To call New York City’s annual Vision Festival this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians is both true and incomplete.
The music is world-class, sure, and never predictable or rote. As bassist William Parker, one of the event’s founding figures, told me for a 2010 Wall Street Journal piece: “The aesthetic isn’t so easy to define. Nobody does notated pieces. There is improvisation in each band, which sometimes comes out of jazz, sometimes blues or world music or European music or just what I call the X-factor.”
So there’s that X-factor.
There’s also dance, poetry, film, visual art, not to mention the one thing absent from most of the festivals that dot New York from June through August—a true and deep sense of community.
That community is filled with musicians who defy easy description. Some, like Cooper Moore, design and build their own instruments. Some, like Parker, don’t so much bend rules as craft their own systems for musical development. Even in such a context, this year’s honoree for Lifetime Achievement (there’s one showcased at each Vision Fest), Charles Gayle, stands out—for the peculiar beauty of his music and his unwavering pursuit of elusive truths through art. Not to mention his versatility: Gayle, a singularly expressive saxophonist, is also a compelling player on piano and bass.
On opening night of this year’s festival, which runs from June 11 through June 15 at Brooklyn’s Roulette, Gayle will play all three instruments in separate sets during an evening in his honor. The last of these features an all-star “Vision Artist Orchestra” that includes tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan. Jordan is revered as an educator and mentor in his hometown, New Orleans, yet his music is rarely heard and not often genuinely appreciated there. At the Vision Festival each year, Jordan is received in deserving fashion, as a conquering hero.
Jordan will also lead a trio on June 15 that includes the brilliant pianist Dave Burrell and the bass-drum combination I try never to miss: William Parker and Hamid Drake. You can catch that pair in a trio with the powerhouse multireedist Peter Brotzman on Thurs, June 12, during an evening to honor Jeff Schlanger, the painter who is a festival fixture at his post right near the stage, sketching and dripping colors to create smeary real-time band portraits.
The Vision Festival’s community is notable for its warmth and closeness, but also in another important respect: It gathers not just for artistic expression but to embody and promote connections between culture in general (especially the culture from which this music arose) and social justice. This idea gets expressed through feeling and metaphor onstage and via the visual art but also more overtly, through panel discussions.
At this year’s event, there are three separate panel discussions honoring the legacy of poet Amiri Baraka, who was a Vision Festival regular (performing onstage with musicians, speaking at panels, and sitting in the audience, taking things in).
Trumpeter Roy Campbell, another central player of the festival’s ensemble cast and a gentle genius, who died in January, gets two tributes at this year’s event—one June 13 and the other in the festival’s closing set, on June 15—a septet with, yes, that Parker-Drake tandem. (It’s worth noting that Campbell and Baraka passed away on the very same day.)
As always at the festival, there are elders whose innovation and influence deserve more attention (say, alto saxophonist Jemeel Moondoc, who leads a quintet on June 13) and midcareer musicians whose raised profile befit their mastery (such as Matthew Shipp, who leads a trio on June 14), as well as bands and musicians that have only begun to extend the traditions on display here through their own personal visions (like Tarbaby, a trio of drummer Nasheet Waits, bassist Eric Revis and pianist Orrin Evans, on June 14, as well drummer Tyshawn Sorey and singer Fay Victor, in duet on June 15).
There may no longer be anything experimental about playing freely improvised music, yet these continuing musical experiments, by players young and old, celebrated and less heralded, yield fresh satisfactions. And the spirit matches the music’s dynamism. “Just waiting to get in,” says Parker, “you have a clump of musicians talking. You get a certain vibration, a glow right away. You know you can come inside and get a kind of enlightenment you cannot get anywhere else.”
Photo: Ken Weiss