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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.

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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.

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Words by Hank Williams

Veteran documentarian John Scheinfeld (The US vs John Lennon; Who is Harry Nilsson) took on a major task with his latest film: charting the legacy of the late saxophonist John Coltrane, who has nearly mythical status in Jazz and is a cultural icon. Scheinfeld’s Chasing Trane wrapped up the 2016 DOC NYC Festival and is in limited release nationwide.

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Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld (center) with DOC NYC Artistic Director Thom Powers (L) and DOC NYC Programming Director Basil Tsiokos (R) | Photo by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

Aside from the obvious pitfalls of dealing with a musician of Coltrane’s stature and renown, much of his life and musical legacy has already been well documented and analyzed. That’s not to say that there’s no more to discover, but rather that the obvious parts of the tale have already been covered. However, the existing The World According to John Coltrane and segments in Ken Burns’ Jazz both leave room for improvement, which opens the door for the current film.

Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work

Indeed, Chasing Trane largely treads familiar ground, tracing Coltrane’s life story from the family’s southern roots through the migration north and the development of his career. There’s not much that’s new here — certainly not for jazz fans — but Scheinfeld’s expressed goal was to make a film aimed at a broader audience, including people unfamiliar or marginally familiar with the musician’s work, so its probably fairer to ask how well the film accomplishes the task it sets out to do. And it’s a monumental task considering the subject, even when accounting for the inevitable compromises necessary for any film, much less one tackling such a large subject.

Scheinfeld had several points in his favor from the beginning by gaining the blessing of Coltrane’s estate. This is a huge advantage, especially when the subject is a musician because of the frightfully high cost of obtaining music rights. The Coltrane family’s assistance resulted in getting favorable deals and made it possible to use a stunning amount of music. Chasing Trane largely uses songs on the soundtrack to set moods for specific scenes, rather than as primary objects of study themselves. The strategy works well, especially combined with Rudy Gutierrez’s impressive animation and visuals, though more identification of songs would be useful considering Scheinfeld’s aim at a broad audience that likely can’t name songs by ear. Simple captions would suffice.

Scheinfeld assembled a star-studded cast of interviewees to add context to the film and tell the story, including former president Bill Clinton, philosopher and writer Cornel West, and rapper/actor Common. West adds some valuable historical insight and interesting reflections on Coltrane’s wider social influence. Unfortunately, Clinton’s contributions, while thoughtful, add little to the narrative. Common appears to be in the film solely for name recognition, as his points are rather obvious and totally forgettable. Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Wynton Marsalis appears, too. While Marsalis does have the musical background to discuss Coltrane, his contributions are minimal and don’t feel particularly necessary.

Much stronger insight comes from Coltrane biographers Ashley Kahn (A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album; The House That ‘Trane Built) and Lewis Porter (John Coltrane: His Life and Music) who provide the film’s narrative structure and Coltrane colleagues saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Benny Golson. Several of Coltrane’s children appear in the film including his stepdaughter Antonia Austin (also known as Syeeda, the name used for ‘Trane’s tribute on Giant Steps) and sons Ravi and Oran.

Another coup for the film is securing Denzel Washington for narration. Coltrane did very few recorded interviews in his lifetime and, unfortunately, Scheinfeld found the audio quality poor enough that they couldn’t be effectively used in the film. (Pacifica Radio Archives still provides the most famous and lengthy audio interview done by Frank Kofsky.) Instead, Washington’s excellent narration of Coltrane’s printed interviews is weaved throughout the film. Scheinfeld reported that Washington “was mimicking Coltrane’s persona through the words” during the recording and he indeed perfectly captures Coltrane’s understated spirit in his delivery.

Chasing Trane proceeds in chronological order, beginning with the family’s beginnings in North Carolina and northern migration to Philadelphia, mirroring that of hundreds of thousands of African Americans. Coltrane’s service in the US Navy, where he played in a band, is the next focal point. This furthered his musical development and gave him his first commercial recordings as part of the naval band. At this point, he was working on developing a distinct sound on the instrument. Like an entire generation of saxophonists, Coltrane recalled that “the first time [he] heard Charlie Parker [he] knew that [jazz] was the thing” he wanted to pursue seriously.

Coltrane returned to Philadelphia and started gigging after a year in the Navy and traveled with Dizzy Gillespie from 1949-51.

As anyone familiar with the story knows, however, all was not well. Saxophonist Jimmy Heath recalls playing in nightclubs that were hangouts for pimps and hustlers and being exposed to the scene of drugs and hard drinking. Writer Ashley Khan also points out that there was the misguided notion that drugs would enhance playing. Heath recalls getting high with ‘Trane and being fired from Dizzy Gillespie’s band after getting caught, though Coltrane was able to gain a temporary reprieve with promises to straighten up.

Coltrane’s big break was securing a spot in 1957 with one of the hottest working bands around: that of Miles Davis. Bassist Reggie Workman recalled that “you could hear that [Coltrane] was going somewhere and Coltrane could tell that he was going somewhere.” Indeed, the opportunity wasn’t wasted on Coltrane either, who revealed that “It was Miles who made [him] want to be a better musician.”

Unfortunately, Coltrane’s heroin addiction (Davis was addicted also, as were scores of others in that generation) worsened and he became unreliable enough that Davis had to fire him.

Coltrane heeded the wakeup call of getting fired and seeing his life beginning to spiral out of control and made the decision to quit drugs and alcohol: a process done (similar to Davis) at home with the help of his first wife Naima. Antonia Austin provides recollections of the process, remembering the struggle involved for her stepdad. Indeed, her interview is one of the strengths of the film and serves to draw a fuller picture of Coltrane beyond the confines of the bandstand.

According to Kahn, Coltrane was a man on a mission after quitting drugs and sobriety increased his energy level and focus. Pianist Thelonious Monk then hired Coltrane for his band, which signaled the saxophonist’s return to the jazz scene at a high level.

Coltrane’s return also meant another shot at playing with Miles at end of 1957: a key career move that placed him on Davis’ landmark Kind of Blue album. Biographer Lewis Porter also points out that Davis gave ‘Trane a lot of space to improvise: something that would define his career.

coltrane_giant_stepsColtrane was able to sandwich recording his own Giant Steps in between recording sessions for Kind of Blue. His own release established ‘Trane as a writer and bandleader of his own and signaled that he had outgrown Davis’ band. His breakthrough was an adaptation of a simple Broadway pop tune from The Sound of Music. Coltrane’s cover of “My Favorite Things” was a radio hit and became a song he would return to throughout his career, although the familiar melody would become simply the starting point for improvisation: shattered, run through the shredder, and reassembled as a colossal sound collage with scant connections to its namesake.

a_love_supreme_300pxColtrane’s next chapter is familiar to many: the classic quartet with pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison with an expansive ensemble marshalled to live up to the task of bringing Africa Brass to life. The core quartet developed into a well-oiled machine that also reflected (and apparently shared) Coltrane’s developing spiritual approach to the music. Tyner is the only living member of the core group and, fortunately, is interviewed for the film. While he doesn’t say much, capturing almost anything from him is valuable considering his advanced age. Tyner asserts that the quartet felt their music was sharing a “gift that came from the almighty.”

A nice touch is the coverage of Coltrane’s last tour in Japan which included a concert at Nagasaki where “Peace on Earth”, the second song of the set, was dedicated to victims of the US nuclear bombing. Coltrane insisted in stopping and praying at the site before the concert to ground himself spiritually and imagine sound of the planes and pain of the people in an effort to incorporate the feeling as part of his sonic approach. They’re small details, but speak very much to not only Coltrane’s humanity and sensitivity but also his political commitment and leanings and even artistic approach. While it’s true that Coltrane was not as overtly political as some musicians of the era (especially those on the avant garde/ free jazz end of things), his politics seemed to emanate from the deeply spiritual place that his art came from and a deeply felt sense of right and wrong.

So how well does Chasing ‘Trane cover its subject and accomplish its mission? It’s a good introduction to neophytes, very entertaining viewing, and does indeed present Coltrane’s life in an accessible fashion. While it avoids the trap of ignoring the more technically challenging and (to some) controversial music of his last recordings, the treatment here is cursory. This is a shame, as Coltrane’s last period is one area that warrants more attention.

A notable absence is that of saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, a collaborator on several of Coltrane’s late albums who also played with Alice Coltrane’s ensemble after John’s death. Sanders is one of the few musicians living who played extensively with Coltrane and indeed the last living member of his late career groups. Sanders still tours and plays actively and his comments on Coltrane’s legacy could only be an asset.

The section of the film covering the latter part of Coltrane’s career is where writer Ben Ratliff might’ve been put to more use, as his Coltrane: The Story of a Sound explores some of this territory, with an eye toward Coltrane’s evolving musical approach. In the film, John Densmore, former drummer of The Doors, recalls seeing half of the audience walking out from later concerts: a sobering reminder that the Coltrane of 2016 exists in a form and level of adulation far removed from the contemporary views of his work. Deeper and more nuanced investigation of this era would be helpful.

The end result is a film that’s reception–like most films–will depend largely on the prospective audience. For those who Scheinfeld primarily aims to attract, Chasing ‘Trane provides a good, if understandably brief, overview of Coltrane’s life and work with the emphasis on the former. There’s value in that, as it’s easy to forget that John Coltrane has now been dead longer than he was alive and it’s the constant reintroduction of the sheer joy, beauty, and virtuosity of his work to new audiences that will keep his spirit alive and hopefully inspire some to see how they can take it further.

The impressive array of visuals, excellent production, and music make for an enjoyable experience. Fans steeped in Coltrane lore will probably wish for more depth, but the film’s not primarily for them. That said, if one loves Coltrane, it’s still difficult to resist what’s on offer. At minimum, Antonia Austin’s insightful reflections as a mature adult on her stepfather’s life and McCoy Tyner’s thoughts will be new to many.

The above strengths make some of the narrative decisions in Chasing ‘Trane disappointing because of the possibilities given the strength of the subject: Coltrane’s story has built-in drama, tension, and triumph at the center that make for an automatically compelling tale. It may be personal bias, but this reviewer wishes the film leaned more toward deeper investigation. These are judgment calls, but a strong story can be trusted to provide compelling viewing for the audience, and that’s the case here.

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers?

Does Coltrane’s story need Bill Clinton and Common to attract funding and viewers? Maybe. But maybe it could stand on its own and eliminating some of the fluff would keep the storyline tight while creating enough space for some of what’s missing. At the very least, more screen time with Benny Golson (who is still clearly deeply affected by Coltrane’s passing) and Jimmy Heath would be valuable additions. Golson’s continuing emotional connection speaks very much to why Coltrane still matters.

Chasing ‘Trane works because of its subject and Scheinfeld’s competent handling of the story. Asking it to do much more than it does may be unfair. But a subject who seemed to believe that anything was musically possible prompts one to ask all sorts of questions and demand more. Maybe that’s the point.

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity and updated to add screening information. Original publication date of 12/19/2016)

Chasing ‘Trane is playing at the IFC Center in New York City through April 25 and in limited release nationwide. See the film website for upcoming screenings in other areas.

Related: For a deeper dive into the film’s backstory, see Joyce Jones’s radio interview with Chasing Trane director John Scheinfeld in the Suga’ in My Bowl audio archives.
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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.


Words by Hank Williams | MAIN PHOTO: Lee and Helen Morgan

Director Kasper Collin’s documentary film I Called Him Morgan on the late trumpeter Lee Morgan opens and closes with the beginning notes of the subject’s “Search for the New Land”. Morgan’s plaintive, sensuous notes on the trumpet stand in counterpoint with Grant Green’s shimmering guitar. It forms an appropriate frame for a musical life that ended too soon.

Early on, Lee Morgan’s wife–and killer–Helen Morgan informs the viewer via an appropriately fuzzy interview that she’s not to be taken lightly. It’s an ominous yet appropriate premonition that helps frame the narrative around a story that attempts to add richness of detail to a tale where the outcome is a foregone conclusion but the reasons remain murky.

Helen shot Lee on February 15, 1972 in between sets at the famed Slug’s Saloon in front of a club full of astonished guests and his own bandmates then waited–sobbing and clutching his prone body–for the police to arrive.

Indeed, as the story unfolds, one is constantly reminded that Helen is as much of the story as Lee.

Lee Morgan lit up the jazz scene in the 1950s with his bold, evocative voice on trumpet. His big break was entry into the band of legendary drummer Art Blakey, who took it upon himself to mentor and develop generations of young musicians through his Jazz Messengers bands.

These were the the days when jazz was king. Fast cars, women, and lots of money were all on offer for the jazz musicians of the era, who were some of the biggest pop stars of the time.

Lee, supremely confident–almost cocky–with his skill as a trumpeter and youthful energy, was at the center of all of it and and relished the attention, fast life, and everything that came with it.

Although one of Lee’s childhood friends is interviewed, one doesn’t learn much about the trumpeter’s background or what leads him into the jazz scene at such a young age: he was barely out of his teens when he became a rising star. Instead, in somewhat of a jump in the narrative, viewers get a snapshot of Lee’s rapid ascendancy in the jazz world, though how he gets there is left for viewers to ponder.

In contrast, Helen’s childhood is examined in slightly more detail via an interview with a childhood friend and an interview with herself, conducted by radio host Larry Reni Thomas only a month before her death.

Thomas’s interview with Helen is one of the film’s key pieces of documentary evidence and is one of the few pieces of the film that attempts to answer the question of why Helen shot Lee. Like much of the film, even this is frustratingly vague: a promise for a follow-up interview comes to naught when Helen dies before the second part, where she might have gotten comfortable enough to give deeper answers.

To Collin’s credit, the film avoids the current trend toward handing over valuable screen time to celebrities who contribute little to the storyline and are seemingly present just for name recognition. Those who appear on screen have a direct connection to the Morgans or are musicians who played with Lee. This is a direction more documentarians should take: trusting the strength of the story and characters enough to let them tell the tale.

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, for instance, remembers that Lee “was always digging back into his roots, his history” for musical inspiration, following the advice of drummer Art Blakey to tell his story while soloing. It’s one of the film’s small details, but indeed reveals a lot about the legendary bandleader and Lee’s approach. Blakey’s prodding seems to illuminate Lee’s trumpet style that juxtaposed boldly stacatto notes with brash, impeccably phrased bursts on the open horn, yet made space for plaintive melodies.

Indeed, Lee’s time with Blakey’s Jazz Messengers is presented as somewhat of a high point. The youthful exuberance and carefree confidence of Lee and the rest of the band is infectious and provides a beautiful portrait of the artists.

Much of the above is done via still photos, music, and interviews of surviving band members. Lee’s voice only appears via an early 1970s interview with writer Val Wilmer and snippets of video. As with the recent Chasing Trane documentary on John Coltrane, there simply isn’t much audio or video of either Lee or Helen: a stark reminder that capturing and broadcasting even minute details of daily life is a very recent phenomenon.

Aside from the technical limitations, the strategy also helps to freeze the dual subjects into the time period. Life ends early for Lee; Helen lives on, but returns to a relatively nondescript life in North Carolina far removed from the speed of New York City’s jazz scene after a short stint in jail followed by time in a mental institution.

The film does reinforce the invariably intertwined nature of Lee and Helen’s relationship.

Lee became addicted to heroin, which wrecked his career and almost took his life. Saxophonist Bennie Maupin recalls seeing Lee on a subway platform while on a passing train and not recognizing him at first: “he looked like a homeless person,“ Maupin remembers ruefully.

I Called Him Morgan doesn’t flinch in describing the depths of despair Lee fell into while gripped by addiction: he got his teeth knocked out, spent a lot of time on the streets, and was once roused by the smell of his own skin and hair burning: he’d passed out next to a radiator.

Collin does an admirable job of balance, however. Wayne Shorter and other friends of Lee who didn’t succumb to drugs are interviewed and show the genuine concern they had for their friend and fellow musician. Shorter’s overall reaction seems to be a mix of frustration and bewilderment at the inability to save Lee. It’s a thoughtful touch that helps highlight the fact that while a lot of musicians (and some very prominent ones) from the era did fall into drug addiction, not all did.

This is the point where Helen re-enters the story. She’d moved to New York City from North Carolina at a young age and gotten herself a job and her own apartment on 52nd St during the time period when it was still the epicenter of the jazz world. She began hanging out in the clubs and became known for her parties, which drew an eclectic crowd from the jazz scene. This is where Lee and Helen meet.

The couple became inseparable. Helen, who was several years older than Lee, took a motherly interest in him; intently supporting him and encouraging him to resume his career. Lee was perhaps at his lowest point, having sold his horn and even overcoat for drugs.

Bassist Jymie Merritt recalls that “Lee’s life’s was restored by Helen and it was a joy to watch”.

Collin’s noir style and indirect storytelling fit the subject well, though force close attention to details. While less impressionistic than his earlier My Name is Albert Ayler, Collin prefers to draw his characters in broad strokes.

Along the way, viewers find out that Lee has a girlfriend and is spending less and less time at home with Helen: details which become central to the tragedy at the heart of the story.

Lee’s fatal final night at Slug’s seemed to be dogged by bad omens. New York was gripped by a blizzard and his girlfriend Lena Sherrod wrecked her car in the snow while driving him to fetch his trumpet for the club date. Ironically, his renewed commitment to being a responsible bandleader drove him to appear at the club, as he was aware of his previous reputation for unreliability while addicted to heroin.

Helen followed downtown as well, though only meant to stop by Slug’s briefly before catching a different show in Greenwich Village.

I Called Him Morgan is a deeply unsettling film because it calls to mind the fragility of life and ironic elements in Lee and Helen’s interconnected lives. Without Helen’s help, it seems unlikely Lee would’ve made a successful musical comeback or even quit heroin. If Lee hadn’t been driven by the musician’s credo to make the gig no matter what, things might have ended differently. Lee, like novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s doomed protagonist in Chronicle of a Death Foretold, hurtles toward a seemingly inescapable fate while evading several possible turns that might change it.

Saxophonist Billy Harper remembers that the police came immediately after the shooting to arrest Helen, who surrendered quietly. Slug’s—and the Lower East Side neighborhood—was well known to police at the time because of crime and drugs. The atmosphere of the club itself merely mirrored the surroundings. Because of the blizzard, the ambulance took an hour to arrive. One can’t help but be haunted by the mental image of Lee lying on the floor of a dive bar for an hour, his life slowly dripping into the sawdust-covered floor for an agonizingly long time as musicians and patrons alike look on in horror.

The film doesn’t fully answer what drove Helen to shoot Lee and hints that she possibly isn’t exactly clear on the motivations either. The suggestion is that a combination of disrespect and humiliation at the hands of Lee’s womanizing drives her over the edge, but the only one who could answer that question for sure doesn’t give a straight explanation.

James Gavin’s account in a 2015 Jazz Times profile of Slug’s Saloon notes that Lee had fallen back into heavy drug use and as his addiction got worse, so did his abusive behavior toward Helen, who still served as his manager.

Lee Morgan’s end came in a dive bar that was home to some of the most brilliant musicians of the generation–including himself–and he died a junkie’s death.

Harper’s lament of the tardy ambulance seems a metaphor for Lee Morgan’s life. Had Lee been gotten medical attention sooner, Harper opines, “I think he could’ve been saved.”

(Original post lightly edited for spelling and clarity.)

92 Minutes. Playing at Metrograph and Lincoln Center Theaters in Manhattan and select theaters nationwide. See the film website for screenings.
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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

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Words by Hank Williams. Photos by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | MAIN PHOTO: (L-R) Antoine Roney, Gerald Cannon, and Ravi Coltrane. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

Drummer and percussionist Will Calhoun’s musical journey made its latest stop last week at the famed Blue Note club in Greenwich Village for a 3-night midweek run of music focused on the late drum legend Elvin Jones. I caught the early sets on Tuesday and Thursday.

“Celebrating Elvin Jones” as the dates were called was billed as the release event for the CD of the same name, although it has been available since late summer 2017 and has garnered deserved praise from critics – and fans alike, depending how much stake one puts on Amazon’s customer reviews.

The logistics of arranging club dates (and syncing them with Calhoun’s ambitious travel schedule) pushed the event to the current period.

The material has been performed live several times already, though. Calhoun had a set at the 2016 Winter Jazz Festival with much of the current ensemble. This was followed by an August Jazzmobile event in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, a 3-night September run at Tokyo’s Cotton Club, and fall dates at Scullers in Boston and the San Jose Jazz Festival.

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Will Calhoun

For these Blue Note dates, Calhoun fortified his ensemble with some of the musicians on the CD – saxophonist Antoine Roney and pianist Carlos McKinney – while calling up veteran bassist Gerald Cannon to provide the heartbeat and adding a special guest each night: saxophonist Ravi Coltrane on Tuesday, trumpeter Randy Brecker on Wednesday, and guitarist Russell Malone on Thursday, respectively. The connecting thread is that they have all played with Jones. Calhoun, ironically, is the only one who hasn’t since the two share the same instrument.

Calhoun, however, may be the perfect person to approach the project. “With Will I felt the [same] spirit and looseness that Elvin had,” Cannon said. “It’s a very rare thing in another drummer.” Cannon would know: he held the bass chair in the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine until Jones’s death in 2004. While Cannon had been following Calhoun’s meteoric career with the popular rock band Living Colour, he wasn’t aware of the drummer’s range–and interest in Jazz—until a series of Blue Note dates after Jones’s death. The decision was made to honor the Jazz Machine’s pre-arranged run with someone different in the drum chair each night. Cannon persuaded the drummer’s widow Keiko to allow Calhoun to have a night and he made an impression. “This cat can swing, man,” Cannon thought after the sets.

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Gerald Cannon (left) and Ravi Coltrane

Additionally, Cannon’s the musical director for pianist McCoy Tyner, who he’s played with for 11 years. As such, his insight is even more valuable since John Coltrane’s alumni seem to take many common indelible lessons with them from their time with the band although they’ve followed varied musical paths. “What I’ve learned by playing with McCoy and Elvin is the spiritual aspect of the music,” he told me. “When you play with them, you just feel enlightenment.”

Gerald Cannon: What I’ve learned by playing with McCoy and Elvin is the spiritual aspect of the music

Calhoun, echoing Cannon’s point, described his approach to the music and choice of lineup as “a sacred thing,” carefully choosing musicians who could see the spiritual side of the project and join him on the journey. The investment paid off, as the assembled ensemble treated the work with incredible respect as they worked to form intimacy on the bandstand.

The more one sits with Calhoun’s Elvin Jones project (both the performances and CD), the more one realizes that a lot of thought goes into just about every detail. Hence, the choice of an ensemble was far from simple, though understandably somewhat dictated by logistics and availability.

“I thought about [the lineup] for quite some time and wanted to stick with the guys on the recording for obvious reasons,” Calhoun related over the telephone. “Also, [the musicians] understood my vision and the guys know me personally outside the music.”

Given that, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane was a natural addition. Calhoun wanted him to be a part of the original recording, but it didn’t work out scheduling-wise. “Having Ravi up there is a sonic value and spiritual vibration,” Calhoun said. “There’s another kind of meaning to having Ravi there as well,” as he sees working with Coltrane’s son, (who’s now carved out his own unique voice on the instrument mastered by his famous father) as being the natural closing of the circle.

Similarly, Calhoun had sought out trumpeter Randy Brecker for his earlier Life in this World and Native Lands releases, but clashing schedules scuttled the efforts. Brecker’s commitment to the set was so great that he passed up a tribute to his brother to be at the show.

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Gerald Cannon (left) and Russell Malone

Finally, adding a guitarist to the rotation was a natural move for Calhoun, hence the presence of Russell Malone. “I just like the instrument and freedom of the [guitar as an] instrument,” he revealed. “Elvin played guitar and played with [guitarists] John Paul Bourelly and Jim Hall.” Calhoun plays the 12 string acoustic guitar on “Sarmastah,” one of his own compositions that appears on the release, though wasn’t part of the Blue Note sets.

Not surprisingly, the same reverence and obsessive attention to detail also went into the choice of songs to be played.

The setlist was identical both dates: “EJ Blues,” followed by “Harmonique,” then “Doll of the Bride,” and an electrified version of “A Love Supreme” to close the set. The choice of music wasn’t an easy one, Calhoun confessed. While he wanted to showcase music from the CD (indeed, the first three songs are on the release), not everything from the release could make the cut for the live performance: a necessary concession to the reality of time limits when dealing with club sets, especially when dealing with longer pieces that allow artists to fully stretch out and explore the music, which was the case.

The result, however, was a holistic approach to Jones, going beyond mere replication of his music and performances, but a real attempt to present as full an account of his essence as possible. The choices make sense in that context. “EJ Blues” is a Jones composition; “Harmonique” and, of course, “A Love Supreme” hail from John Coltrane; “Doll of the Bride” is adapted from a traditional Japanese folk song and was a staple of Jones’s own setlists while he helmed the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine.

The rotating guests also served to give the music a distinctly different feel each night as the rest of the ensemble worked around the unique instrumental sound, colors, and approach of each one. Guests, Calhoun said, “take you a little bit out of the norm.”

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Antoine Roney

In “EJ Blues,” for instance, Coltrane and Roney traded sax solos on Tuesday night, with the former opting for soprano saxophone. On Thursday, guitarist Russell Malone’s approach allowed Roney more space to shine while adding subtle colors to the main melody.

“Harmonique” highlighted the different approaches the different guests brought. While the general structure of the song remained the same, subtle changes were pronounced between the nights. Cannon’s bass solo led off each time, though Tuesday’s rendition saw Coltrane and Roney collaborating and smoothing out the edges of the angular melody. On Thursday, Malone subtly added color while Roney more purposefully hit the slightly atonal notes in the intro.

A seemingly simple question to Calhoun about his arrangement of “Doll of the Bride”–which began with an extended drum and percussion solo each time–led to a patient, unexpectedly detailed explanation that can only be highlighted here.

The key characters in the story, however, are the late Senegalese master percussionist Doudou N’Diaye Rose (who appears on the album as a guest on the song) and and Moussa D’Gyue, who owned a shop in Harlem that Calhoun frequented as a teenager. “He was like my uncle,” Calhoun says of D’Gyue, who shared many lessons on Africa, recommended books, and generally fed his intellectual curiousity.

After hours, D’Gyue and a group of West African men would gather in the back around a communal plate of food for a wide-ranging discussion of politics, culture, and whatever else they decided to engage. Eventually they invited him into the fold. “It was my first time witnessing that type of interaction,” Calhoun says.

D’Gyue became a crucial contact much later in Calhoun’s career when he took his mentor along for a series of shows he had booked in Senegal. Calhoun had been trying to get introduced to Rose for years without success and it turned out that D’Gyue knew the master percussionist and was able to arrange a meeting.

Calhoun: The world is my library

All of this leads back to the goal of Calhoun’s “Doll of the Bride” intro, as he sought “to create this almost drive by view of African rhythms:” a broad outline of what one might see, were they fortunate enough to have gone on Calhoun’s journey. Calhoun summed up the inspiration for the song’s arrangement much more succinctly in his on-stage intros, simply saying, “the world is my library.”

Calhoun began both nights on the Senegalese bongo drum, eventually moving to the drum kit while Cannon kept time with a heartbeat-like bass rhythm. Cannon, who’s also an accomplished visual artist, compared working Calhoun’s rhythm section to “doing a collaborative painting.”

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Calhoun

Calhoun wanted to “start out with a more traditional approach,” hence the use of his hands. As the solo built, Calhoun eventually enlisted nearly every form of input possible, working the sticks, mallets, brushes, and even his bare hands on different drum surfaces in an attempt to replicate what he’d listened to and learned: a deceptively difficult task. “The Senegalese rhythms are quite difficult to play on the drum kit,” Calhoun explained to me later.

But it all came back to Jones even before the solo ended. “Elvin’s drumming has a bit of Congolese and West African style,” he pointed out, hence Calhoun’s meshing of different approaches and specific rhythmic patterns.

On Thursday night, McKinney’s melodic solo on “Doll of the Bride” slowed the song’s intensity before building to a fierce percussive assault of his own on the piano, which gave way to Malone’s solo on the guitar. Calhoun said that Malone’s “tone is a bit darker than the pop tone and works great with the melodies” they were playing.

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Carlos McKinney

As with the other songs, each musician was given plenty of space to solo and collaboratively build the piece. Malone’s shift from improvisation back to the song’s melody signaled Roney to return to the stage for his turn in the spotlight and Cannon’s solo built off his delicately plucking out the melody on the strings as the rest of the bandstand and audience quieted to listen to one of the more contemplative and intimate moments in a night often filled with the type of explosive fire Jones himself is usually associated with. Cannon told me that one thing he’s learned from extensive work with Elvin Jones and now McCoy Tyner “is how important [his] role is as a bass player in order to be flexible and solid at the same time.”

Time was running short on both nights, which left space for only a very abbreviated rendition of “A Love Supreme” as a finale, which Calhoun playfully (and accurately) described onstage as “an uptown, electronic, Bronx version.”

The Senegalese bongo was again Calhoun’s chosen tool to start the song, which seamlessly morphed into Cannon’s delivery of the famous bass line, which invited Roney and McKinney into the mixture and the piece ended with a shimmery piano flourish.

And that was it.

The end of Thursday’s set had a slightly bittersweet feel as it was the final night and there was only one more set to go before the end of the short run.

Gerald Cannon: I haven’t played these tunes since Elvin died

“It was a little emotional for me,” Cannon confided. “I haven’t played these tunes since Elvin died.”

The intimacy and familiarity with the material developed over several sets on successive nights seemed to really bring the ensemble together. Cannon mentioned several times how much fun it was, pointing out that the comfort level had reached the point where he felt as if he could really explore, adding that “Will’s a great bandleader.” That’s high praise from someone with Cannon’s experience.

The next steps of this project are unclear since it’s just one of many projects all of the musicians juggle. Cannon has several scattered spring dates at the Blue Note with McCoy Tyner along with other gigs. Coltrane has his own work as a leader, including a week in February at the Jazz Standard. Brecker, Roney, and McKinney have commitments as well.

Calhoun heads out for another global tour to support the release of Living Colour’s new Synesthesia release and will somehow squeeze in time for work on film scores, his visual art collaboration, and (one of my favorite projects) a live recording date with guitarist Melvin Gibbs and bassist Vernon Reid for the Zig Zag power trio that performed at the 2017 Winter Jazz Fest and has had a few other dates over the past two years.

Calhoun’s committed to continuing work on the Elvin Jones project and more dates, but admits that “it’s been a little challenging,” pointing out that “there’s not a lot of money involved,” a constant refrain and reality of working in jazz now.

Calhoun: I want to honor the music and play it in an arena where it’s respected

Not surprisingly, it’s more than just the logistics of finances. ”I want to honor the music and play it in an arena where it’s respected,” Calhoun said. “Being an artist, you have a few important decisions to make” and one is artistic integrity and honoring the work. Fans will just have to keep their eyes on Calhoun’s tour schedule for more dates. Calhoun says that there’s one guaranteed stop, though.

“Of course, I have to play in Detroit because that’s where the Jones brothers are from.”
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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

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.

DSC_0136Words by Hank Williams. Photos by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | MAIN PHOTO: Jamaladeen Tacuma of the Young Philadelphians. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

The 13th edition of the annual Winter Jazz Fest officially wrapped up Tuesday night, bringing to an end a six-day extravaganza of music with a performance by the Liberation Music Orchestra closing the year’s festivities.

The festival clustered, as usual, around several different venues scattered throughout Greenwich Village. The historic center has been near Le Poisson Rouge and Zinc Bar on Bleecker Street. For the second year in a row, The New School provided several performance spaces, which are a welcome addition to the ever-expanding event. Smaller clusters of venues in both the East and West Village rounded out the list and had festival goers crawling between the different spots, adding somewhat of a logistical challenge to festival goers intent on seeing multiple acts.

The 2017 edition ran from January 5-10, with most the performances scheduled on the “marathon nights” Friday and Saturday the 7th and 8th.

This year also saw the addition of a festival theme: social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to festival organizer Brice Rosenbloom, inspiration for the theme came from the musicians themselves since so many sent proposals for performances that addressed the topic in one way or another. A festival-related Tumblr feed collected artists’ statements on contemporary political issues and an official festival statement explicitly staked out the political turf in the program guide, affirming that it “explicitly supports social and racial justice by presenting socially engaged artists who have urgent and beautiful messages to share.” In a nod to history, the statement also noted that “[p]rotest and resistance are central to jazz’s existence from its beginnings as the music of marginalized black Americans.”

Other touchstones were the celebration of pianist Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday, which was officially acknowledged with an event on Sunday the 9th, with a dozen musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist David Virelles, and drummers Hamid Drake and Andrew Cyrille interpreting Monk’s Solo Monk album in a variety of combos.

Lastly, Andrew Cyrille was this year’s artist in residence and the subject of an interview by a former student of his: fellow drummer Jonathan Blake. Cyrille also had several performances, including leading Haitian Fascination; a duo with saxophonist Bill McHenry; and a solo performance.

The official festival kickoff on Thursday evening started with two events in different venues. For the third year in a row, the festival hosted a Disability Pride benefit concert featuring several musicians raising funds to support the organization that works to instill a sense of pride in disabled people and create wider awareness for the issues they face. The brainchild of pianist Mike LeDonne, the organization’s key event is a summertime parade.

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Shabaka and the Ancestors

Thursday night also featured a concert at Le Poisson Rouge linking two generations of saxophonists: London-based Shabaka Hutchings, who opened the evening with his new group Shabaka and the Ancestors; followed by the legendary Pharaoh Sanders. The concert sold out early and left potential attendees scrambling for tickets; a sign that it should have been held in one of the festival’s larger venues, which is something that the organizers need to consider in the future since space concerns have dogged the festival as its popularity has risen.

The show was Hutchings’s first US appearance and the first of two performances, as they had a repeat appearance on Saturday night in the same space.

Hutchings’s Saturday performance was a fiery one before a crowd that again filled the space. Buoyed by Siyabonga Mthembu’s ethereal poetic vocals and Ariel Zomonsky’s frenetic, expressive bass, the group got the audience dancing—at least those who had enough space to do so. At the end of the set, Hutchings expressed gratitude for their embrace by the US audience. Hopefully we won’t need to wait long for their return.

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Pharaoh Sanders

In Sanders’s set, he again showed why he’s rightfully earned a solid place in jazz history and is still worth seeing, as he’s capable of playing with an astonishing combination of finesse and sheer, room-clearing power when he sees fit. Sanders’s current shows can involve a wide range of material and vary according to his mood and who accompanies him. A 2016 appearance at Dizzy’s saw a somewhat subdued, contemplative Sanders, while a spring set at the Red Bull Music Academy’s “Night of Spiritual Jazz” featuring the impressive lineup of Sanders, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Kamasi Washington (another show that, frustratingly, sold out quickly, though was simulcast online) brought a Sanders who seemed inspired by the occasion and performed a stunning cover of John Coltrane’s “Olé”. Which one would appear at the festival?

It was the latter Sanders who took the stage. Sanders, buoyed by longtime pianist William Henderson, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Jonathan Blake, had the backup he needed for an inspiring set and he delivered. Vocalist Tony Hewitt came onstage for a pleasantly mellow take of “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, though one without some of the edge and soul of the Leon Thomas original.

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Ravi Coltrane (left) and Pharaoh Sanders

The highlight of the set, however, was the performance of “Olé”, which had the touching addition of Ravi Coltrane, who Sanders spotted in the audience and called to the stage. Coltrane, prepared with soprano saxophone brilliantly played off Sanders’s sax while Henderson and Douglas’s rhythm section dutifully kept things in check as the dueling saxes explored. It was indeed a performance for the ages and a fittingly symbolic closing of the circle as they expertly worked through a composition of one of Sanders’s key mentors with the addition of Coltrane’s son, now a leader in his own right who’s also found his own voice as a player. It was the aural equivalent of seeing three generations of sax masters.

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Craig Harris

On Saturday night, trombonist Craig Harris found himself at the front of the stage and armed with sheet music and conducting duties instead of his instrument. His role was melding a cohesive sound from a collection of the roughly 3 dozen musicians and artists who answered his call last fall to “make[e] a sonic statement in response to current injustices inflicted on African American people”.

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Craig Harris’ Breathe fills the stage

“Breathe” had its premiere in October, 2015 and is a stunning multidisciplinary work of art. An expansive big band was accompanied by performance poet and multi-instrumentalist Ngoma Hill and a slide show by Bill Toles projected on a screen above the stage.

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Saxophonist Ras Moshe (left) and Ngoma Hill.

Hill read excerpts from his works “Blacktastik Funk Suite,” “Keep Calm,” “Cerebral Calisthenics,” and “I Need a Poem.” The words, images, and swirling sounds created an immersive experience that the audience into the interconnected suite.

Later, in the New School’s 12th Street auditorium, saxophonist David Murray’s set directly engaged the festival theme. Leading a version of his Class Struggle ensemble, Murray’s expressive sax playing was outstanding. Murray closed the set with a nod to the late Amiri Baraka, who he collaborated with on album releases and plays. “Class Struggle in Music” titled after one of Baraka’s famous poems, began with riffs of “Amazing Grace,” a fitting homage to the longtime activist writer.

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Zig Zag Trio.

Over in the West Village, the Zig Zag Trio of electric guitarist Vernon Reid, electric bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer Will Calhoun closed out the evening at SOB’s and provided one of the festival’s highlights. With two members drawn from the rock group Living Colour (Reid and Calhoun) and their common background in the Brooklyn based Black Rock Coalition, an electrifying set was a foregone conclusion.

According to Gibbs, Zig Zag resuscitates a combination that hadn’t played together since the 1990s and grew out of Reid’s curation of a series at the Iridium club. Reid thought it would be good for the three friends to play together again, thus the birth of the current trio roughly two years ago.

The vibe was similar to what it’s been in the previous shows: more like a jam session than an actual set. But with musicians like these who have been playing together for so long, the communication between them makes the process seem fluid and organic.

While the obvious connection is their rock heritage, ties to various musical forms are just as deep, which is reflected in their playing and the song selection. The late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson is a major influence, as is the Blues, and the late avant garde jazz guitar mad scientist Sonny Sharrock. Reid and Gibbs are both alumni of Jackson’s band. Reid explained from the stage that they “always play a couple of Jackson’s pieces because Ronald changed our lives.”

The set started with a cover of bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Love Ya’ Baby”.

That was followed one of the hardest rocking covers of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” ever done. The infectious melody of the original soon fell away to Reid’s virtuosic improvisations on guitar, backed by Calhoun’s wide-open hard-hitting drumming. Gibbs, meanwhile was somehow able to resist the allure of going totally out with his band mates in the mayhem and kept a steady bass line that formed the heart of the piece. The trio created space for one of Calhoun’s stage-rattling drum solos near the end before the final statement of the theme.

There was a deeper meaning behind nearly every song in the set and that was true of “Upper Egypt.” It was one of the songs in Sonny Sharrock’s setlist and Gibbs played it several times with Sharrock’s band before he had deeply listened to the original. The song’s choice was both a tribute to Sharrock and a nod to Sanders, whose set opened the festival.

The trio gave a nod to Monk’s centennial with a cover of “Epistrophy” which was subjected to a similar treatment after a slight false start.

Gibbs was tasked with starting off the next piece: a cover of “King Tut Strut” that was the contribution of Will Calhoun. Again, his steadying rhythm at the center held things together for Reid to explore. Halfway through, the roles switched and Gibbs’s steady hand was rewarded with time to explore on his own while Reid temporarily assumed the rhythm duties. When Calhoun’s turn to solo came, the master drummer showed why his latest release as a leader is a tribute to the late drum great Elvin Jones. Like Jones, Calhoun plays with volume — but also impeccable finesse — and has the uncanny ability to create solos with narratives that can go on seemingly forever and still sound fresh.

Elements of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and West African traditions all comfortably fit—and peacefully coexist—within the framework of the Zig Zag Trio.

The set was easily one of the hardest rocking ones of the festival, yet, if one looks closer, underscores the range of the players and the Black musical tradition that they draw from. Elements of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and West African traditions all comfortably fit—and peacefully coexist—within the framework of the Zig Zag Trio. It’s the type of project that could only succeed with players this proficient and with the level of comfort and trust they have in each other, which is clear on stage.

A live recording session is planned sometime for the spring at Woodstock Studios, though has to be shoehorned between Reid and Calhoun’s busy Living Colour tour schedule and Calhoun’s own dates as a leader for his Elvin Jones tribute. Additional live dates are probably on hold until fall 2017, but they’re well worth looking out for.

Saturday night tested the stamina of festival goers with persistent snowfall extending halfway through the evening. While it didn’t pile up too much, it was enough to make things slippery, walking slow going, and shuttling between locations a bit of a slog.

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Jaimeo Brown and Transcendence

Fortunately, Jaimeo Brown and Transcendence braved the weather and took the stage at SOB’s for their early set with a stunning multimedia collage.

Brown’s released two thematically similar CDs: Transcendence and Work Songs.

Work Songs is an audio collage combining actual sampled work songs that was a very successful release and critically acclaimed. While the samples form the base of the audio collage, they function as a vehicle for Brown and his collaborators to improvise around, not a crutch as they might elsewhere.

Live, the content was even more powerful than expected. Brown and company presented a multimedia spectacle, with video and some of the sampled sounds from both releases accompanied by Jaleel Shaw’s sax solos, Brown’s drumming, and Chris Sholar’s electric guitar work.

“Be So Glad” from Work Songs started the set. Shaw’s soaring sax solos that melted into the audio collage and seemed to float at times with the addition of a touch of reverb while a continuously shifting photo stream played in the background.

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D.C. Focus and Transcendence

The addition of D.C. Focus’s dancing halfway through the set complemented the larger narrative in Transcendence of the African American experience as a complex journey of grit, struggle, pain and joy: sometimes juxtaposed or simultaneous. While popping, locking, and even crawling as a counterpoint to the music in front of the band, Focus seemed to amplify the intensity of the performance.

Musically, Brown’s work defies simple categorization (as if those were even simple to begin with) between hip hop, blues, work songs, electric blues, and jazz as they all blurred together. The result though was–as promised—a set that felt truly transcendental.

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The Young Philadelphians

Saturday night also marked the return of Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians to the festival. 2017 was their third appearance and showed how far the ensemble has come, as this time they came to the stage with a world tour under their belts and a CD release culled from live shows in Tokyo.

The Young Philadelphians could only be the brainchild of someone like Ribot. The group reworks classic 1970s disco and soul tunes through the lens of electric guitar leads Ribot and Mary Halvorson with backing from two alums of late saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time bands: electric bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. The entire cast of characters is then melded with a string section—Joanna Mattley (viola), Amy Bateman (violin), and Jeremy Harmon (cello)—in this case. As I said in my preview, it’s an idea that seems too crazy to work, but indeed it does.

Ribot, Tacuma, and Weston are steeped in Coleman’s signature Harmolodic musical approach while Halvorson adds coloring touches and density and the strings replicate their role in the original songs while their lushness acts in counterpoint to the sharpness of the guitars.

The Philly soul classic “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”–known to many as the theme song from the TV show Soul Train –exemplifies the Young Philadelphians’ approach. The song began with a long introduction before the statement of the familiar melody. A signal from Ribot marked the spot for a Weston drum solo followed by a string section solo before the mayhem resumed.

Ribot strips the lyrics to their bare essence, delivering them like chants. “Let’s get it on! It’s time to get down” takes on a different meaning in the current climate and given the festival theme. Instead of the joyous invitation to party, they seem more like marching orders for the audience.

The Ohio Players’ high octane “Love Rollercoaster” followed immediately and provided ample space for a string solo in the middle followed by a Tacuma bass solo and a call-response section between bass and drums.

The disco hit “Fly Robin Fly” from the unlikely German group Silver Convention was next. Like most tunes in their repertoire, it took a sweet, innocuous pop song exploded it, then re-assembled into a full tapestry. The chant-like lyrics “Fly, robin, fly/ Way up to the sky!” were treated as a call and response by the band members and the sparse lyrics of the original are the perfect platform the Young Philadelphians’ treatment. Halfway though, the song broke down into a free-for-all with strings and guitars all improvising before re-assembling for the end.

“Love TKO” began as an antidote to the above, and remains a ballad with funked – up bass lines, though eventually that even succumbed at the end of the song to Ribot and Halvorson’s excursions.

An extended, melodious intro to “Do the Hustle” emphasized the lushness of the strings before Ribot’s angular interpretation of the theme, reliably set off, as usual, by Halvorson’s looping improvisation. The song ended with a majestic-sounding restatement of the intro theme, closing with a final cymbal clash by Weston.

“Love Epidemic” read as yet another command for the times. If there was ever a time it was needed the time is right now. Almost deliberately, the song preserved more of the original lyrics than others: “There won’t be no need for medication /There won’t be no discrimination/ All we need is your participation / Then we’ll be united as a nation!” sent out a corresponding call to “It’s time to get down”: if indeed it’s time to fight, then the love epidemic might be what we want to fight for.

Much of the Young Philadelphians’ appeal comes from their successful reworking of bygone hits, but with a sense of the larger than life, nearly epic scope of the 1970s soul era

If you were old enough to remember the original songs, they had one meaning that reached back to the memory bank. If not, it didn’t matter to the nearly packed crowd of various ages because they rock hard enough to move the crowd. Much of the Young Philadelphians’ appeal comes from their successful reworking of bygone hits, but with a sense of the larger than life, nearly epic scope of the 1970s soul era; one that’s best captured by live instrumentation and embrace of the outrageous, sometimes over-the-top performance style of the originals. Here, that’s transformed into avant garde improvisation.

The one disappointment of the festival was missing the performance of the AfroHORN Superband, led by drummer/ percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett. While a press pass got me into Zinc Bar ahead of a few others on line, I gave up and walked out. Packed to the gills, Zinc made an inhospitable place to hear the music: assuming you could even get close enough to the back room to do so. Actually seeing the performance was out of the question, as was taking any sort of notes.

Quite frankly, the festival needs to drop Zinc as a venue and has needed to for several years since lines outside the small space are routine. One can understand the possible reluctance: after all, Zinc presents jazz several nights a week throughout the year, not just when the big crowds are out, which is an ongoing commitment to the music. Unfortunately, Winter Jazz has simply gotten too big for it, and it’s time to move on.

The 2017 Winter Jazz Fest still must be looked at as a resounding success. The quality and variety of acts it attracts is top notch, the audience support is enthusiastic, as evidenced by the sold-out events and solid crowds even on the second marathon night with sketchy weather, and organization has improved every year.

How deeply the festival ingests and repeats this year’s commitment to social justice remains to be seen–the late spring-summer Vision Fest has that as an embedded part of its DNA—but the willingness to read and react to artists’ own messages says quite a lot. Nevertheless the Winter Jazz Fest still boldly forges ahead artistically and creatively year after year with a finely curated collection of artists who push and stretch the boundaries of jazz while staying firmly rooted in the musical traditions.
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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

IMG_2052Guitarist Vernon Reid clarified one thing at the beginning of the night’s set: he wanted the group everyone was about to experience to be known as WMV: the first initials of the members’ names, rather than the “Vernon Reid Power Trio” that had drawn people to the Iridium. This decision was in deference to a more egalitarian vision of the collaboration between three longtime friends and musical accomplices. Or, he said, you could call them the Zig Zag Power Trio.

The name may have to be settled later on, but all of that seemed less important than the music, which certainly is starting to gel between Reid, drummer/percussionist Will Calhoun, and electric bassist Melvin Gibbs in their raucous, high-energy ensemble.

I reviewed their last appearance at Iridium back in the spring, and was impressed enough to be eagerly anticipating a return appearance–which Reid promised was forthcoming – and finally happened last Friday for two sets.

The trio has to be a difficult project to pull together, especially since all of the members have such busy and diverse schedules: Reid and Calhoun are Living Colour bandmates in the middle of a tour. Calhoun is stepping into the role of a leader in his own right in the jazz world and has just wrapped up an album in tribute to the late drum legend Elvin Jones, and Gibbs plays with Harriet Tubman, which is also putting finishing touches on a release (due at the end of 2016 I’m told). These are only highlights of the artists’ main projects: to list all of their work would take way more space and research than there’s time for right now. The point is that these folks are seriously busy, and that’s part of what makes this collaboration so special.

This set felt slightly tighter than the Iridium date in the spring, which was not necessarily a bad thing. The spring set had more of the feel of sitting in on a dress rehearsal. To be clear, the music itself was at a high level both times. In the latest date, there were fewer inside jokes flowing, but the essence of what makes this group fantastic was intact, which is the high level of musical (and personal) respect between the musicians involved, trust, and sense of timing that’s the sign of a collective that’s working. That’s no small thing. The music industry is rife with stories of people who hate each other off the bandstand, but somehow manage to make things work long enough to get paid for the gig. That’s definitely not the case here. These musicians like and trust each other a lot and that’s expressed in the music.

The set started with a nod to the Blues (a recurring theme for this group) via their cover of guitarist Junior Kimbrough’s “Sad Days”. Here, Kimbrough’s work, transplanted from its Mississippi Hill Country juke joint roots, was turned up a notch (and rendered in a different key, according to Reid) into a searing electric rocker.

This was followed by a reverb-heavy soulful ballad that had Calhoun switching between drumsticks and mallets that referenced another key influence on the group: the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Reid simply said that “none of the things that have happened [to them as a collective], would’ve happened without him.” He explained in slightly greater detail in an interview on the Iridium’s blog that Jackson “was a real connection” between Gibbs and himself, as both of whom were bandmates in Jackson’s groups and drew his lessons firsthand, while Calhoun was heavily influenced by his musical ideas as a young player.

Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” seamlessly fit into the set, with Reid purposefully bending the original’s plaintive saxophone melody and using it as a launchpad for the the group’s high energy collective improvisation.

The Jazz standard “King Tut Strut” had a brief call-and-answer between Reid and Calhoun and climaxed with a cymbal-crashing flourish by Calhoun that even a broken drumstick couldn’t interrupt. Reid wrapped the infectious repeated phrase at the center of the the song around his guitar and turned it to perfection.

The set ended, appropriately enough, with Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Street Priest” and space was created for one of Calhoun’s trademark thundering drum solos that started on electronics before being finished on the drum set. While some drum solos are a formality, Calhoun’s are narratives in themselves, with clear progression and the type of engagement that showcases just one of his talents on the instrument. I’ve written about his incredible versatility on the drum kit before (and he’s equally adept on a range of percussion instruments), but Calhoun is an artist who can say a lot with percussion instruments.

Reid says that more shows are in the offing and added that there are thoughts of recording a release when prompted. Both of those things—like the exact name of the group—are works in progress. Stay tuned. The end result will be well worth your attention.
 
Will Calhoun is at Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park for a free outdoor performance as part of the Jazzmobile series on August 12th. He also appears with Living Colour on the 17th in a special acoustic set at City Winery or, at the Afropunk Fest in Brooklyn on the 28th.
 
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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.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: (L-R) James Stuart and Dave Davis of the Sun Ra Arkestra
 
For the second year in a row, the Sun Ra Arkestra led by Marshall Allen had a closing night spot at the Vision Festival. This year they celebrated the group’s 60th anniversary in grand style at the historic Judson Memorial Church on June 8th. The Arkestra is a blur of color, sound, and motion both on stage and off: they typically end their shows with members weaving their way through the audience, which you can see here. You really need to see the Arkestra in action as well as hear them. Joyce Jones’s photos give a sense of what the scene looks like during the shows. If you missed it, check out the rest of our daily coverage from Vision21.
 


 
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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.
 
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.

James_B_Lewis_close_Vision21Words and Photos by Hank Williams | Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: James Brandon Lewis
 
I’ve been covering the 2016 Vision Festival daily so far as part of Suga’ in My Bowl Radio’s on air coverage. If you missed it, check out the festival preview or the installments on the opening night highlighting bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes, day two’s report on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s set, or day 3’s report, Day 4’s report focusing on Michele Rosewoman’s New YorUba, and day 5’s report on Wadada Leo Smith. Suga’ host and executive producer Joyce Jones has been on the scene as well, and it’s largely her photos you see in the previous posts.
 
Today’s post is one that wasn’t really supposed to happen–at least not in its current form. I said at the end of yesterday’s report that it would be the last one and had planned to do a Vision review that included the final day. The review will still happen, though give me a few days on it.
 
Why? Well, there’s that whole economy of effort thing and the fact that I was covering the last night by myself, as Suga’ in My Bowl host Joyce Jones (who has the real photography chops) was busy editing sound for last night’s show with drummer Andrew Cyrille (which you should definitely listen to when we get it online). But then that magical thing happened of someone totally blowing you so far away that you just have to write something, especially if others are reading. And it does appear that a few people are reading these dispatches.
 
That’s a long way of saying that the trio of saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, electric bassist Luke Stewart, and drummer Warren Trae Crudup III are the primary inspiration for today’s post. Blame it on them.
 
James_Brandon_Lewis_Trio_Vision21
James Brandon Lewis Trio
 
Lewis is by no means a stranger to Vision, explaining to me after the set that he’d been a volunteer several years ago, has been following it for a while now, and I’d met him before, though don’t think I’d heard him play. I confess that his 2015 Days of FreeMan release had gotten by me too, even though it’s gotten some favorable reviews. There’s a lot of good stuff out there that I miss. The trio played earlier this year in Arts for Art’s January series, so they should’ve been on my radar.
 

James Brandon Lewis Trio at Arts for Art | Don Mount video
 
The three had an incredibly high energy set. Buoyed by Stewart on the electric bass and Crudup on drums, the evening took a turn to a party-like atmosphere. Crudup’s intense pulsing backbeat drove the trio forward, providing a solid foundation for Lewis and Stewart.
 
Lewis, his infectious energy seemingly uncontainable, at one point hopped back and forth like a prize fighter egging the rest of the group on. Lewis described himself in terms of an MC, except using a saxophone instead of words, trying to bring a similar feel of energy and improvisation to his work. He also stressed the importance of the collective and that while he’s nominally the leader, he wants to democratize the process of creating and playing music with the other members. Writing this now, I feel bad that I didn’t corner Stewart and Crudup after the set as well. Lewis reported that the energy on stage was good for the group, and he felt comfortable taking some more risks as the trust level between the musicians is increasing as they play together more.
 
Stewart_Crudup_JBLTrio_Vision21
(L-R) Luke Stewart and Warren Trae Crudup III
 
The good news is that (aside from getting their CD) there are a few immediate chances to see them: they’re playing the Red Hook Jazz Festival on Sunday the 19th and have a lunchtime set in Madison Square Park on the 29th as well as other upcoming dates. For me, the trio was one of the revelations of the festival and one thing it does well: expose you to new artists.
 
The set ended with a surprisingly calm, melodic coda, however: almost as if the trio realized the need to let the audience down easily after getting us so fired up. Lewis told me that he just wants to tell the truth as a musician. His honesty and enthusiasm was completely on display on Sunday night and it was difficult not to believe in him or in the future of jazz after seeing him live.
 
While Lewis’s set may have been the revelation of the festival (for me, at least), saxophonist William Edward Jordan, better known as “Kidd”, took the stage again to close out this year’s festival. Jordan, playfully referring to his now-outdated nickname as the “world’s oldest kid.” Jordan doesn’t play around when it comes to his music however, and–in his second appearance at this year’s Vision Fest and too many other Visions for me to collect right now–led the group in a rousing final set.
 
Kidd_Jordan_portrait_finalnite_Vision21
Kidd Jordan
 
Jordan is seemingly a Janus face of free/avant jazz: seamlessly incorporating the past, present, and future all in one persona. Jordan’s earlier forays this year drew the New Orleans native repeatedly back to the Blues; this set initially focused more on the free improvisation he’s brought to the festival repeatedly over the years–though soon detoured right back in the Blues when the spirit so moved him and he felt confident his collaborators could make the journey with him.
 


 
Jordan dedicated his set to the memory of the victims of the attack earlier that day in Florida, invoking the determination that “nobody else get [should] by messed up like that at any time”. And with that thought, he sent us off into the night.
 
This really does wrap up our daily Vision coverage, but we’ll check back in with a full review. Be sure to tune in to our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with drummer Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI and streaming worldwide online.
 
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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.

DSC_0195Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Dave Burrell and Hamid Drake
 
I’ve been covering the 2016 Vision Festival daily so far as part of Suga’ in My Bowl Radio’s on air coverage. If you missed it, check out the festival preview or the installments on the opening night highlighting bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes, day two’s report on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s set, or day 3’s report, and Day 4’s report focusing on Michele Rosewoman’s New YorUba. Suga’ host and executive producer Joyce Jones has been on the scene as well, and it’s largely her photos you see in these posts.
 
The pyrotechnics began early Saturday evening, as saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett drew the early evening set, leading a quartet with pianist DD Jackson, drummer Hamid Drake, and Bob Stewart on tuba. Poet David Mills read some of his work in a following set, including one epic-length poem, “Blues People” dedicated to the late Amiri Baraka.
 


 
The tone of the evening took a turn when trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith took to the stage, matched with a quartet of viola players including Jason Kao Hwang and an artist named Hardedge on electronics..
 
The set displayed one of Vision’s core principles: being open to highly experimental work that pushes the boundaries and occasionally demands a lot from the audience. Such was the case with this combination. Aside from the unusual (for jazz, at least) mix of instruments, the music itself was complex and demanded a lot of attention to appreciate the subtlety, such as Smith’s matching the notes of the violas in one part of the composition. The overall mood, however, was one of serenity and contemplation. Smith ended the set verbally imploring the audience to find beauty in everyday life; an appropriate coda to the performed piece titled “Pacifica”, itself inspired by the Pacific Ocean and, in Smith’s words, “the depth at which light penetrates water.”
 
The final set of the night was a duo between pianist Dave Burrell and the indefatigable drummer Hamid Drake, returning re-energized after his electrifying performance in the night’s opening set with Hamiet Bluiett.
 
The two performed a suite titled “Paradox of Freedom”. It started and ended with the title piece, with compositions titled “Cheap Shot” and “Long Time Coming” in the middle.
 
Burrell alternated between sharp, angular notes and more melodic playing, using several different repeated phrases as an entry point for improvisation and exploration. Drake was the perfect partner, responding to Burrell’s thoughts, filling in with spots of color where appropriate, and using his ability to react quickly to changing textures to the maximum effect.
 
Jazz duos can be difficult for listeners, and likely players as well, since the task of moving the narrative forward rests on fewer players. Conversely, duos make it easier to concentrate on the contributions of each to the whole. Interaction becomes key and intimacy between players is warmly rewarded. The latter advantages were on display and the two sounded like a much larger combo, with Burrell using the percussive nature of the piano to complement Drake in places.
 
It seems trite to observe that Drake is a master drummer, but he is. He responded seamlessly to Burrell and displayed an astonishing range of textures on the drum set. He was allowed to cut loose for a brief moment near the end of their set, however, and rewarded the audience with a thunderous solo. While drum solos are often a formality (and at worst are something to be endured) Drake is the type of drummer who can indeed make the most of a solo, organically advancing ideas and building complex narratives that feel fresh and compelling. This is what, I would imagine, all musicians aspire to. The crowd that nearly filled Judson’s main auditorium was rewarded for their attention.
 

 
This wraps up our daily Vision coverage, but we’ll check back in with a full review including the final night’s closing performances. Be sure to tune in to our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with drummer Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI and streaming worldwide online.
 
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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.
 
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.

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