Summerstage NYC 2013: "Speak" by Marla Mase and Tomás Doncker
MATTE Presents Full Moon at Governors Beach Club

Vision Festival Experiments with Jazz

by Zoë Gorman

Vision Festival, Feast of Music

Photo credit: Zoë Gorman

Experiments are, by nature, hit or miss, and last week's Vision Festival at Roulette was no exception. A lineup of experimental and avant-garde jazz artists paid tribute to the great jazz pioneers through music, dance, and film, in performances that ranged from superb improvisational collaborations to disorganized noise.

Experimental jazz sits in a precarious position. Modern classical music—or New Music—deviates from traditional theory in premeditated ways that rely on pitch-set classes or motivic structure to evoke very intentional effects. Free jazz, however, erodes both the theoretical backbone of its predecessors and the structural planning of other innovators in the musical sphere. Thus, the art form has the potential to spiral out of control. To create something worthwhile and enjoyable to listen to, free jazz artists rely on interaction with the other performers, and successful interactions include harmonic patterns and rhythms that other players in the group can pick up on, duplicate, and shift.

Baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett’s Bio-Electric Ensemble rose to the challenge with a stellar, improvisational performance that overcame coherence issues by interspersing atonal accents and glissandi with a series of evolving, traditional blues scales and chordal turnaround patterns. The group listened to each other, picked up on rhythms, and explored different jazzy moods. The performers cut back on the texture to allow each other room to solo and even used hand signals to instruct members to reduce activity or build on it.


A highlight of the ensemble’s performance was their ability to fuse generations through music. After seeing him perform at another festival, the band asked Matthew Whitaker, a blind child prodigy, to join in on keyboard. Whitaker echoed Bluiett’s stylistic tones by matching pitches and changing the effects in an impressive and amusing call and response.

By contrast, Positive Knowledge—while energetic and spiritual—did not give each performer room to flourish, but rather layered fast, highly rhythmic contributions over each other at full volume. It felt as though everyone was soloing at once, with behind the bridge bowing and screeching saxophone tones. Even Positive Knowledge's attempt to resolve some of the unpredictable nature of free jazz by returning to a drone soon became tedious.

The group's redeeming contribution was their thought-provoking employment of Ijeoma Thomas in a powerful tribute to the African motherland. Her list of “the ones who would not” embodied the festival’s ethos of community empowerment and took an interesting twist by incorporating passive actions that are not voluntary, such as “the ones who would not be raped” and “the ones who would not be murdered.” 


The festival remained interactive at every level. Not only did the musicians rely on spontaneous collaboration among group members, but artists reacted to the music with aurally infused drawings and physical movements. “Inner City: Migration,” a dance number backed by a minimalist didgeridoo-drum duo, explored movement independent of sound with choreography that emphasized fluid shifts through a number of body positions, all under a canopy of ten floating balloons. The dancers influenced the improvisation and interacted with the visual, scenic art by tugging on the balloon strings, ducking under them, or entangling themselves. 


While not without its shortcomings, Vision Festival made good on its promise of providing a platform for experimental, multidiscipline performances. The well-established NYC institution will likely return for a 19th year next spring when a new lineup of creative artists will offer their take on the trajectory of contemporary free jazz.