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Friday, May 25, 2018

Vision Festival #23 2018 - Day 1

Opening Invocation: Patricia Nicholson, William Parker, and Hamid Drake
By Martin Schray

Last year Paul covered the complete Vision Festival in a tremendous spree of reviews, an effort which is really stressful for a single reviewer. This year I’m able to visit the festival for the first time and Paul and I decided to split forces to cover as many events as possible.

In general, most of the visitors, many of them regulars of the festival, were glad that it takes places at Roulette again, since the acoustics in Manhattan’s Judson Hall were difficult (to put it mildly). The venue is part of Memorial Hall in the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District and offers a 400-seat theater which is perfect for smaller and larger ensembles.

As usual, the festival began with an opening invocation by bassist William Parker and his wife, dancer Patricia Nicholson, who both co-organize the festival, along with percussionist Hamid Drake. Parker played the gimbri (a three string Moroccan bass) while Drake used a large hand drum. They established a traditional groove to which Nicholson delivered a dance meditation before she picked up a microphone announcing what this year’s festival will be about. She declaimed that there was a lot of work to do, which is why she was calling all spirits particularly evoking the powers of freedom, hope and justice in order to heal our hearts.

It was the festival's clarion call: in times of a crisis of human rights and democracy it’s necessary to remind people of the great achievements of the civil rights movement and of the power and the anger that propelled this movement. On the one hand the festival showcases the musical heroes of this movement, on the other hand it presents young musicians who might be able to carry on the torch.

Dave Burrell, Steve Swell, Darius Jones, Harrison Bankhead, and Andrew Cyrille
This year the festival celebrates Dave Burrell, the great 77-year-old pianist, who lives his music with outstanding integrity and whose creativity is supposed to be an example for the new generation. Or, as the festival program says: "His open heart makes him an important light and place of hope as we stand under direct attack in this season of lies." Burrell attended his first Vision Festival in 2000. He has since appeared on several subsequent editions of the event, sometimes playing multiple sets. However, while Burrell is still an underdog, he has inspired many young artists with his music. His musical repertoire reaches from Jelly Roll Morton to Thelonious Monk to Duke Ellington and Cecil Taylor. “He embodies the continuum of Jazz“, as Patricia Nicholson writes in the notes of the festival. That’s why Burrell was scheduled with three bands on the first day, and particularly the first project, Harlem Renaissance, a quintet that includes legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille, the wonderful bassist Harrison Bankhead, Darius Jones on alto, and Steve Swell on trombone, gave evidence of Burrell’s roots in the tradition.  The first composition, "Paradox of Freedom," established a swing atmosphere at the beginning, as it referred back to the music of the 1930s and 40s. But just when the music was about getting too comfortable, Cyrille and Bankhead dropped playing time and the band seemed to abandon all preconceived ideas and changed to free improvisation. It was an excursion into jazz history, from the call-and-response patterns of the blues to free jazz and back again. In the liner notes to the festival Burrell makes clear that this wasn’t only about music. The compositions were "dedicated to all descendants of slaves freed from their owners during the Civil War". Again there it was: the political component reflected in the music itself.

Dave Burrell, Archie Shepp, William Parker, and Hamid Drake
For the second set Burrell re-united with saxophonist Archie Shepp, with whom he appeared on a series of albums in the 1960s and 70s (check out Blasé from 1969, on BYG). William Parker and Hamid Drake joined them on bass and drums. And again the link between tradition and the present became visible. Shepp decided to play "Sonny", a composition dedicated to Sonny Rollins, and "Revolutionary", a song he wrote for his grandmother. Surprisingly, Shepp was more powerful when he replaced the tenor (on which he chose to play rather balladesque) with the soprano, then you could almost feel the spirit of John Coltrane penetrate the venue. Finally, when he even started to sing, Shepp’s black power gestures were back for a moment. The audience loved it and celebrated him with standing ovations.

After that there was an interruption by a dance performance by Warrior of Light, a collaboration of dancer/choreographer Djassi DaCosta Johnson and bassist Shayna Dulberger. Johnson recited a modern version of Billie Holidays "Strange Fruit" referring to recent racial lynchings in the US. The performance itself was very intense, Johnson seemed to  adopt positions of martial arts warriors. The metaphor of the Warrior of Light refers to personal strength and poise when faced with constant war and struggle. All in all a powerful statement that would have deserved more respect by a rather noisy audience.

Dave Burrell, Kidd Jordan, William Parker, James Brandon Lewis, and Andrew Cyrille
The evening was closed by Burrell’s quintet featuring Andrew Cyrille and William Parker, behind a pair of imposing tenor saxophonists: Kidd Jordan, 82, and James Brandon Lewis, 34 - another personification of tradition and modernity. In contrast to the other two sets this one was played completely free - and indeed it was the all-out alert, the full force that was expected in the run-up. Jordan told the story how he got his nickname. At the age of 17 he was the youngest one in the band which is why he was called “kid“. And even today, he said, he’s still the “kid“. He said that although he was sick he wanted to try his best. To cut a long story short: he really rocked the house. From the beginning of the 45-minute piece the playing was of the utmost intensity, fired by a very different Dave Burrell, who played clusters á la Cecil Taylor, and by an excellent William Parker, who seemed to be inspired by Andrew Cyrille’s light-footed drumming. Jordan played until he literally could hardly walk anymore and had to take breaks now and then - just to come back even better. James Barndon Lewis proved to be one of the players who might carry on the legacy, at his young age he has the lung capacities to develop a full, ripe and powerful tone (like the young Archie Shepp, for example). Jordan delivered the right attitude, the people simply freaked out and this frail, fragile man - who said that this was only the second gig he played this year - enjoyed every second of the show.

All in all a very promising beginning of the festival, which will continue with a focus on younger musicians like Mary Halvorson and one on women (Women with an Axe to Grind) on Thursday night.

All Vision Festival 23 Reviews: