June 13–18, 2023
The last note decays, the applause fades, people slowly flow out of the venue; the show’s over. With certain music, though, there’s the feeling that it’s not over, that being in the audience for any particular performance means something like being in a celestial hallway, opening doors here and there to hear the music going on behind and which will continue when the doors close. The listener is witness to moments in an ongoing process.
That’s the experience of a lot of non-Western music, music that’s based around social and cultural rhythms and rituals and that is more firmly embedded in everyday life than the music-as-commercial-product (even when it’s called “art”) in the West; music as something you buy and own, media that you collect, even more than you experience. In this world, however, jazz and improvised music do have that quality of being a constant undercurrent of thought, imagination, and practice, something that comes through prominently in public at certain times and on certain stages. More than anything else, that’s the fundamental value of the annual Vision Festival, which hit stage and screen at Roulette and The Clemente from June 10 through June 18 with panel discussions, documentaries, and of course a ton of vibrant music.
The Vision Festival is jazz, and also improvised music and other performances that are one or two steps from jazz. You can say the same about the annual Winter Jazzfest, and the two events share musicians (this year that cohort included Zoh Amba, William Parker, and Brandon Lopez), but the Winter Jazzfest serves up good music to a mostly younger generation on the commercial model, while the Vision Festival, with an older crowd salted with a couple handfuls of teenagers, is more a set of those doors, opening up to reveal a constant passage of music.
If the body can be a metaphor for jazz, then one foot is the Winter Jazzfest, the other is the Vision, and each moves in a separate direction, not splitting the body but expanding it. The mainstream at Vision were modernists like Mike Reed’s Separatist Party and the Mark Dresser 7, playing a strong grooving music with strong structural elements that opened up the sense of freedom.
The classicists were Hamid Drake celebrating Alice Coltrane with his group Turiya (and the drone/gnawa spirit of Joshua Abrams’s guembri) and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, their harmonic and rhythmic foundations supporting social and spiritual testifying; and the jazz-related non-jazz came through groups like 75 Dollar Bill and Gerald Cleaver’s Black Host, free rock with everything from the blues to West African and Asian music mixed in—and there were dance performances and live visual art making.
Every Vision Festival honors the lifetime achievement of a living musician, with a showcase night that’s a musical portrait, and this year it was the phenomenal improvising bassist Joëlle Léandre. Her night was not just a display of her mastery of the instrument and her incredibly agile thinking (she sang too, and between her hands and her voice there seemed absolutely no barrier between what was in her imagination and what came out in her music making) but of the range of the festival. There were sets of musical improvisation, high-level playing with sensitive actions and reactions, space for deep and succinct comments and the rewards of collaborative ensemble play with the Tiger Trio of Léandre—flutist Nicole Mitchell and pianist Myra Melford—the Judson Trio with violist Mat Maneri and pianist Craig Taborn, and a large-scale premiere with a septet organized for the festival. There was also a unique, special set with the bassist improvising accompaniment to a reading by poet Fred Moten. Moten’s delivery was gentle and insistent, the words exploring so many possible expressions of and reactions to this music. Léandre’s playing was remarkable; she invented entirely new ways for a musician to work with words, on the spot, building an abstract, polyphonic counterpoint to Moten.
Toward the end, in one of the most moving moments one has had in the years of the festival, Moten spoke the names of other artists, including Steve Dalachinsky, so instrumental as a chronicler of this scene in particular. With his widow, poet and artist Yuko Otomo there, the music went beyond performance to a social celebration of the lives of the living and the dead, of those who were gathered in the hall, and those somewhere else, doing their own listening and playing.
This was, and is, that special quality of the festival. Not just a collection of standard tunes, a concert performance tied into a record release, this was a gathering of generations, living and dead, connected vertically by legacies and horizontally by having music and life integrated beyond the commercial model. It’s the improvising thing, of having the music so close to the life so that musical communication comes as easily as social interactions between like-minded, eloquent, and kind people.