Listen, before we get to how badass and soul-stirring the lineup at his year’s Vision Festival is, let me try to sell you on why you should care. (I’m assuming that you are not a dedicated follower of what, for the sake of convenience, we’ll call “free jazz,” though that term is contested.)
You know that sentiment you often hear—or maybe sometimes spout yourself—about how much more glorious this city was in decades past, when the streets weren’t boiling in capital, when the rent wasn’t an obscenity, when artists could afford to live and experiment and (maybe) flourish? Of course you do. And, of course, being no dummy, you know those days aren’t coming back anytime soon.
But it’s worth celebrating that at this year’s 22nd Vision Festival, the creative, communitarian spirit of what we idealize about those days doesn’t just live—it thrives. As always at this (mostly) annual blowout of free/avant jazz and other noncommercial arts, that spirit hollers, squeals, parties, and protests. It celebrates its legacy and champions new blood. It’s utterly uncompromising but also entirely inviting—neighborly, even. That binary defines a creative music scene whose audiences often get to feel something that’s far too rare in money-mad New York. When you arrive at a venue like the Stone or the Downtown Music Gallery or Ibeam Brooklyn to hear the world’s best players create sounds nobody will ever create again, everyone—from performers to proprietors to the head-bobbing faithful in the seats—usually seems legit glad you showed up.
Seriously, without you there, something’s missing.
Here’s another thing people say a lot when talking about great eras in this city’s musical history, whether the heyday of 52nd Street, the ’70s loft scene, the Knitting Factory in the ’90s, or whatever: I wish I’d have been there then. I am telling you now that you can and should be there now, this week, at the latest iteration of a festival that hosts performances the people of the future will think you were a simp for missing.
“There’s a new energy that’s reflective of this time of trouble,” Patricia Nicholson, the festival’s founder, artistic director, and a noted choreographer, tells the Voice. “Bad times make, sometimes, for good art. We live in this world right now, and we have to be present.”
Simply put, this city that’s so inhospitable to art that’s tough to monetize is currently home to an epochal flowering of what people call “free jazz” or “fire music” or any other reductive designation. As a profitable business, the jazz world mostly collapsed around the dawn of the millennium, when major record labels (mostly) abandoned the music, and old heads and critics warned that the Jazz at Lincoln Center approach to tradition and education would staunch the creative development of young players. But a funny thing happened: With the money drained from the scene, the players coming up had no reason not to play whatever the hell they wanted. Suddenly, it’s not as if incorporating free improv, downtown skronk, hip hop power, ambient quietude, unmetered rhythms, between-note microtones, protest poetry, and techniques that push the limits of what instruments can do was threatening anyone’s chance at a deal with Sony.
This year’s lineup, as always, boasts a murders’ row of multi-generational musicians.
“This music is not a whitewashing of anything,” Nicholson says. “It’s challenging at times, it’s not putting you to sleep, it’s not status quo. It’s music that has energy—life energy.”
Year after year, the Vision Festival—put on by the nonprofit Arts for Art—offers an exemplary survey of the scene, all with the feeling of a block party. Stretching over six nights and two venues, this year’s lineup boasts, as always, a murders’ row of multi-generational musicians, including young-ish established artists like trumpeter Jaimie Branch, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, and Afrofuturist flutist/genius Nicole Mitchell, all playing on the same night, Thursday, June 23, an embarrassment of riches. In addition to a film series at Anthology Film Archives and urgent panel discussions on June 20 (sample topic: “Reclaiming the Power of Creative Music in Communities of Color”), highlights include Joshua Abrams’s transcendence-through-rhythm band Natural Information Society, pianist Eri Yamamoto’s serene-to-wild group Sparks, and the towering pianist/composer Angelica Sanchez, leading a trio with the world-class rhythm section of bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Hamid Drake.
The lineup is diverse, local, and politically engaged. Between sets, expect dance recitals, poetry readings, film excerpts, fiery speechifying. The food’s cheap but healthy, prepped by volunteers; these days, Vision Fest mainstay William Parker, the presiding spirit of the scene, no longer has to help make the sandwiches attendees will be eating—but he’s still slated to appear in different ensembles on four separate nights. (Other regulars leading groups: Whit Dickey, Fay Victor, Matthew Shipp.)
Bookending the week’s performances are the closest things Vision offers to a jazz-fest standard: lifetime achievement tributes to two greats, in this case, trumpeter/composer/artist/wise man Wadada Leo Smith (on Tuesday, June 21) and saxophonist/flutist/composer/poet/artist Oliver Lake (on June 26). Both warrant celebration, of course. But don’t expect mothballed recreations of past glories. Instead, like creative music itself, they’re about what’s happening right now.
Smith, 80, is in the thick of one of the great late-career runs of any American artist, releasing six fresh, stylistically diverse boxed sets on the Tum label in the past year alone, as well as exemplary albums like this year’s Pacifica Coral Reef, a head-spinning trio work with guitarists Henry Kaiser and Alex Varty. The most recent Tum boxes, String Quartets Nos. 1-12 and the trumpet-and-drummers collection The Emerald Duets, hit Bandcamp and record stores like the Downtown Music Gallery’s shop last week. Smith will play several times, in a variety of configurations, on June 21, including duets with drummer Pheeroan akLaff and collaborations with poet Thulani Davis and pianists Erika Dohi and Sylvie Courvoisier. The RedKoral String Quartet will debut Smith’s composition “Angela Davis Into the Morning Sunlight.”
Meanwhile, World Saxophone Quartet co-founder Lake, 79, is not scheduled to blow his horn: His exemplary band Trio 3 played its final gig in February, at Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center, a bittersweet occasion that found Lake on sax only at set’s end. His power and invention as an improviser will be missed—in February 2020, not long before the Covid shutdown, I witnessed Trio 3 at full power inspire a young man at the now-shuttered club Jazz Standard to weep openly—but Lake’s presence remains indomitable. He will declaim poetry in duet with Trio 3 colleague Andrew Cyrille, the boundlessly inventive drummer, along with some spoken-word passages, on June 26. His group Oliver Lake’s Justice, with Sonic Liberation Front, will perform compositions under his conduction; saxophonist JD Parran will lead a tribute trio, accompanied by dance choreographed by Nicholson; and the WSQ itself will close out the night.
That striking blend of past and present, of music, dance, and poetry, exemplifies the Festival—and a scene committed to free expression, social justice, and having a fine damn time.
Nicholson measures the Festival’s success not just in its ticket sales, longevity, consciousness-raising, and inclusive programming. She’s moved by a simpler metric: “It’s the happy faces,” she says. “What else can you ask for? Happy faces. People just beaming. I look forward to that as much as the audience looks forward to the music.” ❖
Alan Scherstuhl is an editor at Publishers Weekly, a former Village Voice editor and critic, and has written about music, books, and movies for many outlets. He’s probably sitting behind you at the Jazz Gallery.
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