There was a jazz band wrapping up its afternoon set on a pathway in Washington Square Park as I made my way to Judson Memorial Church. There was little to indicate that anyone enjoying the music was aware of the formidable residency underway just across the street, where the final day’s events of the twentieth annual Vision Festival were underway. Established by the dancer and choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker, Vision Fest is a central event on the calendar of the avant- and free jazz community, in New York City as well as abroad. For eight days, some of jazz’s most versatile and highly respected contributors converge, symposium-style, to play with and for one another and to rejoice in another year on the frontiers of musical practice unencumbered by commercial obligations—a proposition that seems to grow more fantastical with each passing year.
Outside to inside, from the park to the church—from ambient entertainment to the connoisseur’s inner sanctum—the mainstream line on jazz in 2015 is caught somewhere, discouragingly, in-between. For those who know jazz as more than the period-scenery nostalgia of the big-band era, the digressers of its rich late-20th century history—the far-out modal dissonants, purveyors of fusion, fire music, and the omnivorous free jazz—can sound daunting, even insular. For those on its receiving end, the plea for accessibility is well known.
A counter-plea, informed by recent acclaim for the likes of Matana Roberts (a Vision Fest alum) and Kamasi Washington, asserts that—at least in the public imagination—the shape of jazz is in flux yet again. Washington’s collaborations with Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar moved taste-makers like Pitchfork and Vice to ask whether a new jazz fusion were at hand, this time with hip-hop and electronica. I’ll leave it to others to reflect on what jazz stands to gain from these contemporary formations, and what it stands to lose. Suffice it to say, for those looking to the defiantly, joyously independent performers at Vision Fest 20 for ready absorption into some recognizable crossover profit model: good luck.
Its deep political roots notwithstanding, this resistance to assimilation among free jazz players is at its most profound when it serves a unique personal vision. Milford Graves, virtuoso percussionist and stalwart of the New York scene for decades, is one such visionary. On the festival’s fifth night, his HeArt Quartet provided the packed Judson audience with some of the festival’s most outlandish and energizing music. Anchored by saxophonist Charles Gayle and bassist William Parker, Graves led his quartet on a hurricane path, conjuring big Aylerian shrieks and skull-inverting propulsion. He halted the mayhem somewhere in the middle, for a kind of impromptu lecture in an unrecognizable, raconteur-ish language. To the audience’s delight, his comic timing was still intact. Among the arranged rows of chairs in the church, the twinge of a missed opportunity as things picked up again: this was music people would dance to if you let them.
What dance there was at Vision Fest was, appropriately, difficult to classify. Five of the six nights at Judson opened with improvised dance pieces. Among them, Yoshiko Chuma’s extended experiment in being-there was sufficiently bewildering to try the patience of even the veterans in attendance. Strutting, slouching, offering the occasional Tai Chi bend—all in a blousy white tunic and pants and a witch’s wig of shocking white—hers was the most insistent challenge to a crowd in danger, for all its generosity, of self-congratulation. “How are you doing?” she demanded from a suddenly live microphone in the orchestra pit. No answer.
It’s beneath cliché to say these performances pose more questions than answers; more meaningful to say that the answers they provide are provocatively non-verbal. Nearly all of the instruments at Vision Fest are acoustic or modified acoustic. While there is no fear of noise, there is also an unwillingness to red-line, a distinction from the more earsplitting fare one’s liable to encounter at Le Poisson Rouge or the Stone. Vision’s is a pre-fusion tradition in continuity with that of Coltrane, of instruments made for bodies, i.e., on a human scale. One begins to notice the sophistication of these instruments’ design for the bodies that control them. Consider, if you never have before, how much a tenor saxophone rhymes visually with the S-curve of the human spine; how, in the throes of a particularly transporting solo by, say, Darius Jones or David Murray, it might not be readily apparent which of the player’s two spines is doing the bending. Consider as well the corporeal hulk of an upright bass and the rhythmic caresses—alternatingly tender and firm—of an accomplished player. The smothered air of an overblown trumpet note is a kind of scream; the clearing of a trombone’s spit valve, ritualized slobber. Will there be room for these sensuous, unglamorous edges when jazz accepts its cold electronic embrace?
The culture that Vision Fest celebrates has preserved itself against all odds, beginning with the incubators of the mid-’70s SoHo loft scene, surviving the transformation of downtown, and producing young, refreshingly feminine voices like Ingrid Laubrock and the trio HEAR in NOW in the present day. It’s a hothouse atmosphere that can feel, at times, like an alternate reality, with only a selective interest in its own present context. Readings by poets like Tyehimba Jess and David Mills struck closest to reportage on recent traumas in the black community, including police violence and the still-raw events in Charleston. The death earlier this summer of Ornette Coleman—a father figure of the movement if ever there was one—was not so much mourned as it was channeled, time and again, by players on stage.
With Coleman’s passing, the movement has lost a major shared ancestor with traditional jazz. Those legends who still live, with the exception of Cecil Taylor, have yet to receive their full acknowledgement by the American avant-garde. Vision Fest musicians command nothing like the fees of their Lincoln Center counterparts, and the festival itself has no guaranteed location year to year. Meanwhile, in Chelsea, the Dia Foundation has built a Dream House for La Monte Young. There was a time when the proliferation of music on the Internet engendered the belief in a democracy of choice, in the possibility that music habitually obscured from the marketplace would be guaranteed its audience. The rise of streaming services, however, driven by those same market forces more aggressively and with greater precision than ever before, encourages the exact opposite mentality.
It’s these services that will train the next generation of music fans. Like major broadcasters on TV and radio, they push what’s popular in order to placate their largest buyers. Their algorithms study pre-existing, often pre-ordained listening patterns to more adequately provide more of what these listeners already like, and to condition a never-ending search for gratification rather than listening as an experience in its own right. The odds that this search will include releases from free-jazz imprints like Tzadik or ESP-Disk are, statistically, nil. What arises is not a democracy, but a tyranny of choice. Entertainment is extracted from art; the outside and the inside remain unresolved.
This is just one vision of the future, but another was proposed to me in the finale of that last night at Judson: a provisional one, practically a fable. Hamiet Bluiett’s Telepathic Orchestra filled not only the church’s stage but its first three rows, its leader crouched on a stool in the orchestra pit on level with the audience. What began with vaguely classical trappings soon dissolved gently into a peristalsis of studied improvisation: many instrumental voices rising and falling in coalition at Bluiett’s prompting. Telepathy is a bridging of inner and outer worlds. Bluiett wandered through the orchestra, selecting which of his partners were to be silent or sing, the first minister of a parliament of sound. Its territory was no bigger than the Historic Judson Memorial Church, but its authority was absolute.
RYAN MEEHAN is a writer based in Brooklyn.