With a concert series as massive as Vision Festival, even a single night takes multiple articles to describe with any pretense of accuracy. Hosted in the Lower East Side's Angel Orensanz Foundation, the inside of the abandoned temple turned cultural center gave the night a sacred aura that must have effected even the strictest non-believers in the crowd. It's no use denying the divine aspect so often noted by seasoned improvisers: the rare ability to communicate almost telepathically with those around you in a spontaneous creative act. The theme of the holy is strong in jazz history, reaching as far back as Louis Armstrong and his trumpet's ability "to make the angels weep."
After the very spiritual music of Roy Campbell's Akhenaten Suite, soaked as it is in the legends of ancient Egypt and with its performers mostly dressed in traditional African garb, it was striking to see the young Matthew Shipp enter the stage in jeans and a t-shirt. But, appearances aside, the pianist quietly sat down to a beautiful Steinway and delivered an uninterrupted 40-minute solo performance of an intensity equal to that of Campbell or anyone else that night. The crowd must have been restless after two hours of music, as almost everyone in our row had left to mill around -- quite annoying, as those of us who couldn't see very well were denied the pleasure of watching Shipp perform from a clear vantage point. Eventually we moved over to borrow the vacant seats, though the low murmur in the crowd still dampened our enthusiasm.
I've never been a huge fan of Matthew Shipp -- as a friend once said, he has incredible technique but often uses it to play far too many meaningless notes. Nonetheless, I didn't remember him having such a muscular sound, and it really came through in the movements of his body. With forehead creased, veins tensed and eyes locked on the keys, Shipp's hands moved to and fro, bringing his torso with them; the fluid movement of the performer's arms resembled that of a drummer much more than a pianist. Really working the lower registers of his instrument, Shipp filled the room with incredibly dense clusters of bass notes and much more delicate excursions on the piano's right side. Melodically, I think the set lacked enough variation to keep the audience spellbound for such a long running time, though it picked up significantly toward the end with the reintroduction of the theme. Shipp's best moments were the ones that displayed the most economy, the somber emotional tone sounding very much like his recent work as Declared Enemy (Salute to 100001 Stars, Rogue Art, 2007). Poet/host David Budbill told the audience that Shipp had spoken to him earlier of his lack of inspiration that night, the feeling that he "had nothing new to say." Perhaps the artistic expression was a bit wandering and confused, but there's no denying that he played with enough fire and passion to keep us in the palms of his hands.
Next came the night's intermission, an extended period including art pieces by Amir Bey, Jo Wood Brown, Katie Martin, Kazuko Miyamoto, Phyllis Bulkin-Lehrer, and Lili White installed around the performance space, as well as a series of performative dance numbers titled "A State of Mind", organized by Patricia Nicholson with backing music by Lewis Barnes, Rob Brown, William Parker, and Hamid Drake. Distracted as I was by the variety of music vendors placed strategically on the same floor as the drinks, I did pay attention to what I could see of the dancing, the highlight of which featured Julia Wilkins straddling the second-floor balcony to the sound of Barnes' trumpet. As for the rest of the performance, I could take it or leave it; I found myself mostly unimpressed by their style of modern, expressive dance, which seemed to me surprisingly lifeless in spite of all the video projections, dangling sculptures and spotlights that accompanied its presentation. An arching of the back here, a twisting of a hand there... I was anxious for Fred Anderson to take the stage soon so that I could see the entirety of his set and still make the 12:10 train up to Poughkeepsie that night.
Fred Anderson & Hamid Drake as seen between the backs of heads (photo by Seth Watter)
Thankfully, the program continued for the most part on schedule, and the Chicago-based Fred Anderson Trio took the stage at 10:30. Composed of Anderson on tenor saxophone, Hamid Drake on drums, and Harrison Bankhead on bass, the group played another lengthy, uninterrupted piece which I believe is called "Timeless" from the trio recording of the same name (Delmark, 2006), but don't quote me on that. No introductions by the band were given, and none were needed. Anderson simply began with a beautiful unaccompanied solo, which wound its way around our ears for three or four minutes before the leader nodded to his bandmates to join in on the fun. Drake and Bankhead enthusiastically responded and the three launched into an improvisation with so much energy than an hour later it was still running on the same steam. Bankhead's propulsive bass and Drake's dazzling, Africa-meets-free jazz drumming kept Anderson good company as he continued to weave knotty, inspiring phrases around his partners in crime.
Eventually, the tenor player took a vow of silence to allow Drake and Bankhead to take their own extended solos; the accomplishment of all three musicians made any question of who was the leader a mere formality. Perhaps the highlight of the night, Bankhead took an incredible bass solo of a power I've never heard before, exploring the entire range of his instrument with lightning-fast plucking, strumming, and bowing that turned this generally rhythmic tool into a singing, breathing, awe-inspiring hydra head. Bankhead gave the signal that he was finished with a single long, reverberating note, but launched into at least two more sections of his solo when prompted by the smiles of his fellow performers and an off-stage voice calling, "Go on ahead, Harrison." Hamid Drake, a powerful drummer who puts almost anyone else to shame, took over from Bankhead with unflagging energy in his trademark style of neverending drum rolls that groove along dazzling cymbal work, before buoying the rest of the group up with his semi-structured, time signature-shifting rhythms. The fabulous group interplay that closed the set dragged out the melody of Anderson's composition to ever-expanding territory, until the point that 10 minutes after the first repetition of the theme the audience was left more exhausted than the barely-sweating musicians seemed to be. Definitely the performance of the night, the crowd exploded into cheers and whistles they had barely kept under control, having previously limited themselves to swaying, head-nodding, and, in one elderly man's case, ridiculous arms-and-legs-in-the-air dancing in the darkened area to the left of the concert space. The unbridled passion exuded by Anderson, well into his 60s, was enough to make anyone feel old that night.
Vision Festival XII took place on June 19-24, 2007 at the Angel Orensanz Foundation, 172 Norfolk St., Lower East Side, NY.
Julia Wilkins dances with trumpet accompaniment by Lewis Barnes (photo by Faith Holland)
Left to right: Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, and Harrison Bankhead (photo by Faith Holland)
(Unfortunately, I have no decent pictures of Matthew Shipp.)