Blueitt Brings Playful Vibe to New York’s Vision Festival

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Hamiet Bluiett (left) and Bob Stewart perform during the Vision Festival at Judson Memorial Church in Manhattan on June 11.

(Photo: Michael Wilderman)

Nights at New York City’s annual Vision Festival have a reputation for being more sweet than short, but the June 11 set at this year’s eight-night blow-out (running from June 5–12 in Manhattan’s historic Judson Church) was both tasty and timely.

Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith was featured on a program of prominent elders, appearing twice on the bill. At the apex of the evening, he presented a much anticipated reworking of his composition “Pacifica,” played by his Golden Quartet at the 2008 Vision Festival (and included on the 2009 Cuneiform release Spiritual Dimensions) and now arranged for four violas, electronics and trumpet.

The strings (Stephanie Griffin, Jason Kao Hwang, Tanya Kalmanovitch and Gwen Lester) and electronics (provided by Smith’s sometimes duo partner Hardedge, aka Velibor Pedevski) created at first a blur over which Smith soloed. But as the piece progressed, the string lines grew more pronounced, often in unison.

With the exception of a loud and likely inadvertent dial tone dropped at the beginning, Hardedge’s contribution was rather imperceptible until his trademark cricket chirps made their way in. The strings dropped out, allowing a sublime duet of trumpet and soundscape and then a soft unaccompanied trumpet solo before the strings returned.

The set lasted a half-hour at most, and if it was the shortest set of the fest, it wasn’t the shortest in Vision history. (That distinction might well go to pianist Dave Burrell and trombonist Steve Swell, who played an exceptional quarter-hour set last year, a quick amalgam of their wonderful 2014 album, Turning Point.)

Smith also appeared that night with dancer Miriam Parker. The duo performed in front of a large projection of the ocean tide on circular and triangular screens. As Smith’s playing ebbed and flowed, his sound seemed to emulate the waves in the video. Given his playing posture (often bent dramatically at the waist and knees), he was visually in tandem with the dancer. But as responsive as he was to his surroundings, he still gave Parker generous, unaccompanied sections during which she slowly moved through angular poses.

One dance brought culminating applause during which Parker, in the screen-lit darkness, motioned to Smith to keep playing, apparently wanting a more physical finish. As he played carefully dispersed repetitions, she flung her arms in circles, rolling her spine and bouncing at the knees, egging Smith on.

Baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett brought a low and resonant quartet with pianist D.D. Jackson, drummer Hamid Drake and Bob Stewart on tuba. The group began with extended tones and a slow rumble, Drake standing with a frame drum, before Stewart set a quick pulse and Drake switched to the drum kit.

Stewart proved that the tuba isn’t limited to being a two-step Dixieland combustion engine; in his hands, the instrument is capable of just about anything. He easily pushed the quartet into a funky brass-band march for a good six or seven minutes before pulling back enough for Bluiett to blast into a free-form romp. It was clear that Drake and the horns were having fun, leaving Jackson scrambling to find a way in.

The pianist sat out for a spell before the leader gave him a nod and a whisper, after which the keyboardist stood and began open-palm slapping his instrument. Shortly after, the rest of the band stopped cold, leaving Jackson with the rug pulled out from beneath him. Bluiett has become a devilishly playful bandleader in recent years, and this lively night was no exception.

The night closed with an inspired pairing of Drake and Burrell. There are two sides to Burrell the pianist—the better-known free improviser and the even more wonderful crafter of melody. The two personas don’t often meet, but with a drummer as dynamic as Drake, Burrell had the freedom to play to both sides of the aisle and do anything else that crossed his mind.

At one of many moments of inspiration, Burrell broke from a free passage with a medium-tempo waltz, giving Drake an uncommon, triangular playground. The pianist then headed straight into a rollicking gospel bit. It was like a medley of Burrell’s mind with recurring themes, Drake clearly and more than adeptly following.

Burrell seemed ready to stop after a pause at the 25-minute mark but this time the audience wouldn’t hear of it. Another improvisation began to build, touching on some samba, until Burrell was playing two notes at full speed and had to stop to laugh, giving Drake an opportunity for a thunderous solo.

Burrell re-entered with dual chords this time, returning to the Latin rhythm for a moment and then plowing through some syncopated dissonance that left Drake sitting out for the final few minutes. Burrell brought the night to a crash with a solid two-handed chord.

In the past, the sets at Vision Festival seemed to stretch out unabated; running well over an hour off schedule was not infrequent. Whether or not there was a directive for shorter sets, this night’s pace made for a deeply satisfying evening.




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April 2020
Gregory Porter
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