Life, Death, and Rebirth at the CareFusion and Vision Jazz Festivals


In a New York June filled with jazz festivals, the sincerest sound was silence. Ten minutes of it, at the Abrons Arts Center, halfway into the Vision Festival, to honor tenor saxophonist Fred Anderson, who had died at 81 that day.

Onstage stood choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker and pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. The night was intended to celebrate “a lifetime of achievement” for Abrams, who, at 79, embodies the liberated rigor of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (of which Abrams and Anderson were among the co-founders) and of the Vision Fest itself, this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvisation. He’d been honored this year as a 2010 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, too, the combined nods signaling less duality than how potently jazz’s “in” and “out” worlds coincide when it comes to original and lasting voices.

The fragility of life and the vitality of jazz’s many faces served as a theme throughout June. Alongside Vision, George Wein’s Manhattan mainstream festival rose again, thanks to a new sponsor, CareFusion; the upstart two-night Undead Jazz Festival looked like an alternative club-crawl success, but did we need its title? Who takes seriously last rites for anything we either agree or disagree to call “jazz”? Stop that silliness, get on with the music.

They did just that at “Tri-Centric Modeling: Past, Present, and Future,” the most riveting and compact of festivals, a two-day 65th-birthday celebration for multi-reedist and composer Anthony Braxton (another AACM founder) and a benefit for the nonprofit Tri-Centric Foundation, which supports his music. At (le) poisson rouge, Braxton mostly beamed from the doorway as a succession of musicians, ranging widely in age and technique, expressed the depth and range of his influence through their own mastery. Saxophonist Steve Coleman, in duet with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, wove in and out of three Braxton compositions, blending joy with reverence; John Zorn and trumpeter Dave Douglas, in quartet with bassist Brad Jones and the drummer Gerry Hemingway, dug deeply into the challenges laid down by Braxton’s “Opus 23D,” as well as one composition each of their own, proving how their distinctly expressive languages are linked in practical and spiritual terms to the man they were honoring. With her Black Earth Strings trio, violinist Nicole Mitchell lent soulful intonation and precise articulation to the tribute.

Braxton himself took the stage three times. With longtime partner and electronics wizard Richard Teitelbaum, he responded to the call of sampled recordings, bird sounds, cow moos, and such, the two drawing the audience into something odd, yet also possessing the arc of good conversation and thoughtfully arranged music. He ended the evening with “Composition 361,” a 20-minute work for his 12+2tet, featuring instruments ranging from bassoon and tuba to electric guitar and violin—funny and deep, graceful despite its heft. But the most startling moments arrived earlier, when Braxton joined pianist Marilyn Crispell, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Hemingway, reuniting a classic quartet. He began playing John Coltrane’s “Impressions”—first glancingly, then more clearly, and yet distilled through his own filmy sound and wily sense of space. It wasn’t clear whether he blew the lid off the place or sealed a cap on something sacred. But it was something.

Over at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola one night, as part of CareFusion, composer Darcy James Argue stood with raised arms, gently sliding both hands up and down, in and out, as if trying to sculpt the Midtown cityscape through the big picture window. He was signaling the horn section of his Secret Society big band to swell gently, accentuating one detail of his music’s sturdy architecture, which brims with fresh ideas and elegant combinations of disparate influences (from distorted electric guitar to magisterial wind-instrument arrangements to minimalist rhythms), all arriving in tight execution. By contrast, the second half of pianist Herbie Hancock’s CareFusion Carnegie Hall concert landed like a thud, in large part due to Kristina Train’s tightly wound, uninspired singing. Yet at least, in the too-short first half, we got Hancock surrounded by close and stellar associates: trumpeter Wallace Roney’s expansive tone on “My Funny Valentine,” Herbie’s harmonically ingenious slip from that tune into his own “Eye of the Hurricane,” and Wayne Shorter’s pithy soprano-sax solos, riveting despite their brevity.

The memorial for another fallen hero, pianist Hank Jones, who died May 16, was a more somber high point. The scene at the Abyssinian Baptist Church evoked a time when one could easily come upon a Harlem room filled with earth-shattering pianists casually tearing it up. And so it went: Billy Taylor, Barry Harris, Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Eric Reed, and Cyrus Chestnut, not to mention saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Transplanted New Orleanian pianist Davell Crawford played and sang a hymn to close, reminding us of a brief video clip, played earlier, in which Jones had said, “A little gospel in there never hurt anyone.”

Faces of all colors—green, blue, red, and yellow—had stared from the concrete bandstand at Campos Plaza Playground within a Lower East Side public-housing complex at the Vision Fest’s kickoff. They were kids, faces painted by a vendor at a Lower East Side “family day” fair. After bassist William Parker handed them all manner of percussion instruments, they served as the rhythm section for a special incarnation of his Little Huey band. The next night at Abrons, Parker’s mighty thwak powered a powerhouse quintet with drummer Hamid Drake, trumpeter Roy Campbell, tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan, and violinist Jason Hwang. Why New Yorkers don’t get to hear Drake and Jordan aside from this festival I’ll never understand. At least we get to hear them at Vision.

Another Vision virtue is organic programming—drawn from life, not marketing plans. At the Abron Arts Center, the North-South Clarinet Ensemble expressed newfound communion between avant-gardist Perry Robinson and Michael White, who plays mostly traditional jazz in his New Orleans hometown. Though tentative at first co-leading a quintet, by set’s end, the two found a common concept, something like the catharsis of a New Orleans jazz funeral meeting Downtown Manhattan’s ecstatic ideal. “I’m not really here,” White had said while introducing the dirge-based tune. “I’m dead, died five years ago.” But if anyone embodies the idea of resilience, it is he, who lost mouthpieces from Sidney Bechet along with a house and a good chunk of his life to a flood five years ago. “When I hooked up with Perry,” White told me later, in the downstairs CD market/cafeteria, “I was able to express feelings I’d been holding inside for a very long time. These things keep happening lately. It’s like I’m onto another life now.”