That opening night of the 24th edition of the New York City-born and bred Vision Festival—the premier left-field summit where avant-garde jazz, dance, poetry, and visual art gloriously intersect—fell on June 11, the day Ornette Coleman passed, was serendipitous. The revolutionary free-jazz aesthetic that Coleman exemplified is alive and well, thanks in large degree to Vision Fest’s chief architect, Arts for Art founder and director Patricia Nicholson. Both downtown NYC force and multidisciplinary miracle worker whose résumé includes dancer, poet, and organizer of movement, music, and causes, Nicholson once again embraced her role as master of ceremonies for this year’s bacchanal before a sold-out crowd that packed the downtown Brooklyn venue Roulette for the first of a six-night run.
Nicholson’s mission of building a community of artists and audiences has been front and center since she founded Vision Festival in 1996, and on this Tuesday evening that ethos was echoed via a whopping eight sets curated by the festival’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement honoree, drummer Andrew Cyrille. The 79-year-old Cyrille—a polyrhythmic free spirit who made an indelible mark across the jazz spectrum playing on touchstone recordings by the late great Cecil Taylor (including 1966’s seminal Unit Structures), working as Carla Bley’s sideman, and compiling a vast catalog as leader—embodied Nicholson’s artist-driven community spirit with a handpicked program that showcased the nature of collaboration and improvised music in all its glory.
Although the spotlight shone bright on Cyrille this evening, he proudly shared it with a host of fellow luminaries in a marathon-length evening that was inspiring, emotional, and standing ovation-worthy. Taking a gander at the program alone—with a photo of a laser-focused Cyrille in action gracing the cover—was enough to make a jazz enthusiast salivate. The schedule included duo performances alongside saxophonists Kidd Jordan and Peter Brötzmann, percussionist Milford Graves, Berlin-born video artist Stefan Roloff, and vocalist and pianist Lisa Sokolov; two trio sets, one with trumpet icon Wadada Leo Smith and Harriet Tubman guitarist Brandon Ross and the other with cellist Tomeka Reid and dancer Beatrice Capote; plus a tribute to his Haitian heritage with his group, Haitian Fascination. In keeping with the Vision Festival’s governing principles, it ran the free jazz, dance, poetry, and multimedia gamut.
After an excited introduction from Nicholson (her exuberance is infectious), a dapper Cyrille, clad in a shiny, flowing white button-down and fedora, assumed his perch behind the trap set where he would be situated for the next four-and-a-half hours with barely a pause between sets. Fast approaching eight decades, Cyrille didn’t blink an eye or break a sweat. Not only did he provide steady-handed and colorful beats, thumps, and thwacks throughout, but he also peppered each meeting of the musical minds with entertaining anecdotes of how he and his counterparts knew each other and the times, both good and bad, they’d experienced together. It was the Andrew Cyrille history lesson.
Highlights were copious. With photos culled from his musical journey flashing on the big screen behind him, Cyrille displayed a built-in and effortless rapport with each of his chosen players. This was instantly, and joyfully, made plain when Graves took the stage. He and Cyrille go way back (the pair teamed on the 1974 percussion recital Dialogue of the Drums), and after the duo performed a deep drum clinic chock full of Latin-tinged rhythmic beauty, pulsating conversational back-and-forth, and voodoo circle-like chants, Graves choked back tears as he described the health struggles that nearly prevented him from attending. But, as he told it from the stage, “I did it for Andrew and for Vision Fest.” Inspiring, indeed.
Another uplifting moment was Kidd Jordan’s appearance. He, too, spoke of health issues and his mortality, but when it came down to it, the 84-year-old saxophonist—in heady syncopation with Cyrille—blew soul-baring blasts from his horn. Jordan even divulged his secret: He wasn’t improvising but rather “playing with the drums.” That he was, forming a blissful tandem with Cyrille that was organic, meditative, and fiery. After a series of twangy, spaced-out soundscapes with Smith and Ross and a wildly exhilarating set with Sokolov on vocals and piano, the evening reached its culmination: a much-anticipated showdown with German free-jazz great Brötzmann. After a trip down memory lane (Cyrille spoke of how their paths first crossed in 1966 alongside the late bassist Peter Kowald), the drummer casually concluded, “So, yeah, anyway, we know each other. Let’s hit it.” And hit it they did. Brötzmann nearly blew the roof off Roulette with the very first, earsplittingly harsh notes blown from his tenor. As Cyrille painted a dazzling canvas of rhythms, his kindred spirit Brötzmann went on the attack, switching from saxophone to clarinet and shelling out squealing, ferocious salvos with blues-laden abandon.
For nearly five revelatory hours, Andrew Cyrille was a free-improv workhorse, casting percussive spells accompanied by likeminded freethinkers. It was a magical opening night that displayed invaluable creative music alliances and deep bonds that have been the trademarks of the Vision Festival for nearly a quarter-century.