Archives for posts with tag: Free Jazz

Suga’ in My Bowl host Joyce Jones and I refer to the annual Vision Fest as the high holy days of jazz and we’re only half-kidding. The festival has managed to outlast competing fests with much deeper pockets and big name corporate sponsors behind them while still managing the delicate balancing act between being a smaller artist-focused event willing to take risks and keeping up with the times and technology. So while you can now buy tickets online and follow their various social media feeds, Vision is unafraid to feature poets in prime time slots or book quirky acts. It’s all part of the scene and that’s why we’ve been going for several years now and have featured numerous performers as guests on the show. In full disclosure, WBAI Radio returns as a media sponsor this year and happily so: it fits the station’s vibe fairly well.
Suga’ in My Bowl previewed this year’s festival in our last show, interviewing festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker for a “big picture” view, along with pianist Geri Allen (in her first time Vision appearance), guitarist Marc Ribot, drummer Andrew Cyrille and composer/vocalist Lisa Sokolof all speaking on the influence and importance of bassist Henry Grimes. If you missed that, be sure to catch WBAI producer Basir Mchawi’s Education at the Crossroads show on Thursday June 9 st 7 PM EST, where Patricia Nicholson Parker will be giving an update.
Vision started on Sunday June 5th with 3 classic films celebrating the 60th year of the Sun Ra Arkestra at Anthology Film Archives. While none of the film’s are new, provided a good opportunity to see John Coney/Sun Ra’s Space is the Place, The Magic Sun, or Robert Mugge’s Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise again. Mugge’s documentary has aged well and does about as good a job as anyone could of giving a broad overview of Ra himself and the Arkestra. Coney’s film, on the other hand, is pure fun: a sci-fi/Blaxploitation mashup that’s the ultimate fan experience.
Vision settles in for the week at Judson Memorial Church from the 7-12 with nightly performances highlighting the career of bassist Henry Grimes. It retains its usual informal atmosphere and you’re likely to see musicians hanging out and checking out other sets. Everything happens in the main upstairs space, while the basement houses a marketplace and food vendors. It’s a good place to pick up some of the music you’ll hear over the course of the week and you can usually even get your CD autographed, too!
Tuesday night is all about this year’s Vision honoree: bassist/violinist Henry Grimes. Grimes leads two groups over the course of the evening and participates in a third. Pianist Geri Allen and drummer Andrew Cyrille join Grimes for the first set, while the final set of the night features a Grimes-led septet as an expended version of Marc Ribot’s trio with Grimes and drummer Chad Taylor, whose collaboration was captured in the 2014 Live at the Village Vanguard release.
Grimes’s story is a remarkable one. He was in high demand in the 1960s, especially in the free jazz scene, where he played with notables like Sunny Murray, Sonny Rollins, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, and Cecil Taylor — to name only a few. Grimes suddenly dropped out of the music scene after getting stuck in Los Angeles with a broken bass he had no money to repair before being rediscovered. Bassist William Parker sent Grimes one of his basses and Grimes practiced feverishly to prepare for his reemergence on the jazz scene. Appropriately enough, his big return to New York was punctuated by a performance at the 2003 Vision Fest and he’s been a regular ever since.

Wednesday night has poet Quincy Troupe (who we talked to in May for a Miles Davis birthday show) given his own slot to read some of his work in prime time. Pianist Connie Crothers then leads a trio as a lead-in to the night’s closing act: the Sun Ra Arkestra led by the 92 year old saxophonist Marshall Allen.
While the Arkestra can be wildly uneven in the quality of their performances, they’ve been solid lately, including at last year’s Vision where they closed an evening with a phenomenal show, at the Winter Jazz Fest earlier this year, where they brought the house down with a midnight set at Judson Memorial Church, and an inspired performance at a Red Bull Music Academy-sponsored “Night of Spiritual Jazz” earlier this year. Much of what I wrote for their Winter Jazz Fest date still applies, including the vitality that vocalist Tara Middleton has brought to the ensemble. I’d add that the Arkestra is actually a perfect intro for people new to jazz and while they have showmanship and performance honed to a science, their level of performance lately has been high. Fortunately, you won’t have to stay up all night to see the Arkestra do their thing this time, since the scheduled descent to Earth is at a relatively early 9:40 PM.

Thursday night’s lineup starts with multi-instrumentalist Bill Cole, who leads his “UnTempered Ensemble” featuring saxophonist Ras Moshe–who channels the spirit of John Coltrane with nearly every breath he takes–followed by Vision veteran saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc’s ensemble and a first Vision appearance by poet Tonya Foster.
Trombonist Steve Swell leads a trio as a lead-in for the night’s closing set with drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake (who we profiled in 2014) backed by an all-star cast of saxophonist Kidd Jordan, pianist Cooper-Moore, and bassist Michael Bisio.
Friday night’s lineup has early sets of ensembles led by drummer William Hooker and pianist Cooper-Moore before a closing set with pianist Michele Rosewoman’s “New Yor-Uba” ensemble. We profiled Rosewoman in 2013, for the CD release of her New Yor-Uba project. Look for an inspired spiritual set from Rosewoman, as she blends Yoruba songs with jazz improvisation and expect a special touch of freedom for the Vision crowd.

Saturday night’s lineup highlights saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, each leading ensembles. Bluiett wrapped up last year’s Vision on the last night leading a rousing performance with a cast so large that it spilled off the stage and needed to commandeer space on the floor to accommodate everyone. It was a grand vision (pun unintentional) of swirling sounds that captured much of what the festival is about. The enormity of the sound produced nearly shook the building at times. Expect a slightly less magisterial treatment this year, as he “only” leads a quartet, however, with solid backing from pianist DD Jackson and drummer Hamid Drake, expect a wild ride.
Sunday night’s lineup has saxophonist Kidd Jordan’s ensemble given the duties of closing out the festival: an honor Jordan’s been tasked with before and handled brilliantly.
I can only scratch the surface here while keeping this a readable length (and may have failed in the latter already). Check the full schedule to see all the acts with our preliminary recommendations in mind. My ultimate recommendation is to show up, watch, listen, and just get lost in the atmosphere. I always walk away from Vision blown away by someone I was vaguely aware of beforehand, but that’s the magic of this festival.
We wrap our coverage with a show interviewing drummer Andrew Cyrille on Sunday June 12 from 11 PM – 1 AM EST on WBAI. If you scoot home quickly after the Kidd Jordan set, you’ll be able to catch the tail end before calling it a night and wrapping it all up until this time next year. If you miss it, not to worry: we archive shows on our website.
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.



I’m a semi-regular listener to NYC radio station WKCR’s evening jazz show, but normally tune out soon as soon as it’s over. Fortunately, several weeks ago I stayed on just long enough to catch the announcement of the interview the following arts program was doing and luckily caught Gabe Ibagon’s interview with Tom Surgal, director of Fire Music!, an in-progress documentary on the free jazz movement that successfully finished a Kickstarter campaign to raise enough funds to finish production.

Fire Music! would definitely fill a much needed gap in the documentary history of jazz. I’ve realized the gap while searching for a documentary to show students in a course on the Black Arts Movement that I teach. There are several good documentaries on individual people — Coltrane and Sun Ra especially — but no nice overview of Free Jazz itself that I’ve found. The fantastic Imagine the Sound is finally available again thanks to video on demand. While it focuses on Cecil Taylor, Paul Bley, Archie Shepp, and Bill Dixon, it doesn’t cover the entire sweep of the style or give much in the way of historical overview. To be clear, these aren’t shortcomings of the film itself: I’m just looking for something that it doesn’t set out to do.

Instead, I’ve somewhat reluctantly used Episode 10 of Ken Burns’ Jazz “A Masterpiece by Midnight” — which takes viewers on whirlwind tour through the 1960s and 70s. I won’t rehash the well-discussed criticisms here, but KBJ‘s hardest hit to Free Jazz arguably isn’t attacking it: it’s the scant coverage and bare acknowledgement of the form’s existence. That would be understandable in a shorter series, but given KBJ‘s expansive run time, the decision to shoehorn nearly three decades into the last two hour segment is unconscionable. Ironically, this major shortcoming works well for the classroom, since it results in a compact — if cursory — overview of the main trends and hits some of the key names.

Surgal’s effort looks to right many of those wrongs and boasts that it will be “the definitive history of the Free Jazz Revolution”. That’s actually a tall order, given the form’s lifespan, continued growth, the complexity of the background surrounding its rise, and the variety of key players involved. Surgal, not surprisingly, is keenly aware of the gap, pointing out the obvious on Fire Music‘s Kickstarter page: “Ken Burns’ otherwise exhaustive documentary Jazz, surprisingly, breezes over the subject as if it were an afterthought. FIRE MUSIC is intended to be that missing link that will set the story straight.”

The film may match its bravado and Surgal looks to be the right person to do it, as he has feet in both the film and music worlds. Fire Music already has the backing of Submarine Entertainment, which has a good track record of shepherding music documentaries through production and has Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Wilco’s Nils Cline as Executive Producers. Things look good.

Scrolling through Fire Music‘s online historical archives alone is an education in the history of the form, with album covers, artist photos, and flyers from key parts in the history of Free Jazz and even more info on their Kickstarter page.

It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Free Jazz on Suga’ in My Bowl and — throwing journalistic objectivity out the window — we’re rooting for this film to make a big statement and fill a big gap in the visual documentation of jazz. The stated goal is completion by June 2016 and submission to some of the major North American film festivals. We’ll be keeping a close eye on it and hope to talk to Surgal later on in the process, but for now, we’ll point you toward the 10 minute rough cut trailer on Vimeo.

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.

One thing I look forward to every year in mid-June is the Vision Fest, a weeklong celebration of improvised music they’re referring to as “AvantJazz”, poetry, and visual art.

This year’s Vision Festival (number 19) kicked off on June 11th at Roulette in Brooklyn with the spotlight on multi-instrumentalist Charles Gayle, one of this year’s recipient of the lifetime achievement award organizer Arts for Art presents to selected artists at the Fest.

If you didn’t catch the June 8th Suga’ in My Bowl show with Joyce Jones’s interview with Gayle and Patricia Nicholson Parker, it’s worth checking out. Parker runs down some important history of Vision and its evolution over the years, including its struggle to survive as an independent institution free from corporate sponsorship. Gayle, who’s a man of few words and extreme humility, talks about his work and approach to music. (you can hear a short preview of the show below.)

Last night, Gayle took the stage with drummer Michael T.A. Thompson for the first set dressed as his alter-ego “Streets”, and playing upright bass. The set gradually grew in intensity with Gayle and Thompson playing off each other.

William Parker (b) and Charles Gayle (sax) at Vision Fest 19.| Joyce Jones Photo.

William Parker (b) and Charles Gayle (sax) at Vision Fest 19.| Joyce Jones Photo.

Gayle played the most of the night as “Streets”, his Chaplin-esque alter ego in clown makeup. Gayle explains in a Village Voice interview that he took on that stage persona to free himself from some of the constraints he saw and allow him more space as an artist, feeling that he could be more expressive in costume. Don’t be confused, though: Gayle’s playing is no joke and he takes the music so seriously that he is probably harder on himself than the average critic would be. He walked away from a teaching position at SUNY Buffalo, for example, because too many of the students he dealt with couldn’t put in the voluminous amount of time practicing that he did and he didn’t feel that he could bring out their best without that high level of commitment. Thus Gayle eased himself away from what’s become an important income source for many working artists these days.

Charles_Gayle_Piano_Vis19Gayle then switched to piano for the rest of the set, playing in an angular, percussive style reminiscent of Cecil Taylor. For the final part of the opening set, dancers Patricia Nicholson Parker and Miriam Parker joined Gayle onstage along with Daniel Carter on trumpet and saxophone.

WKCR Radio’s Ben Young emceed the evening and was on hand to reflect on Gayle’s legacy. Young compared Gayle to the main character in the Bernard Malamud story “The Natural”: someone who is in the game for the purity of it. As journalists, Young pointed out, “we always wanted to put a brand identity on” Gayle’s work and “make a marketing plan”, but Gayle has resisted such efforts, partly as a result of his own humility; partly in an effort to resist outside pressure on his musical creativity.

Young also reflected on past shows at disappeared venues such as the Knitting Factory and other disappeared NYC venues where Gayle honed his craft.

Gayle’s second set was a quartet with bassist William Parker, drummer Michael Wimberly, and pianist Dave Burrell with Gayle on tenor saxophone.

Quincy Troupe reads on opening night of Vision Fest 19 | Joyce Jones photo.

Quincy Troupe reads on opening night of Vision Fest 19 | Joyce Jones photo.

Poet and writer Quincy Troupe (also known for collaborating with Miles Davis on his autobiography) had a short set all to himself. Some of his readings were dedicated to the late Amiri Baraka, whose been a fixture at Vision, reading poetry either by himself or with wife (and fellow poet Amina) and their Blue Ark jazz ensemble or participating in discussions around the culture and politics. Troupe recalled meeting Baraka in the late 1960s in Los Angeles and being surprised that Baraka knew his work. “A lot of people didn’t like [Amiri] because he told the truth [and] people don’t like truth tellers. But that’s what poets are supposed to do”, Troupe reflected. Troupe read Baraka’s poem “Wise 1 as a salute.

From his own work, Troupe read an excerpt from the intro to his book Miles and Me on the poetry of Miles’s music. Troupe finished his set with a poem on Duke Ellington and one dedicated to the late vocalist Leon Thomas.

Final set on Vision 19's opening night. | Joyce Jones photo.

Final set on Vision 19’s opening night. | Joyce Jones photo.

The night’s closing set featured Gayle returning on piano and conduction and a number of musicians joined him in the type of freewheeling jam Vision is known for: Andrew Cyrille (percussion), Shayna Dulberger (upright bass), Ted Daniels (trumpet), former Vision lifetime honoree Kidd Jordan (tenor sax), Steve Swell (trombone), Mazz Swift (violin), Nioka Workman on cello, Jason Kao Hwang (violin), and Ingrid Laubrock (tenor sax).

Thursday evening’s line-up includes another Vision regular, poet Steve Dalachinsky, who’ll also be paying tribute to Baraka; a film tribute to visual artist musicWitness® Jeff Schlanger, who’s being awarded a lifetime achievement award by Vision and whose work provides the backdrop for the sounds each year; guitarists Mary Halvorson and Susan Alcorn; and a closing set by saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker.

The final set is one to look forward to and looks to be one of the highlights of the week. Brötzmann’s frenetic, rapid-fire sax playing is serious and he doesn’t get to the US very often. In combination with Parker and Drake, it’s likely to be a set to remember.

Are you there this week? Share your thoughts in the comments.

All photos courtesy of Joyce Jones and used with permission. Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

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 producer and host for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and a graphic artist.

arts_for_art_logoWe’ve been on a bit of a hiatus here, but we’re going to give this neglected blog a dose of summertime TLC, starting with one of my favorite jazz festivals of the year: NYC’s free/ avant garde/ experimental jazz showcase Vision Fest, now celebrating its 18th year of ruckus courtesy of Arts for Art, the nonprofit that keeps everything rolling.

They’re far from the only thing happening in NYC this summer — the Blue Note Jazz Festival, many events at the City Parks Foundation’s Summerstage (including the well-known season-ending Charlie Parker Jazz Fest), Celebrate Brooklyn, and even MOMA’s Summergarden. Vision is unique, however, in that it concentrates everything into a week of performances, all centered around their definition of avant jazz. Without getting into the often testy debates around the label of jazz itself (or Vision’s own definition of avant jazz), it does attempt to push the boundaries of the music and recalls Wayne Shorter’s definition of jazz as a challenge: “I dare you.” Vision also includes visual art, poetry, and dance as key parts of the festival, recalling artist collectives, several iterations of the jazz loft scene, and bygone outposts such as Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre/School and Brooklyn’s The East Cultural and Educational Center.

Each year, Vision bestows a lifetime achievement award on a different musician and this year’s honoree is drummer Milford Graves. Graves has a place in the free jazz and Black Arts movements, having been part of the legendary 1964 October Revolution concerts organized by the late trumpeter and educator Bill Dixon, playing with several key people, and writing about the movement and musicians’ role in it.

Graves is far from the only one at the festival, and is joined by several musicians, poets, and dancers; many of whom are fixtures and perform annually. Key people I’ll be keeping an eye on are bassist William Parker, saxophonist Kidd Jordan, wordsmith and activist Amiri Baraka, poet Steve Dalachinsky, and drummer Hamid Drake, just to name a few. Former Suga’ in My Bowl guests bassists Reggie Workman and Christian McBride are scheduled to appear, as is saxophonist Marshall Allen, who keeps the Sun Ra Arkestra’s legacy alive.

We have a few posts from the festival in the works. Suga’ host Joyce Jones did some short interviews and took several photos; we’ll post some of each. I’m taking all (well, most…) of the fest in and will write a few thoughts on it. We’ll be getting up in the next week. Stay tuned! Were you at Vision Fest? Let us know in the comments.

Bio: Hank Williams is 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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