It’s that time of year again: time for New York’s weeklong avantjazz blowout run by the scrappy nonprofit Arts for Art organization. While larger, bigger festivals have crashed and burned over the years,  the Vision Festival just keeps rolling on, getting better every year and setting a high bar for improvised music.

For 2017, the festival returns to the historic Judson Memorial Church with nightly concerts from May 29-June 3, with an all-day conference at Columbia University on Thursday June 1 and a new series of after-hours midnight sets  at the cozy Nublu on Ave C. This is all in addition to the usual well-managed mayhem at the Judson mothership where you can casually run into visual artists like Jeff Schlanger, furiously sketching and translating the sound to lines, shapes, and color or the musicians themselves, who often hang out to see other sets. There’s also the marketplace in Judson’s basement, where you can grab a drink, or buy some music (and probably get it signed by at least one of the musicians).

Although Vision’s focus is avant garde jazz and poetry, the scope and variety shows how broad a spectrum there is even within that category. There are acoustic acts, ones that experiment with various electronic instruments and other electronics, duos, trios, big bands, the occasional solo act, with the most common thread being a fierce allegiance to Wayne Shorter’s definition of jazz as challenge– “I dare you”–to which Vision’s artists respond “challenge accepted.”

With that said, I’ll walk through a few highlights (with an admitted slight bias to former Suga’ in My Bowl guests) of acts I’m looking forward to. With those caveats admitted up front, I’ll say that one of the great pleasures of Vision is learning about someone new or getting blown away by the set of someone you’d heard or seen before and not appreciated. So while this guide is meant to point to a few highlights, leave yourself open to listening to a few new things. Some might hit; others might not, but that’s the way it goes with challenges and taking risks. When they pay off, however, they pay off big time.

Monday May 29

Pianist and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore is the focus of tonight’s sets and recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award from Vision. Cooper-Moore is featured in three ensembles over the course of the evening: In Order to Survive, Digital Primitives, and Black Host. Sandwiched between the sets is poet Carl Hancock Rux, who takes the stage at 9 PM with DJ Hamilton Kirby. Rux’s storytelling skills are phenomenal, as is his grasp of music. Expect a highly lyrical, deeply captivating set.

William Parker’s “In Order to Survive” is appearing in just one of its numerous permutations this evening, but here the quartet of bassist Parker, saxophonist Rob Brown, drummer Hamid Drake, and Cooper-Moore on piano joins some of the most frequent collaborators in the ensemble. It also fuses a quartet that thoroughly embraces the philosophy of free improvisation, which makes it somewhat difficult to predict exactly where things will go, but it’s sure to be one of the highlights of the evening and the festival itself. See the video on the Vision page for an idea of that to expect.

“Digital Primitives”, on the other hand, joins Cooper-Moore with Assif Tsahar (tenor sax), Chad Taylor (drums, m’bira), and Brian Price (tenor sax). Here, Cooper-Moore’s weapons of choice will be his hand-crafted instruments, which promises a much different interpretation of free jazz. Check out the video on the Vision page for a sample of their work.

The evening’s closing set promises that “Black Host”  will “bring forth original compositions that blend modern jazz, free music, psych, post-punk and electrified noise with painstaking detail and heady abandon. A reverb-drenched and incisive stew of rhapsodic piano, searing alto and fractured guitar over rhythms that are alternately chunky and airy, rendered with a tremendous live energy.” Cooper-Moore returns to piano for this set and one can expect a high energy climax to end the evening. Again, Vision’s page has a video.

For a much deeper dive into Cooper-Moore, check out Suga in My Bowl’s show focused on his career.

Tuesday May 30

Yoshiko Chuma’s “School of Hard Knocks” shows a different end of the Vision spectrum, combining dancers, visual projections and music to kick off the evening’s festivities. The “Jazz and Poetry Choir Collective,” on the other hand, fulfills Vision’s longstanding practice of centering experimental poetry and music collaborations.

Drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s ‘Double Trio” teams him up with frequent collaborator, guitarist Mary Halvorson. Halvorson’s own career is starting to take off and her work with fellow electric guitarist Marc Ribot always produces brilliant exchanges of exciting improvised work.

Closing out the evening are “TRIO3,” who make a welcome return to the Vision Fest. This time, the core veteran trio of saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Andrew Cyrille are joined by Marc Cary on piano and Ayana Workman, who’ll read text from “Suite for Courage.” TRIO3 is always worth catching and will likely be playing some music from their just-released Visiting Texture album. See Vision’s page for a video of them in action.

Wednesday May 31

The trio of Whit Dickey (drums), Mat Maneri (viola), and Matthew Shipp (piano) combines three Vision regulars, but for the first time in this specific combination, according to Vision organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker. In a later set, violinist Jason Kao Hwang’s “Burning Bridge” brings tuba player Joe Daley back in a medium-sized ensemble. Poet Tracie Morris returns to Vision after a long hiatus accompanied by guitarist Marvin Sewell for a short set that promises a set rooted in Morris’s bluesy spoken word.

Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Charles Gayle also makes a return, joined by Vision stalwart William Parker on bass and
Michael TA Thompson on drums for the closing set. It’s a rare treat to get to see Gayle, and you should do so. Vision’s page has a video from 3 years ago, when he received a lifetime achievement award. For a much deeper dive into Gayle, I’ll send you to the Suga’ archives again, where we discussed Gayle’s career in a Vision preview.

Thursday June 1

If you’re a hardcore Vision fan and attending several (all?) nights, you might be running a little ragged by now, but Thursday’s not a night to skip.

First, however, if you’re on vacation or can manage a day off from work, then head to Columbia University for a free Vision Fest-focused conference titled “The Sound of Resistance.” Academics, including Ingrid Monson (Freedom Sounds: Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa; Saying Something: Jazz Improvisation and Interaction) and Fred Moten (In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition) will be joined by Cooper-Moore, Patricia Nicholson Parker, and many others to go deeper into the state of improvised music, politics, and culture.

Head back to Judson in the evening for Odean Pope’s “Saxophone Choir”, which starts things off at Judson with a 7 PM set. Poet Jesus Papoleto Melendez follows with a short set (which will hopefully include his poem for Oscar Lopez Rivera).

Flutist Nicole Mitchell’s “Artifacts Trio” gets tasked with batting cleanup this evening and will be easily up to the task. Mitchell had a memorable part in last year’s ensemble with bassist Henry Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor and this year helms her own trio with two other members of the legendary Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians collective: cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed. Vision’s page has an audio sample and you can listen to our March 2017 show with Mitchell for a deeper dive into her work.

Friday June 2

“Dream Book” joins Vision veterans Joe McPhee (sax, trumpet) and Daniel Carter (sax, trumpet, flute) with a capable ensemble in tribute to late bassist Dominic Duval and saxophonist Ornette Coleman.

Later in the evening, pianist Dave Burrell leads a quartet that should provide lots of fireworks and interesting interaction. William Parker joins in on bass with drummer William Hooker and the first appearance this year of saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan’s saxophone style has evolved into an impressive mix of free-form eclecticism, as he seamlessly moves between upper register squeals  and more open free-form blowing. But for Jordan, it always seems to revert to the roots of the music in the Blues and what he referred to as the “Holy ghost” in Joyce Jones’s interview in our last show.

Saturday June 3

Vision has a tradition of closing with big blowout performances and this year looks to hold true to form. “Postitive Knowledge” with Oluyemi Thomas (bass clarinet, soprano sax) and Ijeoma Thomas (voice poetry, percussion) should provide a spiritually grounded (and spirited) opening set–especially when accompanied by special Guest Andrew Cyrille on drums.

Later in the evening, David Murray (tenor sax, bass clarinet) leads a unique trio with percussionist Kahil El’Zabar and
Gerry Eastman on bass and guitar. Murray’s well known for his “Class Struggle” ensembles, but Murray promises an experience different from any of his previous Vision appearances. He writes in introduction that “Kahil and I have broken ground by composing extremely memorable songs which he leads and I answer vocally, which is something I rarely do. His infectious enthusiastic spirit always takes my horns to another level.” For a deeper dive into Murray, I’ll point you to our 2014 show with him.

William Parker and saxophonist Oliver Lake are tasked with co-leading the closing set with “Songs for a Free World,” featuring choreography by Patricia Nicholson Parker and a vast assemblage of vocalists and musicians marshalled to bring their swirling vision (pun unintentional) to life. It promises to be an incredibly moving set to end the festival.

If you can stay up late, head over to the postage-stamp sized Nublu for the midnight set with “Heroes are Gang Leaders,” featuring an expanded version of saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s trio with vocalists and spoken word artists (including the incomparable Thomas Sayers Ellis) joining JBL’s normal collaborators Luke Stewart on electric bass and  Warren Trae Crudup on drums. Last year, Lewis’s trio was one of the revelations of the festival for me and put his work squarely on my radar with their hard-hitting style and inspired energetic playing.

I’ll be reporting daily dispatches throughout the festival including photos from Suga’ in My Bowl host and executive producer Joyce Jones. We also have tentative plans to try some video shorts this year during the festival. Check back for all of it.

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