Thursday, June 23, 2005

Vision Festival- 10 years old and still 'free'

"Free jazz" scares a lot of people. They hear the term and think "uh oh, it's gonna be noise..." But just as the term 'jazz' itself is so elastic a century after the fact, so is its great-grand-kid. Come to think of it, any strict definition of a genre is toast after a decade or two- think of rock, classical, country...

But if anything proves that free jazz isn't something to hide under the covers about, it's the year Vision Festival in New York. When I've written about VF for the Village Voice this year and back in 2002, I took it for granted that this was celebration of a certain style. I started going when they had the 2nd or 3rd event and I've been hooked ever since. I can't think of any local music fest that was so uplifting and surprising. CMJ is disorganized and has no real heart to it, other than to give music types a reason to converge on NYC to gorge. The JVC jazzfest means well but it almost never draws blood. Columbia University does have its share of modern classical fare but nothing that I can remember that's been a consistent show of strength like VF has been.

Maybe part of it has to do with underdog rooting. Free jazz is obviously not something that thrives easily nowadays (or ever, for that matter). VF itself has hobbled from venue to venue over the years, having to make a last minute change of plans this year when issues came up over fire-code problems before they settled on the wonderful Angel Orensanz Center (where they've been twice before). And since the AO ain't cheap to rent, even after charging $25 a night, they still pass around the hat to help defer the rental costs. I'd say it's worth it though as the former synagogue has a huge, awe-inspiring interior (as you see from their site).

The best I could liken VF is to a laboratory, where experiments are constantly being conducted. All mixture of old and new musicians appear and re-appear in different ensembles from year to year and even from day to day in the same year's festival. You know what happens in labs- some experiments succeed while other fail. To do this in the private confirms of institutional research but to do this in front of an audience (even after rehearsals), takes real chutzpah.

But then I think back to the term 'free jazz' and now I regret using that for the Festival. 'Post-bop' isn't sexy enough and that dates the music even more but it's almost as accurate. Technically, if you're talking about 'free,' you mean that the music doesn't have melodies or steady tempos. That wasn't the case with VF though- there was a lot of free passages but there was plenty of bop and big band leanings in there too. It'd be more accurate to say that the rhythms were 'freer' than your usual smooth jazz combo. As proof that this wasn't as daunting as it seems at first, I've taken a number of friends who would never consider themselves jazz fans and they enjoyed the Fest. Definitely a good sign.

It isn't as if the stage is where all the action is either. Two artists are painting madly to the side of the stage, capturing what they see of the performers on their canvases (and then ready to hang up their creations on the wall immediately afterwards): one of them is Jeff Schlanger, who has his own website where you can see some of his creations. There are also photos adorning the walls from previous festivals, a concession table with CD's, books, pamphlets, postcards, etc.. They'll even feed you a good meal for a few bucks (my favorite being the tuna pasta). This is all done by volunteers in the spirit of making such a huge, un-commercial effort a reality. How could you not admire that?

For all the years I've gone, I can't remember seeing a really terrible set. Maybe some didn't work as well as they should have but nothing that totally fell on its face. This year, the big bands made a particular impression: the Sound Vision Orchestra and William Parker's Little Huey, each of which was bursting with wonderful soloists. Karen Borca is a marvel not just because she happens to a woman bandleader but also because her instrument is the bassoon (know many players?) and that she shows the range and imagination of some of the best sax players also on the bill. Violinist Billy Bang went pizzicato all over his violin before throwing himself into crazed solos and then sweet, moving passages at other times. Positive Knowledge was simply phenomenal: the way that sax players Oluyemi Thomas and Kidd Jordan locked horns was astounded. All of these players provided more sustained climaxes than a Jenna Jameson flick.

Like I said, it's a very life-affirming and sustaining parade of music but the only let-down is to wait 12 months until it returns again, assuming that they have the funding to do so. I already have my calendar marked for it next year.


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