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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.


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.

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

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

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

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

Monday May 29

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday May 30

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

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

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

Wednesday May 31

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

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

Thursday June 1

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

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

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

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

Friday June 2

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

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

Saturday June 3

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

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

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

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

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

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

Grimes and Ribot

Words by Hank Williams. Photo by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | 2016 Vision Fest honoree bassist/violinist Henry Grimes and guitarist Marc Ribot. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

While New York is still gripped in the throes of winter, two announcements offer some hope and a reminder that there is light at the end of the dark seasonal tunnel. Two mainstays of the summer jazz season, the Vision Festival and Blue Note Jazz Festival, have released save the date announcements for May 29-June 5 and June 1-30, respectively.

vision_22__small_logoVision Fest has become somewhat of the elder in the New York City festival scene with its 22nd annual run planned for this year at Judson Memorial Church and shows no signs of slowing down. It’s a week-long showcase with Free Jazz at the center but with interconnecting segments of visual art, movement, and poetry paying homage to the loft jazz scene salons of years past.

It’s focused highly on the art itself and provides a home for the type of musicians one won’t see elsewhere. Each night features a thoughtfully curated mix of ensembles and styles ranging from solo to big bands; electric to  acoustic; and everything in between.

While definitely catering to the advanced listener, Vision is far from inaccessible: the Sun Ra Arkestra led by the remarkably spry nonagenarian sax and EVI master Marshall Allen frequently appear. While rightfully known for way-out Afrocentric costumes, space references, and frenetic, whirling, big band sound that can sometimes be described as orchestrated chaos — the Arkestra is also a perennial crowd favorite with their hard swinging songbook that will challenge anyone who thinks jazz isn’t dance music anymore.

On the other end of the spectrum, several years ago German sax heavy hitter Peter Brotzmann’s group Full Blast nearly cleared the room. During the sound check, drummer Michael Wertmuller signaled the engineers to boost the volume until it maxed out. Heavy metal fans would’ve been at home during that memorable set. Brotzmann’s working out the details of a North America tour this spring, so with any luck he’ll make an appearance at Vision.

In short, one never knows exactly what to expect in a particular night at Vision, which is part of the fun and although there are mainstays who appear perennially, there’s always at least one revelation and the unexpected pairings of even familiar musicians can incite magical moments. Last year, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis’s Trio left a lasting impression with their highly charged set foregrounded by Lewis’s virtuosic sax playing, drummer Warren Trae Crudup’s hard, funk-inflected drumming, Luke Stewart’s electric bass and their general infectious energy.

Each year, Vision gives a lifetime achievement award to a significant artist and has them lead several ensembles on one night. This year’s honoree is pianist/composer Cooper-Moore.

blue_note_jazzfest_boxThe Blue Note Jazz Fest, on the other hand, takes a different approach. Although featuring several events at the namesake jazz club, the festival spreads out among various venues throughout Manhattan for the month and last year even encompassed free Summerstage shows in Central Park by legendary pianist McCoy Tyner and up-and-coming saxophonist Kamasi Washington. In other performances, pianist Robert Glasper and vocalist Al Jarreau (in what might have been his last NYC appearance) were on the bill, as was the pop vocalist Bilal.

The Blue Note Fest definitely aims at a broader audience and provides a lot more chances to catch a show or convince a friend who’s not into jazz to give it a try — and, possibly, get hooked.

Of course, these aren’t the only summer festivals and there should be announcements from the Summerstage and Jazzmobile series, Charlie Parker Jazz Fest, MoMA’s Summergarden, and the numerous smaller festivals and shows, but we now have a glimpse at the two anchors that kick of the summer season.

Full schedules for both are still being finalized, but for now we can save the dates and think ahead to long, music filled summer evenings ahead. Head on over to the Arts for Art and Blue Note Jazz Fest sites to keep up to date.

Disclaimer: WBAI Radio was a media sponsor for the 2016 Vision Festival.

See our coverage of the 2016 Vision Festival.

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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