Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Warm to Hot to Not

Last night marked the start of a stunning ten days of jazz in NYC as the Vision Festival and JVC Festival overlap, offering an embarrassment of riches for the wealthy and plenty of frustration for the cash and/or time strapped. Check back for reviews and recaps of various gigs over the coming days.

June 14: the official kick off of Vision Festival X. Missed the opening invocation but made it in time to see the Henry Grimes Quartet in action. The group performed a take-no-prisoner blowing session highlighted by Andrew Lamb's muscular sax squalls, Hamid Drake's rolling percussion, and Grimes' throbbing bass lines. BTW, reports of Grimes technical diminishment may have been accurate when he first hit the scene after a 35 year absence, but they're completely untrue now. Haters beware. The entire band was in top form, but the real star was Sun Ra alum Marshall Allen on alto sax, clarinet, and some sort of electronic woodwind contraption (a black plastic thing that resembled an old telephone and squat didgeridoo) that seemed to process and tweak sounds in real time. His playing was both senstive and shredding, conjuring harmonics that many musicians don't even seem to know exist.

I only caught some of the Ellen Christi ensemble, enough to confirm my belief that free jazz vocalese is a bad idea unless your name is Jeanne Lee. In this case, the attempt was simply misguided, but nothing compared to what was to come. Before I go any further, let me stress that Chemistry Class applauds the efforts of Patricia Nicholson and the Vision Festival for their bravery and tenacity in putting together this important event. However, we can't help but mention the absolute insanity of booking acts like Bejeweled in the PRIME SLOT OF THE EVENING! This act was an artistic abomination and their placement as the de-facto headlining artist was truly unfortunate for fans forced to wait until almost midnight to see the Roscoe Mitchell-Sam Rivers band. It's hard to capture the sheer painful awfulness of Bejeweled, a trio of womyn who combine vocals, violin, flute, interpretative dance, and poetry. It was an unconscious parody of bad feminist performance art made by people who believe there is no such thing as bad feminist performance art. One woman pompously declaimed hackneyed verses about the female's plight in the kitchen while another trilled on the flute and a dancer flopped about the stage and lashed the air with red, white, and blue shawls. The execution was skilled, lacking for nothing except taste, vision, and a single unreceived idea. The audience was respectful of this strained and self-important performance -- perhaps too respectful. But afterwards, there were plenty of rolled eyeballs and heavy sighs in the aisles. When Patricia Nicholson announced "That last performance made me glad to be a woman!", my friend Bud quipped "That last performance made me want to run screaming out of here."

Fortunately, the evening was more than salvaged by WARM, a mind-boggling all-star quartet of bassist Reggie Workman, drummer Pheeroan akLaff, reedist Sam Rivers, and saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell that lived up to their potential. Rivers and Mitchell wrote new material specifically for this band, highlighting both the dexterous rhythm section and their intertwining sax lines. They opened with a stop-start funky number that culminated with a winding solo by Mitchell. The second tune was a ballad that began as a duet between Mitchell and Workman, featuring a suprising amount of delicacy, space, and tart lyricism. You could hear the audience breathe as they played. This led to a Rivers solo, showing off his rich and vigorous tone. The song eventually built into an intense trance workout with Mitchell and Rivers on soprano sax and flute respectively, blowing clenched and thorny cascades of notes over a jerky groove. Then Rivers switched to soprano and Mitchell to alto and their unrelenting unison blitz raised the roof - a transcendent section that concluded with another quiet passage. AtLaff's explosive drumming occasionally overwhelmed the others, but that's a minor quibble. Overall, it was a brilliant performance, covering a vast musicial terrain in mere 45 minutes. The evening was taped by Pi Records for later release but let's hope this group continues to work together and gets into the studio. They were a potent reminder that the old vanguard of jazz - Mitchell is 65 and Rivers is 82 (!!!) - still decimates the younger generation(s) in terms of intellectual rigor, passionate playing, artistic exploration, composiotional prowess, and technical chops. All hail the old masters.


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