The Vision Festival, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Sleep in the Subway Station

Lars Gotrich experiences a six-day avant-garde jazz music and arts festival and survives to tell the tale.

Lars Gotrich is a prince among men. I’ve met him a couple of times at Cornerstone — I know I’ll never forget that unplugged Unwed Sailor show — and have even shared a strawberry smoothie with him. He’s been kind enough to grace Opus with his reviews and photos in the past, and so when he mentioned he was attending this year’s Vision festival, I asked if he wouldn’t mind putting together a few thoughts and recollections for Opus. Apparently, he took that to mean a review that makes my festival coverage look like diddly. Seriously folks, this is a massive read, one that has me in awe of the man’s skills and knowledge. Enjoy!

When you’re homeless, you have no qualms about urinating on walls. You can’t afford a burger at the all-nite diner because you’re out of cash, so running in and out of their restroom is out of the question, especially in Manhattan. And sleeping in the subway station isn’t as bad as you’d think it’d be.

Perhaps I should back up.

My friend Mitch and I ventured to the great city of New York for the Vision Festival, a six-day avant-garde jazz music and arts festival held in, well, I still don’t know the sectional names of Manhattan, yet. If you need a reference point, Katz’s Delicatessen — where the infamous ​“orgasm” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed — is down the street from the gorgeous Angel Orensanz Foundation. The multi-purpose renovated synagogue housed the events, which not only included a wealth of great music but also dance, photography, artwork, and two painters documenting the festival.

Started by William Parker and Patricia Nicholson Parker ten years ago, the Vision Festival admittedly was something I had not heard about until just a few months ago in New York Is Now! by Phil Freeman, which documents the current New York free-jazz scene. Watching Patricia, in particular, throughout the week was inspiring, constantly speaking with the artists, the enthusiasts, and the sound people, and organizing a discussion to explore what the community can do to promote the art form, what issues come both financially and aesthetically from it, and how it can change. I didn’t attend said meeting (it’s not that often I get to run around Broadway), but it’s encouraging that people not only want to spread the creativity but also reinforce it from within.

Lack of funds and a need to work had us miss the first evening, so I kick myself for missing the Henry Grimes Quartet, the bassist having just recently returned to music after a thirty year absence. Not too often can someone my age experience a musician who played with the seminal Albert Ayler at his creative peak. And if you’ll indulge a small tangent, the festival honestly found a deep, historical common ground between the artists receiving the critical hammer in the ​‘60s and the artists continuing to get the same hammer, though with a new audience embracing them, in the ​‘00s. When a young, unnamed bassist from Minnesota has the opportunity to play with 40-year veteran Bill Dixon (trumpet), my heart warms as these older folks showcase new talent.

Wednesday evening began with poet Steve Dalachinsky backed by Mat Maneri (viola) and a guitarist whose name I didn’t catch. Matthew Shipp was scheduled to improvise, but wasn’t in attendance. I’ll admit that I’m not much of one for non-linear poetry, especially live when the speaker emotes more than the words allow, but his dry New York sense of humor (whatever that means) was an interesting contrast to Maneri’s droning style.

Charles Gayle, a somewhat controversial figure known for his confrontational performances donned in clown make-up, went make-up-less this evening for his intensely spiritual tenor saxophone work. His squawking’s a terrifying sound to behold much like a crazed, fire-and-brimstone street preacher, though he’s able to integrate a powerful lyricism to his style.

The trumpet player Roy Campbell and his Pyramid Trio was accompanied by Patricia Nicholson’s dance. Hamid Drake is a monster of a drummer, and his generally heavy style more complements Peter Brotzmann and Fred Anderson, so it sometimes felt a little much with Campbell’s more melodic leanings. Nevertheless, the trio put on a great performance including a vocal from Campbell himself. Normally, instrumentalists in jazz should stay as far away from singing as possible, but his chant-like timbre accentuated a story on a murder by the NYPD with passion.

The Oliver Lake Trio and Man Maneris quartet finished out what we saw that evening. It was primarily the latter performance that was most rewarding. Having seen Maneri (viola) play with his multi-instrumentalist father Joe and Randy Peterson (drums) before, I was eager about Dave Burrell sitting in on piano. Maneri drones his viola with carefully placed squeaks, yet he never hits a frenzy like Peterson, who stabs violently at his kit always looking as if he’s about to barrel straight over making for a dynamic listen.

Tired from having to get up early so Alison (whose dorm room we crashed for the week) could go to work, we slept in Central Park for two hours. After perusing a small gallery exhibiting Soviet artwork, we made our way back to Norfolk St. in time for the Fred Anderson 1960s Quartet. Thursday was a Lifetime Recognition celebration for Fred Anderson, the tenor saxophonist who helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the ​‘60s when free jazz was still burgeoning. His first quartet really swung like the name of the group suggests, with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, and Ornette Coleman being the primary influences. Anderson has such a full tone and an ear for exciting melody, setting the audience up for squawking solos from himself and Joseph Jarman. His second quartet that night was more along the lines of what’s happening in jazz right now, but still a solid performance.

Not particularly interested in hearing a poet and a presentation on cultural genocide, Mitch and I left for dinner at Panna II (93 1st Ave between 5th & 6th St.), an excellent Indian restaurant whose ceiling was completely decorated by chili and Christmas lights. Who knew bananas could be deliciously spicy?

Back in time for the Joseph Jarman Ensemble, they squawked with a full-blown force for an hour straight without a breather. The Nicole Mitchell Trio was the surprise of the festival. I’d like to think the group was more akin to soul-jazz than avant-garde, though Mitchell still squawked the damn flute. The emphasis in soul-jazz is in the groove, often coming off as funk.

I could definitely hear funk and hip-hop beats coming from Isaiah Spencer’s drums, which seamlessly switched styles many times within one song. Mitch, in particular, was flipping out over Harrison Bankhead’s upright basswork as he pulled out finger-flashing subdivided notes without a hitch while I geeked out to Mitchell singing into her flute while playing an alternate melody. I later found out she’s not necessarily new to the scene, but recently went solo in the last 5 years. Definitely worth checking out.

We arrive back at the NYU dorms around 2AM and call Alison three times before we realize we’re not going to be sleeping in her common area tonight. After wandering Manhattan for a couple hours and peeing in a back alley, Mitch decides we should go to a subway station where it’s at least warm (it had been 60 – 65 degrees at night for a few days) where we both attempted sleep and ultimately gave up to write since a train went by every 10 minutes.

In search of an all-nite diner to feed Mitch coffee, he took pictures of me giving the uptight Village Voice the bird before Alison suddenly awoke at 6AM with the revelation, ​“Where are my friends?!” Lucky for her, we decided that this would be a funny story until she slept in on her day off. Thus, it remains a story told with a grin.

Alison, Mitch, and I found a Polish restaurant for brunch where we devoured fruit-filled pancakes and potato and cheese perogis. Not wanting to walk around much for lack of sleep, we popped into an indie cinema to watch Edvard Munch, a 1974 documentary-style film directed by Peter Watkins. While interesting and somewhat educational, 30 minutes in you already know the painter’s depressed as hell. With a runtime of 210 minutes and enough montages to outdo Peter Greenaway, it was a bit overwhelming.

Friday night began with the Sound Vision Orchestra collaborating with Other Dimensions In Music for the most intense hour-long piece I’ve ever experienced. With sixteen musicians onstage, the powerful cacophony behind the group was enough to make my whole body stiffen with nervous ecstasy. Needing to relieve my senses, I left for dinner and returned for the Bill Dixon Quartet. (Actually, it was a quintet, so the bassist might have been a last minute addition.)

Dixon’s a fascinating figure in avant-garde jazz. Never content to remain in the same structures and sounds, he introduced the piece as a ​“work in progress,” and what ensued was the spaciest drone I’ve seen live (something Jason Morehead would have really dug despite his general distaste for most avant-garde jazz). Dixon had the soundmen put his trumpet’s microphone through a heavy echo as he steadied both breathy blats and contemplatively held notes. Warren Smith created some kind of moving melody on the vibes and timpani while Tony Widoff played eerie, droning chords on synthesizer. The program’s unnamed bassist, a young fellow from Minnesota, was doing some great harmonic work, but the soundmen poorly mic’d him, so most was lost. It’s good to know that the upcoming jazz artists aren’t the only ones experimenting.

Unfortunately, most of Saturday afternoon was spent trying to find an ATM that would take my card (I would find out a few days later that my bank, which had been bought out, had completely switched over to the new system while I was in New York). Guillermo E. Brown’s Cut-Up Quintet was next on the bill when we arrived for the afternoon ​“Emerging Artists” concert. Brown’s drummed for one of the David S. Ware Quartet incarnations (an exciting group to cut your teeth on) and he’s started some solo work including a CD on the prolific Thirsty Ear Blue Series.

This group attempts to make what seems like the next logical step in avant-garde jazz; somewhat glitchy electronic work with deconstructed reed and trumpet squeals. Sometimes the effect was inspired and quite engaging, but the direction’s not developed. The program promised that Tatsuya Nakatani’s N.R.A. trio would feature Ricardo Arias on ​“balloon kit”, which had the critic in me yell out ​“Gimmick!” And while that turned out to be the case just a bit, the trio improvised a hour-long set of haunting noise well-suited for a horror movie with a creaky house. Nakatani’s released his fare share of material and is quite the innovative percussionist; thus, the bowed gong and destroyed cymbals were all the more appropriate and noisy for the occasion.

We caught the tail-end of violinist Billy Bang for the evening program, which I regret missing because he’s a hell of a performer, one that isn’t afraid to have fun and play to the audience. But there was a desperate cry for a beer and a good meal after the misfortunes I had that week (camera not working, sleeping in a subway station, ATM card not accepted anywhere). Next, interpretive dancer Felicia Norton was accompanied by Leroy Jenkins on violin, though I’ll admit I was more interested in Jenkins’ microtonal work than the dance.

The Eddie Gale Now Band followed the dance, which I was looking forward to initially since Gale (trumpet) worked with everyone from Max Roach to Cecil Taylor to Sun Ra. I shouldn’t be turned off by arrogance given that I’ve seen many a indie-rock band do the same thing, but it didn’t help that all of Gale’s compositions had the exact same structure (with few variations): horns in unison, trumpet solo, tenor sax solo, alto sax solo, drum solo, back to unison. Gale pointed to the players to begin a solo and even when one was really playing some hot material, he’d cut them off to let the next man go.

Around this time, Mitch left to see Freeze Pop because we saw a flyer earlier in the day, but I stayed for two more acts. Patricia Nicholson had her dance troupe, PaNic, perform to the trio of Rob Brown (alto), William Parker (bass), and Alvin Fielder (drums). I’ll admit I grooved more to the music than the dance. And due to a missing drummer, Peter Brotzmann switched out with Joe McPhee (reeds and brass) and Lori Freedman (bass clarinet) for what turned out to be my favorite show the entire week.

I have the distinct feeling the duo improvised the whole set as I have yet to find any recordings and with McPhee in Chicago and Freedman in Montréal, I don’t how often they work together. This is relevant because the intuition between these two musicians had me nearly crying with the anticipation of each segment of music. McPhee would deliver a moody melody while Freedman quickly deconstructed it simultaneously. My lid was flipped. So rare is it that my heart races for an hour straight that I knew there was no way Peter Brotzmann (as much as his Chicago Tentet shows in Athens have equally blown me away) could have beat that performance.

Sunday being our last day in Manhattan, we, of course, shopped. It’s an ugly thing in New York since there are unbelievable record stores upon more unbelievable record stores. We eventually ended up back where we were initially to pick up our Vision Festival passes, the Downtown Music Gallery. When you dedicate an entire store to avant-garde jazz and experimental music, you’ve touched me in a way that only a loved one can. I had to stop at four CDs before I remembered how broke I was going to be when I got home. Hell, even avant-guitarist Gary Lucas was doing an in-store. Sigh, if only in Athens.

William Parker often gets tagged as a traditionalist with his approach to composition looking much to the swingin’ post-bop of the ​‘60s, but I can’t complain. And besides, the musicians he surrounds himself with always bring themselves in the music. That said, his Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, swollen with eighteen or so members, blew the roof off the synagogue. The reeds and brass always seemed to be at odds with clashing melodies as the back-chair trumpets provided some sense of rhythm while the exciting, expanded percussion section pummelled through. It wasn’t nearly as intense as the Other Dimensions In Music show, but it was a loud and extremely invigorating opening to the final night. The Karen Borca Quartet kept the evening moving with a non-stop hour-long performance. Borca’s bassoon had a deep, resonant squawk that was almost chilling.

Joelle Leandre (bass) and India Cooke (violin) were unknown to me, but when they began to growl, sing, and holler, I knew I had some research to do. I’m somewhat convinced that Leandre may have listened to Slayer as she shredded fifths with speed and ferocity while she freely associated vocalizations with the energetic Cooke. The Rob Brown Ensemble followed with his finest showing of the week accompanied by the Nancy Zendora Dance Company, who out of all the dancers had the most intuitive troupe.

Our last show of the festival was a group led by Matthew Shipp (piano) featuring Sabir Mateen (reeds), William Parker (bass), and the incredible Han Bennink (drums). Mitch summed it up best with one word: psychedelic. Shipp’s Equilibrium was the album that got me into current avant-garde jazz a few years ago, yet I’d never heard him play at this level of improvisation.

The hour-long jam was an intense listen, one that repeated themes, quoted (I think) a line from Shipp’s Nu Bop, and changed both subtly and drastically by the pounding and flittering of Shipp’s keys. Drummer Bennink (check out his work with guitarist Derek Bailey) nearly stole the show visually as he contorted his face under the buzz-shaven head, beat his snare into submission with a boot on top to muffle the sound, yet took his solos to explore the ​“quieter” parts of the kit. The overall effect was one of not exactly being sure of what had happened (hence, the psychedelic attribute), but thoroughly ecstatic about whatever the hell it was.

Avant-garde jazz still has difficulty in making it to the South both in terms of touring groups and local musicians making it. Leaving New York was frustrating knowing this fact as this music touches on and punctures my creative aesthetic in different ways than my first musical love (pop music). Perhaps I’d take a thriving scene such as New York or Chicago’s for granted as I sometimes do with Athens, a haven for pop music and cheap beer, so I’ll be content with recommendations from Wuxtry Records and mailorder for now, and as a musician friend of mine said, ​“Just make your own.”