Words by Hank Williams. Photos © Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | MAIN PHOTO: Cooper-Moore @ the 2017 Vision Fest. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

The 22nd annual Vision Fest opened to a nearly full house on Memorial Day in Judson Memorial Church’s expansive main hall. The festival’s starting earlier than usual this year, though spanning its traditional week.

Pianist and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore was the recipient of this year’s lifetime achievement award, given annually by Vision to highlight artists working within the avant garde jazz framework. As is the custom with awardees, Cooper-Moore appeared in three different ensembles over the course of the evening, which allowed a view into his richly expansive range of work.

Poet/ playwright/ spoken word artist Carl Hancock Rux had a set interspersed with Cooper-Moore’s and provided a bluesy, soulful set of works accompanied by a DJ. Rux sang/read several pieces including one appropriately dedicated to the late avant garde vocalist Jeanne Lee.

Cooper-Moore’s first set was with bassist William Parker’s “In Order to Survive.” Parker explained from the bandstand that the ensemble has been together since about 1992 and that all the music for the night’s set was written by Cooper-Moore.

As one might expect with two longtime collaborators, the two musicians’ relationship extends beyond the bandstand. “When I got back to New York I was [living] out on the street” Cooper-Moore recalled, adding that when he finally got an apartment he put a picture of William Parker on the wall.

Photo: In Order to Survive at Vision 22’s Opening Night

Cooper-Moore was on piano for the set, with drummer Hamid Drake and saxophonist Rob Brown. The first composition titled “Welcome” began melodically with all members swinging hard before a frenetic angular piano attack by Cooper-Moore.

An interconnected series of pieces (titled “Vision #1, #2, and #3,” we were told) left plenty of space for a long exploration by Parker on the bass using the bow. Cooper-Moore re-entered with a melodic, contemplative piano solo and ended somewhat abruptly on a quiet note.

A piece titled “Jack Spratt” began with a jaunty sax line by Brown, then settled into the interaction between Cooper-Moore and Parker.

The Cooper-Moore-led ensemble “Digital Primitives” began the second set with a dramatic reading of an excerpt of Kurt Gottschalk’s story “Ellington and Gerald” (PDF available on his website) accompanied by Chad Taylor’s light brush work on the drum kit.

The second piece was a duo between Taylor on mbira and Cooper-Moore on one of his custom, handmade instruments: a long bow held and played like a violin.

Photo: Digital Primitives at Vision 22’s Opening Night

The third song changed tone again. Cooper-Moore said, “we’ll let Chad start it off with some funky stuff,” vowing to catch up later on when he got his preferred instrument for the set connected to the amplifier: an electrified device resembling the offspring of a bass guitar and a banjo. Taylor dutifully launched into a sturdy backbeat accompanied by saxophonists Assif Tsahar and Brian Price until Cooper-Moore joined them to rock out for the rest of the piece.

The set ended abruptly with Cooper-Moore leading the ensemble singing “It’s a great day to be alive.”

Photo: Digital Primitives at Vision 22’s Opening Night

There’s no other way to say it than to resort to an overused and often undeserved phrase: Cooper-Moore is simply a musical genius. I struggled for a while with wording because calling his instruments handmade (although they are) doesn’t fully convey the level of mastery and craftsmanship involved in creating the instruments, have them actually work, and achieve the level of proficiency he has playing all of them. Add to that his equal proficiency on the piano and the range of textures he’s able to create and the adjective seems to fit.

If you hear Cooper-Moore on anything he plays or in most any combo, it is indeed a great day (or evening) to be alive.

The fest continues until Saturday June 3 at Judson, with afterhours sets at Nublu on selected nights and a conference on Thursday at Columbia University. See our in-depth cheat sheet preview or just head to Vision’s site for details. I’ll be reporting daily throughout the festival as well, so keep an eye out for updates. For a deeper dive into Cooper-Moore, see the Suga’ in My Bowl episode with an interview on him in our archives.

Hank Williams is assistant producer for Suga’ in My Bowl and produces the weekly “On the Bandstand” segment as well as running the show’s website and blog, where he has reviewed several jazz festivals. His writing has also appeared in Left Turn magazine and American Music Review. He teaches at Lehman and Hunter colleges in the City University of New York system. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot.

Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.