Vision Festival 2024 by George Grelli – Red Hook Star-Revue
8 mins read

Vision Festival 2024 by George Grelli – Red Hook Star-Revue

Here in New York, the jazz capital of the world, hot summer nights mean not only jazz, but free jazz. The thought of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler playing at Slugs’ Saloon fills me with images of musicians on stage in a hot, crowded club, the air conditioning unable to keep up with the outside temperature, the playing itself fiery, everyone sweating, concentrating and hanging on every note with a special camaraderie of collectively experiencing something historic, unique and powerful. Of course, this is a very personal view, stemming from the actual experience of listening to and playing free jazz in the summer in this city: unforgettable nights at the original Knitting Factory, The Stone, in the parks of the East Village, even CBGB.

Outside of the parks, these places don’t exist like they used to. The rent is crazy high—the musicians are still here, but the venues are gone, and the ones that do pop up rarely last. In Mayor Eric Adams’ “City of Yes,” culture doesn’t exist if it’s not at Zero Bond. They don’t play free jazz there, but they do play every year at the Vision Festival, the city’s andoasis jazz life, which this year took place June 18-23 at Roulette.

With multiple sets each night from some of the world’s best musicians, the festival is always a great experience, but this year’s felt even better, stronger, and richest since returning from the pandemic’s cancellation. It felt both grounded and expansive, the fabric of this city, its past and future, coming together.

It all started with bassist William Parker, who has been at the center of the free jazz scene for the past fifty years and is this year’s recipient of a lifetime achievement award. His opening night was his and the festival’s epitome. There were older acts like Huey’s Pocket Watch and a satisfying return by Raining on the Moon, with the wonderful Leena Conquest singing “James Baldwin to the Rescue,” something of a Parker hit. There were new collaborators and ideas, from Roots & Rituals — fronted by the incisive, passionate Mixashawn Rozi — to The Ancients, with explosive tenor saxophonist Isaiah Collier and an extended excerpt from Parker’s opera Trail of TearsThe music for the latter track, featuring vocalists Andrea Wolper, Raina Sokolov-Gonzalez, and AnneMarie Sandy, was elaborate, but its accompanying music video, Moonlasso, had no connection to the performance and felt like it needed more polish.

Collier returned Sunday night with his trio The Chosen Few, and the evening ended with the 100-year-old Marshall Allen leading the Arkestra. It was a new and old royal game of exuberant, energetic music—and Collier himself has the sonic energy of the entire Arkestra, an astonishing player.

There was a lot more of it, and it was all just right. There was improvised rock from the new and wonderful Mendoza Hoff Revels, and slow roots rock from James Blood Ulmer. Ulmer is clumsy and concise, with songs he plays regularly, like “Jazz is the Teacher,” and things that seem to come out of thin air. It’s classic barroom-band blues rock, in a way, with the purity of delivery and expression raised to the highest level. It’s music for people who like to be together, spiced up with Ulmer talking Vernon Reid into filling in for him for a short stretch.

Fantastic tales were told by Matana Roberts and her music and memoir project COIN COIN, poetry by Fred Moten and Oliver Lake, the Davalois Fearon Dance supported by the sensitive quartet of reed player Mike McGuinness, vocalist Gino Sitson, bassist Lonnie Plaxico and drummer Adriel Vincent-Brown. The magnificent duo of tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis and drummer Chad Taylor provided an exciting set. There were two dazzling piano trios – Tarbaby and the Matthew Shipp Trio – and plenty of visual art.

Visual accompaniment to live performance has long been a sporadic, marginal element of jazz. It has never seemed fully thought out or realized (apart from a few specific projects, such as those of Darcy James Argue, which were conceived as multimedia presentations before the first note had been written). Projected onto a screen, it is perceived as a minor decorative element, if not as a distraction from the music, as in Trail of Tears fragment.

For years, the festival’s set design has been augmented by artist Jeff Schlanger, who would stand at the edge of the stage and paint the performances in real time. Less multimedia than a stand-alone performance, Schlanger improvised visual art alongside the musicians. He wasn’t feeling well and was absent this year, but his beautiful, vibrant paintings, made with fluid lines that seem to be visual counterpoints, were projected behind Parker’s playing, an evocative way to pay tribute to the man.

(A beautiful painting by Schlanger graces the cover of the historic new album: Website on Black Editions is a 3-LP set of drummer Milford Graves’ private tapes from two nights of Graves, Parker, and tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle, one of seven live performances the trio ever made together, and one of Gayle’s earliest recordings. Their collaboration is one of the seeds from which Vision grew. Schlanger created the painting on one of those recorded nights.)

Alto saxophonist Darius Jones’s quintet had a video of their performance playing in the background, and it was one of the elements that made the performance one of the most memorable parts of the festival. Created by Laura Sofia Perez, it focused on repeated abstract black-and-white images of an egg in front of a draped black cloth, a burning birthday candle balanced on a seashell. It shared the same focused, compelling musical mystery. The quintet had guitarist Nick Sala, cellist Christopher Hoffman, bassist Liani Matteo and drummer Jason Nazary, and what they played had a haunting mid-tempo, a cool surface boil, lean harmonies—horizontal music, not vertical—and an exhilarating sense of control. The band had a tremendous power and tension that they held at bay, a sense that they were offering the audience a chance to fill in the expressive gaps, if only they had the courage to do so. Combining rhythms, clear phrasing, and total abstraction, Jones explored some of the deepest areas in contemporary jazz.

It was the same with Shipp and his trio with bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. He started with “Primal Poem” from his excellent new release, New Concepts in Piano Trio Jazz (ESP-DISK’). It’s a simple title, both accurate and misleading. What Shipp and the trio are doing, what they’re playing at the festival, has no clear concept, other than thinking through what improvisation means, in the moment, with every single note. Every musical event had an introverted sense of musicians questioning every decision they make, but an extroverted sense of delight in confirming every new idea.

Shipp is a titan, a household name in piano improvisation since Cecil Taylor left, and such is the speed and agility of his thinking that what comes out of his hands is graceful and light. For the past few years, it sounds as if he is re-creating his style every time he plays, shifting yet purposeful, with a clear direction. He follows neither gravity nor the path of least resistance, creating his own laws of musical physics as he plays.

With Bisio and Baker listening carefully and calmly, this was the quietest set of the festival, drawing the listener in. Playing jazz normally means establishing a form of the piece and then improvising on it, the listener knows where the harmonies are going and can anticipate what’s coming next. With Shipp, there’s no way to anticipate anything, which can be a huge divide for listeners when it comes to free-form playing—some find it unsettling, others exhilarating. But these musicians are so good, and their purpose so meaningful, that we should trust the unknown.