PHOTO: At left- Free Jazz fanatic Lucky Busalachi & 2019 Jazz Lifetime Achievement Honoree drummer Andrew Cyrille
“This is not a jazz festival. We are a community,” improvisation dancer and Vision Festival Creative Director Patrica Parker bellowed from the stage of Vision Festival 24 at Brooklyn’s Roulette performance space.
“And we are fragile,” she concluded.
After almost 25 years since Vision Festival first created a truly sacred space for Free Jazz and the arts community in New York City, it was chilling to hear that from the CEO of what is now the most respected jazz festival in the world. For nearly a quarter of a century, Vision Festival has valiantly fought the corporate high jacking of almost every musical genre and entertainment platform possible, promoting many progressive political causes (local and international) as well as holistic living and heath.
Here on my desk sits a June 8, program guide from the first of what was then called Vision For The 21st Century Arts Festival held June 5-9, 1996 at the Learning Alliance on 324 Lafayette St. The headline performance on June 8 was master drummer/percussionist Milford Graves, tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle and bassist William Parker. At the time the three of them were the best players alive on their instruments and in their musical prime. Together, they were an unstoppable force and their music was as dynamic as any ever created. As soon as they ended their set and before the audience could applause, a fire truck with siren’s blaring whizzed down below. Without missing a beat, Mr. Graves said “We started a fire!”
And the fire of Vision has burned brightly since that night, growing, evolving, moving around all over Brooklyn & Manhattan to bigger and better locations. Musicians, dancers, poets and artists of many genres and disciplines have performed at Vision, yet it’s center of gravity has always been Free Jazz, primary showcasing musicians from NYC.
Through “Giuliani Time,” 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, and Trump, Vision has been a beacon of hope for the downtown arts and Free Jazz community, offering musicians a much needed financial boost compared to the usual gigs. But through that bracket of time, rents as well as the cost of living in New York overall has skyrocketed. Many of the founding fathers of 1960’s Free Jazz have died and those who are left are ageing rapidly. It is also getting more expensive to create such annual events as many NYC jazz festivals have withered away on the vine over the years. Yet, despite all that, their are younger musicians and artists like cellist Tomeka Reid, tenor saxophonist James Brandon and dancer Miriam Parker ready and willing take the baton of the avant-garde should that moment ever arrive.
Though the Vision community as a whole may be getting older, quite a few younger audience members were also milling about last June 11, 2019, when this year’s Jazz Lifetime Achievement Honoree Andrew Cyrille hit the stage for a eight set concert. At age 79, Mr. Cyrille had the energy and skills of somebody half his age.
To open, Mr. Cyrille pared his group Haitian Fascination (drummer Jean Guy-Rene) with poet and Miles Davis biographer Quincy Troupe, whose poetry invoked the entire African-American diaspora from slave ship crossings over the Atlantic to the Buffalo Solders and Louie Armstrong to Beyonce.
Next up was a duo performance with New Orleans native Kidd Jordan whose roots are heard in every note, squeak and sequel. Mr. Jordan has played with everyone from Guitar Slim, Ray Charles, Big Maybelle, Big Joe Turner, Chuck Willis , Choker Campbel, to Gladys Knight Aretha Franklin, Little Esther, Lena Horne, Orrnatte Coleman, Cecil Taylor and R.E.M.
Together, they played an shattered rhythmic mix of Bebop and Free with Mr. Jordan hybridizing the tones of Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane,and Albert Ayler.
Mr. Cyrille next’s set included cellist Tomeka Reid and dancer Beatrice Capote. Ms. Reid’s cosmic bowing of harmonic overtones while Ms. Capote’s super-hero physique whirled across the stage like a goddess in ecstasy accentuated by Mr. Cyrille’s sharp percussive accents was the high water mark performance of the evening.
After a brief intermission, Mr. Cyrille and Mr. Graves’s set began with a few back-in-the-day stories which then morphed right into the music, Latin rhythms soaked in non-metric pulses. Mr. Graves also layered his signature archaic, non-linguistic, vocalization chants over the dialogue of drums. Mr. Graves, who does not publicly perform often, was the global jazz press’ most sought after shot judging by the rush of photographers to the stage when his set first began.
Mr. Graves- as always- used his iconic hand painted drum set from the Sixties along with the constantly evolving combination of ancillary drums around it. At the end of the set Mr. Graves told the audience he is ill and briefly wept, saying it was only his friendship with Mr. Cyrille and unyielding support for Vision that gave him the strength to perform . Mr. Cyrille walked over to his old friend and comforted him with a warm embrace. Anyone who knows of Mr. Graves mastery of drumming also knows of his extreme discipline to martial arts (developed on his own from years of observing a Praying Mantis after learning that Kung Fu schools in Chinatown barred African-Americans) as well as acupuncture, herbal medicine, gardening, cooking and not to mention, pioneering medical theories on cardiac tonality (western medicine only observes pulse). Mr. Cyrille told the crowd that Mr. Graves “climbed up a wall” when they did a show together in Italy in the Seventies and when he was younger, Mr. Graves would hop on the tracks in Queens and race the Subway to the next stop.
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and Guitarist Brandon Ross blasted through a great set of aromatic tones of soft screams and warbling guitar bursts. When Mr. Smith used a mute the ethereal notes reverberated though the hall and I hope through the lobby and somewhere into the streets.
The heroic tenor saxophonist Peter Brotzmann closed out the night with a sonic explosion of euphoric horn howls and then threw everyone a curve ball- a soulful ballad.
The concert ended with a loud crack of Mr. Cyrille’s snare and an even louder standing ovation. This reporter has been to many shows, yet this one will stand out in my memory for a long time to come. To observe such a noble, whirlwind of Jazz greats all in one night is now something only Vision could pull off. And as they head into their 25th Vision next June, we should all lend as much support to them as they have to the arts community in NYC for the last quarter century.
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