Grimes and Ribot

Words by Hank Williams. Photo by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | 2016 Vision Fest honoree bassist/violinist Henry Grimes and guitarist Marc Ribot. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

While New York is still gripped in the throes of winter, two announcements offer some hope and a reminder that there is light at the end of the dark seasonal tunnel. Two mainstays of the summer jazz season, the Vision Festival and Blue Note Jazz Festival, have released save the date announcements for May 29-June 5 and June 1-30, respectively.

vision_22__small_logoVision Fest has become somewhat of the elder in the New York City festival scene with its 22nd annual run planned for this year at Judson Memorial Church and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s a week-long showcase with Free Jazz at the center but with interconnecting segments of visual art, movement, and poetry paying homage to the loft jazz scene salons of years past.

It’s focused highly on the art itself and provides a home for the type of musicians one won’t see elsewhere. Each night features a thoughtfully curated mix of ensembles and styles ranging from solo to big bands; electric to  acoustic; and everything in between.

While definitely catering to the advanced listener, Vision is far from inaccessible: the Sun Ra Arkestra led by the remarkably spry nonagenarian sax and EVI master Marshall Allen frequently appear. While rightfully known for way-out Afrocentric costumes, space references, and frenetic, whirling, big band sound that can sometimes be described as orchestrated chaos — the Arkestra is also a perennial crowd favorite with their hard swinging songbook that will challenge anyone who thinks jazz isn’t dance music anymore.

On the other end of the spectrum, several years ago German sax heavy hitter Peter Brotzmann’s group Full Blast nearly cleared the room. During the sound check, drummer Michael Wertmuller signaled the engineers to boost the volume until it maxed out. Heavy metal fans would’ve been at home during that memorable set. Brotzmann’s working out the details of a North America tour this spring, so with any luck he’ll make an appearance at Vision.

In short, one never knows exactly what to expect in a particular night at Vision, which is part of the fun and although there are mainstays who appear perennially, there’s always at least one revelation and the unexpected pairings of even familiar musicians can incite magical moments. Last year, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s Trio left a lasting impression with their highly charged set foregrounded by Lewis’s virtuosic sax playing, drummer Warren Trae Crudup’s hard, funk-inflected drumming, Luke Stewart’s electric bass and their general infectious energy.

Each year, Vision gives a lifetime achievement award to a significant artist and has them lead several ensembles on one night. This year’s honoree is pianist/composer Cooper-Moore.

blue_note_jazzfest_boxThe Blue Note Jazz Fest, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Although featuring several events at the namesake jazz club, the festival spreads out among various venues throughout Manhattan for the month and last year even encompassed free Summerstage shows in Central Park by legendary pianist McCoy Tyner and up-and-coming saxophonist Kamasi Washington. In other performances, pianist Robert Glasper and vocalist Al Jarreau (in what might have been his last NYC appearance) were on the bill, as was the pop vocalist Bilal.

The Blue Note Fest definitely aims at a broader audience and provides a lot more chances to catch a show or convince a friend who’s not into jazz to give it a try — and, possibly, get hooked.

Of course, these aren’t the only summer festivals and there should be announcements from the Summerstage and Jazzmobile series, Charlie Parker Jazz Fest, MoMA’s Summergarden, and the numerous smaller festivals and shows, but we now have a glimpse at the two anchors that kick of the summer season.

Full schedules for both are still being finalized, but for now we can save the dates and think ahead to long, music filled summer evenings ahead. Head on over to the Arts for Art and Blue Note Jazz Fest sites to keep up to date.

Disclaimer: WBAI Radio was a media sponsor for the 2016 Vision Festival.

See our coverage of the 2016 Vision Festival.

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot