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

The 22nd annual Vision Fest started its six-day run on Memorial Day Judson Memorial Church’s expansive main hall with a tribute to pianist and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore, who was featured in several ensembles and received their lifetime achievement award. We reviewed the opening night in a previous post.

Tuesday night featured another evening of music and poetry capped by the ensemble called TRIO3 plus two. The core TRIO3 members—bassist Reggie Workman, saxophonist Oliver Lake, and drummer Andrew Cyrille—have been playing together for 27 years: a phenomenally long time for any combo.

Guests, particularly pianists, are an occasional part of the ensemble and Marc Cary get the invite for tonight’s show. Cary joined the trio near the end of the set along with Ayana Workman, who read some poetry.

Workman explained that for Vision they went through their extensive catalog of music and tried to select songs that were illustrative of Vision’s perennial theme of social justice.

Bassist Reggie Workman showed a little-known talent by starting off on the digeridoo on one piece: a surprising development.

Marc Cary and Ayana Workman joined the trio for the final piece of the night’s set. Cary’s work added welcome colors to a relatively sedate set of music and he also brought electronics into the mix, as the ensemble created textures complementing Workman’s spoken words. Ayana Workman’s words fit Vision’s theme of social justice well, but didn’t feel particularly inspired and the reading of names of police violence seemed rote at times.

The set did provided a glimpse at the variety of music collectively produced by these three master musicians who are frequent Vision performers, especially considering the substantial back catalogs of their own work.

Thursday night featured saxophonist Odean Pope, who started the night off leading the “Saxophone Choir”, an expansive ensemble that brought a swinging big band sound to the Vision stage. Pope’s artistic statement mined his own past as inspiration: “Ever since I heard the big sound and lush harmonies of the gospel choirs of my youth,” he wrote, “I imagined a choir of saxophones that would have the same power and more.”

Pope brought the above and more to the stage with a band that swung hard through several pieces with a precision that would make most big bands envious and with pieces that moved briskly and left the listener wishing for more each time as Pope did double duty of playing and conducting the ensemble. Pope originally assembled the group in 1977 and most of the members included in the Vision set have been playing together for a long time.

The first song, titled “Dedication to Max Roach”, was a brightly swinging number and in the third piece, saxophones took the lead and produced the sort of power one would expect from an ensemble with with 7 saxophones–3 tenors (including Pope), 3 altos, and a baritone–joined by a pianist, bassist, and drummer.

The fourth piece shifted pace for a ballad, “Cis,” dedicated to his late wife who Pope described as an “incredible Black lady.”

The tempo picked up significantly for their next song, dedicated to a musician Pope knew in San Francisco that sent Pope into the upper register with a few squeals thrown in.

The set closed with an uptempo rendition of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” that benefited from the richness of the ensemble as the horns powered through the familiar melody and ended way too soon.

Slightly later on Thursday night, saxophonist Darius Jones’s “Farmers By Nature” began with a frenetic attack by all of the members from the start of the set that set the tone for their time on stage. Bassist William Parker returned to the Vision stage again to anchor the effort that included an angular Cecil Taylor-esque piano solo by Craig Taborn. Later in the set the interaction evolved into a call-and-response between Taborn’s shimmering piano lines and Jones’s plaintive sax bleats while Gerald Cleaver worked away on the drums before it ended on a quiet note and tapered to a close.

Poet Jesus Paopleto Melendez followed and read a short set of poetry capped off by a poem dedicated to the recently freed Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera that was printed on a long continuous scroll that Melendez unwound while he read.

Nicole Mitchell’s Artifacts Trio. (L-R) Mitchell, Mike Reed, Tomeka Reed.

Flutist Nicole Mitchell’s Artifacts Trio had Thursday night’s final set.  Staying true to her promise to celebrate the ongoing legacy of the AACM, Mitchell broke into a sung chant of “have mercy upon us” in an adaptation of a piece written by pianist/vocalist Amina Claudine Meyers. That was Mitchell’s take on Vision’s social justice theme. “I look at the human race as one organism which means that we’re suicidal” because of all the war and strife in the world, Mitchell said from the stage.

In an adaptation of Anthony Braxton’s “23B,” Mitchell set a blistering pace on the flute, which, fortunately, was matched by Tomeka Reid on the cello and finished abruptly with a high-pitched flute flourish.  Reid’s warm, sonorous sound on the cello nicely complemented the flute’s brightness throughout the set.

The last two nights will be covered in the next post.

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.