Andrew Cyrille’s Deftly Calibrated Drumming Showcased at Vision Festival


Free-jazz percussionist Andrew Cyrille introduced tenor player Edward “Kidd” Jordan from behind the kit at Brooklyn’s Roulette on June 11, the opening night of the 2019 Vision Festival. “We’re going to take you someplace else,” he said before jumping into mesmeric repartee with the saxophonist and monster improviser.

The Vision Festival, now in its 24th year, celebrates free-jazz of all stripes, and this year Cyrille was the recipient of its Lifetime of Achievement award. In accepting the honor, the drummer agreed to curate almost five hours of programming for the first evening of the festival, which ran through June 16. He pulled together eight different performances, each a distinctive showcase for his deftly calibrated drumming.

The artists he chose to accompany him varied widely: During the evening he improvised with a dozen performers from several different artistic disciplines. Cyrille kept each performance compact, though, in a duo or trio format, leaving every riff, note and word exposed before the packed 400-seat theater.

Before jamming with Jordan, Cyrille opened with “Haitian Fascination,” an extended Afro-Caribbean improvisation featuring Jean Guy “Fanfan” Rene on Haitian drum and spoken-word contributions from poet Quincy Troupe. While a projector flashed historic photos of Cyrille’s musical life against a screen behind them, the three experimented with the visceral sounds, pulses and verbal imagery of the African diaspora in America.

Shifting gears, in the third piece of the evening, Cyrille and cellist Tomeka Reid sensed their way through fluid dynamics and expressive feels, while modern dancer Beatrice Capote created spontaneous choreography to their music. Interestingly, Cyrille has been working with dancers for most of his career, though with Reid and Capote only more recently. He credits his collaborations with dancers as an important contribution to his own creative development: “When I was in school and needed work, the people who saved me were the dancers,” he told the crowd. “They taught me so much about playing the drums.”

At the evening’s midpoint, Cyrille was joined by fellow percussionist Milford Graves—a friend and collaborator of more than 50 years—in evoking the improvisation of their 1974 album, Dialogue Of The Drums. Throughout the impassioned, churning number, Graves interjected simple vocals, wails and chants, Latin hand percussion and a panoply of polyrhythms. Cyrille matched him in this syncopated mastery, at times drumming with both elbows. Toward the end of their playing, Graves paused, moved to be working again with his longtime co-composer and concerned about health issues that had almost derailed his participation in the tribute. But as he resumed the performance, he shouted, “For Andrew and the Vision Festival!”

The crowd stood in ovation.

This same appreciation for Cyrille’s work ran through the evening as each of the chosen artists—representing only a handful of his many collaborators over the years—took the stage in praise of his contributions to free-jazz. Among them was pioneering visual artist Stefan Roloff in the first live performance ever of Big Fire, Roloff’s ground-breaking digital video from 1984. As he projected a kaleidoscope of images—the spinning Earth, distorted faces, ravaged cityscapes—on the screen, Cyrille created a real-time percussion soundtrack that mirrored the video’s dystopian visual content.

Following Big Fire, Cyrille played portions of last year’s ECM release, Lebroba, with the album’s co-creator, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarist Brandon Ross (guitarist Bill Frisell played on the original recording). The Lebroba trio—from the contraction of Leland, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, the birthplaces of the original trio members—provided some of the most subdued, graceful music of the evening, with Smith offering up muted, dulcet tones in bas-relief against Ross’ simple arpeggiated chords.

Lisa Sokolov, a dynamic vocalist, pianist and lyricist, then recalled Cyrille’s work with avant-gardist Jeanne Lee (1939–2000) as she sang her own dramatic compositions—modal melodies and expressive vocalese against Cyrille’s subtle, intricate beats—a fitting homage not only to Cyrille but to Lee, who first had introduced Sokolov to the “Gentleman Andrew Cyrille,” as she wrote in the program notes.

In the final set of the evening, German multireedist Peter Brötzmann led Cyrille in a cacophonic jumble of an improv, all steam and fury, toward a definitive conclusion befitting the Machine Gun auteur. Brötzmann met Cyrille in Paris through free-jazz pianist Cecil Taylor in 1966, just two years before the release of his monumental work. After reconnecting 15 years later, the two continued to play as a duo during the intervening decades. And all these years on, Cyrille’s “big smile still is there,” Brötzmann noted in the program.

While Cyrille captured most of the attention at this year’s Vision Festival, more than 100 other prominent performing and visual artists crossed the stage during the fest’s week-long run. Even a random pick of festival events strikes gold: guitarist Marc Ribot’s recently hatched quartet; the alto-saxophone-based quintet Alto Gladness; pianist Matthew Shipp’s duo with bassist William Parker; pianist Kris Davis’ trio, January Painters, which featured Jeff “Tain” Watts; free-jazz dancer Patricia Nicholson; the poetry-and-music collective Heroes Are Gang Leaders; and the Arts for Art’s Visionary Youth Orchestra. And, like Cyrille, they all managed to take festival-goers someplace else. DB

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