The annual Vision Festival is one of NYC’s premier events for avant-garde/cutting edge jazz and improvised music. Held in a variety of rented venues, it provides a showcase for a dizzying array of improvising musicians, drawing upon performers from local, national and international orbits, often juxtaposing or featuring collaborations between the younger upstarts, established performers and the Grand Old Men (or Women) of creative music. While other festivals have bigger names and established jazz stars performing at "prestigious" venues, Vision Fest keeps the focus on The Questing Ones and The Edge, AND keeps it affordable to those who’d find a $60 ticket a bit of a stretch financially. This year, some of the Vision performances are held at The Center, a multipurpose hall/small auditorium near the city’s Little Italy section. Monday also Memorial Day was a fine night to be a fan of this music. Despite, or maybe because of, the Holiday Weekend, there was practically a full house for this eve’s festivities, a crowd that cut across "boundaries" of age, skin hue and nationality.
It began with Jayne Cortez’ Firespitters Ms. Cortez (who is also Mrs. Ornette Coleman) preached, shouted, ranted and cajoled her poetry to the rhythm-driven accompaniment of a band that included alumni of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and a performer not heard often enough on this coast, cornetist Bobby Bradford. The music was a joyous mélange of harmelodic funk, Southwestern jump-blues, free-bop jazz and folk sounds from the Mississippi Delta. Her strident delivery got a bit wearying at times, but the music was wonderfully engaging. Another Coleman associate was on the bill: Dewey Redman, who brought with him a young but capable piano-bass-drums trio. The drummer Matt Wilson, almost omnipresent on the NYC jazz scene, is turning into a killer first-class percussionist: ingenious but discerning, respectful of tradition but not limited by it. Redman, a mellowing avant-gardist who’s a graduate of the Texas School of (Tenor) Saxophone, had a bit of a wobbly start his sound was blues-rich and robust, but he sounded a bit tentative. After awhile though, Redman’s seeming hesitancy was gone, replaced by a confident, almost swaggering sound. He played a shenai (or was it a musette?), a North African reed instrument, accompanied only by a surging, sinuous Eastern-flavored matrix of bass and drums it’s wailing sound (a bit like a cross between an oboe and a soprano sax) seemed to both mystify (a little) and super-charged (a lot) the audience. Redman concluded with a long, rousing, strutting, heavily rhythmic, somewhat Louis Jordan-styled blues that literally got a few people up dancing and slammin’ the funk around. Redman even walked into the audience while playing and the band kept the beat. I didn’t envy the next group that had to follow Redman, the Don Cherry Memorial Band. This all-star 8-member aggregation assembled to pay tribute to the late globe-spanning trumpeter/composer Don Cherry (yet another Coleman compatriot), consisting mostly of musicians who had played with him and directed by long-time collaborator Karl Berger (vibes & piano). While it most certainly had its moments especially from the wailing tenor of Frank Lowe, Bob Stewart’s gutsy tuba and the heartfelt trumpeting of Graham Haynes it never seemed to really take off, and the New Age-y/hippie-ish cosmic debris spouted by Ingrid Sertso was a bit of a bring-down. Cherry composed many great tunes, capable of instilling joy and nameless spiritual wonder, and this band played a few of them, but with the exception of a rousing take of his "Multikulti," this Memorial Band’s approach came off as perhaps a bit too respectful. All ‘n’ all, it was an outstanding evening of music four groups for $20! - and most everyone seemed to leave with a nice afterglow. (PS: The last group of the night was the Pyramid Trio, for which I, alas, was too tired to stay for.)[PS #2: VisionFest goes on through June 7!]