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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Vision Festival 2017 - Day 2: The Resistance Begins

Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks

The motto of the Vision Festival is simply "For a Just Future". A timeless mission, and in our current political state of mendacity, words more prescient than ever. Yoshiko Chuma's School of Hard Knocks' debut performance of "Dead End, Hey! Women" was a timely and kaleidoscopic collage of spoken word, music, modern dance, video, and interrogation. The actual narrative may be boiled down to an incident at the border ... apparently where Syria, Palestine and Israel all meet, somewhere there is a wall, and somewhere there is the juxtaposition of a young woman's dream (or women, there seemed to be a child with her family, as well as an American choreographer traveling abroad) being decimated by a cold unjustice. Images of post war devastation rolled by on the wall - drone surveillance of Homs, Syria, and post WWII footage of Berlin - as dancers moved silently below. The mix of words, repeat phrases playing off tone, pitch, and context, became anxiety inducing, and thoughts of the current administration's moves to curtail the press, crush the poor, and enable the schemes of the rich, all came rushing in. An effective piece, even if I am not sure I understood it at all. 

There was a brief pause in the program as the stage was reset and the seats moved, and then "Three Stories" came on. Billed as Miya Masaoka on the Koto, Robert Dick on flute, and Joelle Leandre on bass, a last minute substitution found Ken Filiano filling in for Leandre. I was disappointed only in that I have not yet seen Leandre perform.

Three Stories: Robert Dick, Miya Masaoka, and Ken Filiano

Just to get it out of the way: it is pretty well established that the acoustics of Judson Hall leave a little to be desired. The fest was doing the best it could to reinforce and focus the sound and I found that sitting stage right, near one of the speakers (not next to) worked well for me, for this trio, for which sound is very important. While the previous evening was about grooves ... whether the deep primal ones from the Digital Primitives or the slow churning ones favored by Black Host, the focus now was on timbre and tone. Masaoka plucked judiciously at the 13 or so strings of the large 19th century nautical looking Koto, Dick played soft short melodies, and Filiano carefully worked over the strings of his bass. Dick pulled out the bass flute, and a sonorous tone wafted over the hushed audience. Texture overshadowed motion, yet as the group reached the end of the improvisation, though there was nowhere that they were going, it felt like they had arrived.

Dabbling in wooden resonance and metallic sheen, the group had begun a second improvisation. Out came the contrabass flute, from what I was told, is a custom built, one of a kind instrument that stood above Dick's head and jutting out in an angle. If the bass flute seemed novel, there was nothing to prepare you for this magical piece of plumbing that now occupied the stage and my imagination. 

Filiano began the final improvisation of the set with some vigor and soon Dick began with quick runs and trills on the standard flute, Filiano struck double stops, and Masaoka strummed the Koto lightly and kicked a ball of bells about. The group was soon blanketing the audience with sound, and as Dick reached for the contrabass, the low and rich sweep of notes could make you swoon. It became clear that though there was no plan, no destination, and outcomes totally unknown, this pure improvisation was as refreshing and satisfying as one could desire. Three Stories certainly started the musical portion of the night off right.

After the set, I made my way down to the community room, which was buzzing with activity. I realized that what I thought was soap yesterday was actually some very fine hand crafted chocolate. How could I be so wrong? I conversed a bit with the publisher of Buddy's Knife, a German press focused on free jazz and improvisation (I reviewed Giving Birth to Sound: Women in Creative Music a couple years back). At this point, I had to reluctantly leave the festival for the night - a looming NJ Transit train ride and turned to Downtown Music Gallery owner, Bruce Lee Gallanter to take over ...

The Jazz & Poetry Choir Collective featured three poets plus a quartet of familiar musicians: Rosie Hertlein on violin, Christopher D Sullivan on bass, Warren Smith on vibes & Michael TA Thompson on percussion. Each poet and each musician read one poem. What made this work was that the music was often stripped down so that you could every word, the music was at times quiet, mysterious, thoughtful and solemn. Each poem was well selected and gave us much food for consideration. Although one of the poets chanted, “Jesus Loves Me”, I got the feeling that her or our prayers are not being answered by whomever we believe in. “Impeach Yourself” was another repeated refrain that made us smile. Often while one poet read, the other voices would answer with words to phrases underneath to enhance the themes. In dark times like now, when we have to deal with things like ‘alternative facts’ (or lies), it is time to ask “What is truth”? Much better than I would’ve imagined.

The debut of Tomas Fujiwara’s Double Trio was a much anticipated event. The personnel featured Mary Halvorson and Brandon Seabrook on guitars, Ralph Alessi and Taylor Ho Bynum on trumpet and cornet, and Gerald Cleaver and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. No bass used or needed here. Mr. Fujiwara did a great job of providing a series of smart, sly grooves so that double lines could interlock. While one guitar or trumpet would solo, the other could provide color or counterpoint. Mr. Ho Bynum took a number of explosive solos on cornet while Ralph Alessi (a generation older) took more strident, mature solos. At one point, Bynum kept switching mutes every few phrases, quite a restless explorer. Although Brandon Seabrook and Mary Halvorson are two of the most exciting and creative jazz/rock guitarists in the current Downtown Scene, they sound nothing alike. This sextet gave them an opportunity to play quick intricate lines while the other player soloed intensely on top. The double drummers were also well used and worked well together, splitting rhythmic chores just right. I was reminded at times of early days of double drummers like the Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead.

Elders of the NYC Avant Jazz Scene, Trio 3 featured Oliver Lake on alto sax, Reggie Workman on double bass and Andrew Cyrille on drums and were last on the long bill. Instead of playing consistently free, the trio played mostly written material from across their 27 year carrier together. Each of the three members are integral to their focused, tight and sprawling sound/approach. Each got a chance to stretch, push some boundaries and take inspired solos. Mr. Lake’s bittersweet, Dolphy-esque playing really shined throughout. The trio was joined by Marc Cary on piano and Reggie Workman’s daughter on vocals to perform an old piece written by Reggie many years ago. The epic length work mentions famous battles and struggles our shared US history: “the Trail of Tears, Hiroshima, San Juan Hill, Bosnia…”. It was a long triumphant set which ended very late, way past midnight. What along, strong night, indeed! But many were tired and happy to wander out into the night.

Vision Festival #22, May 28th - June 3, 2017, reviews: