’goni, and Hamid Drake tapped out soft rhythms on a large drum. The Vision Festival filled a week with jazz like this: 50 events in all.
Was the decision not to throw a JVC Jazz Festival in Manhattan this year a surprise, or did we see it coming? This year’s failure stems, in part, from the over-leveraging of impresario George Wein’s former company, Festival Productions, by its new principals (the company staged 37 large-scale events worldwide last year) and to a recession-fueled pullout by the title sponsor. Yet Wein himself frequently bemoaned how hard it had become to fill major Manhattan concert halls with jazz programming. His legacy extends far and wide: Nearly every jazz festival, Vision included, pays homage to his model. But when I ran into the 83-year-old impresario at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (a still-standing outpost of his once-empire), Wein said New York was impossible to satisfy now that giants no longer walked the earth. “Besides,” he added, “New York is a jazz festival all year long.”
He’s right: Recession or not, every jazz musician that matters plays here, in bookings that coincide to make nearly any given week inadvertently festive. But June is jazz, or so the hype has gone (extending a month more if you count the 92nd Street Y’s “Jazz in July” series). Back in the ’90s, former Knitting Factory owner Michael Dorf mounted an alternative festival called What Is Jazz? That existential question now sounds quaintly irrelevant, so flexible have jazz’s borders grown. Here’s a better question: What is a jazz festival? Is it enough, or even sensible these days, to gather the most bankable artists and call it a day? Or should you present musicians in configurations that challenge expectations, urge on the loose-limbed jams you don’t hear much anymore, and perhaps reflect a theme, a movement, a community?
The Vision Festival, which ran June 9 to 14, fits all those descriptions. And at least the latter applies to a number of other local June events. The Festival of New Trumpet Music (a/k/a FONT) fills the tiny Cornelia Street Café with trumpeters you’ve never heard of playing stuff you’ve never heard. (Thomas Heberer pulls out his quarter-tone trumpet on June 28.) The Brooklyn Underground Records Jazz Festival, at the Jazz Gallery through June 27, highlights a borough-based collective. And Park Slope’s Tea Lounge hosts the Bloom Festival, showcasing female bandleaders, through June 26. Wein himself booked two concerts at Carnegie Hall this month: Given the circumstances, can you blame him for signing up proven pop-jazz crossover draws like pianist/singers Jamie Cullum and Diana Krall?
Beyond evoking free-jazz values—little in the way of standard song structure, coupled with an easy embrace of visual art, dance, and poetry—the Vision Festival also represents an entertainment value: A typical four-hour-plus show runs you only $25. Yet there’s never been corporate sponsorship or major-label support. This year’s edition offered pleasantly unsettling surprises: Gone were the folding chairs, poor ventilation, and often muddy sound systems of the former sites. Furthermore, musicians who barely register on other festivals’ radars are bona fide stars here: guys like tenor saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan, who is revered in his native New Orleans as an old-school educator, but whose defiantly untraditional music is rarely heard even there.
Jordan got his customary hero’s welcome, but last Wednesday night’s true honoree was alto saxophonist Marshall Allen, director of the Sun Ra Arkestra and recipient of the festival’s Lifetime Recognition Award. Allen, who joined Ra’s Arkestra more than 50 years ago, keeps Ra’s flame intact; at 85, his own playing displays both strength and ingenuity. Playing together in a quintet with Parker, Drake, and bassist/violinist Henry Grimes, Jordan and Allen issued interlaced upper-register cries on tenor and alto saxophones at times; at others, Allen laid out odd harmonic contours on an Electronic Valve Instrument, and Jordan colored them in with blues.
An hour later, wearing a sequined purple robe and hat, Allen returned to front the Sun Ra Arkestra. The group’s overblown squeals quickly settled down into Ra’s repertoire: These tunes, mostly grounded in big-band swing and shuffles, formed at some moments the most conventional sounds of the week, though just as soon smeared and skewed, through odd voicings and overlapping solos, into surreality. Trumpeter Michael Ray’s remarkable power and precision extended way into his instrument’s upper range, but this was a group affair, a two-hour party that blended musicianship with old-time entertainment, right down to alto saxophonist Knoel Scott’s somersaults.
Those who think the Vision Fest’s aesthetic worn and its community anachronistic need spend just one night under its power to disavow such notions. While there may no longer be anything experimental about playing free, the ongoing experiments of these musicians remain vital and yield fresh satisfactions. Butch Morris used hand signals and body English to guide a chorus of poets, shaping music from chopped-up verses via his science of “conduction.” Saxophonist and trumpeter Joe McPhee slid in and out of tonality to a place delineated solely by emotion. Parker ended the whole event playing late into last Monday night, augmenting his working quartet with violinist Billy Bang, alto saxophonist James Spaulding, and cornetist Bobby Bradford: Building and then morphing one sturdy groove into another, he and Drake fueled something like an old-school bebop cutting session conducted in avant-garde dialect.
George Wein may lament the absence of giants walking the earth, but the Vision Festival’s orbit is filled with musicians who play larger than life: from Parker to Jordan to, say, trumpeter Roy Campbell. This year, even Sun Ra, who died in 1993 and claimed Saturn as his birthplace, made the scene.