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Vision Festival 25 in New York City

The avant-garde Vision Festival celebrates a quarter-century—and a return from lockdown

Francisco Mela at the Clemente during Vision Festival 25, July 31, 2021
Francisco Mela at the Clemente during Vision Festival 25, July 31, 2021 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

On March 10, 2020, I stood shoulder to shoulder in a crowded Philadelphia bar to hear a blistering set by guitarist Jeff Parker’s band. I left that night planning to return to the same place two nights later to see Tim Berne’s Snakeoil. That show never happened, and I didn’t set foot inside another venue for more than a year and a half, my longest break from live music in more than three decades.

When that dry spell was finally broken at Brooklyn’s Pioneer Works on July 22, it’s likely that most of those present for the first night of Vision Festival 25 could tell similar stories. Which made the festival’s traditional opening healing ceremony feel even more poignant. Founder Patricia Nicholson and artist Jean Carla Rodea intoned bilingual mantras about light following darkness, occasionally bursting out into unpredictable bursts of motion or speaking in tongues as William Parker strummed his guembri hypnotically and Michael T.A. Thompson laid down a rhapsodic tapestry of rhythm.

The festival ended nine days later in the courtyard of the Lower East Side’s Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center on a similarly ceremonial note, this one even more celebratory. Parker once again took up his guembri (a three-stringed bass lute), this time thronged by a host of horn players and percussionists with Francisco Mela chanting feverishly and a trio of dancers—including Nicholson and daughter Miriam Parker—whirling past the stage. It was ostensibly a send-off for the great percussionist/philosopher Milford Graves, but it felt as much like sloughing off a year’s worth of horror and negativity.

It is perhaps inevitable that any festival as dedicated to the outer fringes of jazz and creative music as Vision has been over the past quarter-century would show an emphasis on notions of community, spirituality, and activism—all core tenets for the music itself. But this year’s iteration seemed all the more communal after a year of isolation, all the more searching after a year of unanswered questions, all the more defiant after a year of tumult and division.

Jaimie Branch at Pioneer Works during Vision Festival 25, July 30, 2021
Jaimie Branch at Pioneer Works during Vision Festival 25, July 30, 2021 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

No single set captured all those feelings so viscerally as the July 30 appearance by Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die, quickly taking its place as one of the seminal bands of this generation. Clad in multicolored kimonos (a mid-set costume change precipitated by a gift from her sister) that simultaneously evoked the Sun Ra Arkestra’s cosmic garb and a boxer’s robes, Branch stalked the stage like a cross between a prizefighter and a street-corner preacher, railing against racism or affectionately haranguing the audience. Buoyed by the psych-trance grooves of cellist Lester St. Louis, bassist Jason Ajemian, and drummer Chad Taylor, Branch kaleidoscopically fused strident punk protest with the coruscating beauty of her ferocious trumpet lashings.

Spirituality came to the fore a week earlier during three sets by Lifetime Achievement honoree Amina Claudine Myers. Though a short documentary video gave an overview of Myers’ life that emphasized her connection to the AACM, it was her formative years in the Southern church that dominated the evening’s performance. This was especially the case for her Generations IV quartet, which gave straight readings of gospel group classics by the likes of James Cleveland and the Staple Singers. The connection to the Chicago organization remained through the group’s membership: Richard Abrams, daughter of founder Muhal Richard Abrams; and Pyeng Threadgill and Luna Threadgill-Moderbacher, daughter and granddaughter of Henry Threadgill.

Amina Claudine Myers' Generations IV, Vision Festival 25
Left to right: Amina Claudine Myers, Richarda Abrams, Luna Threadgill-Moderbacher, and Pyeng Threadgill at Pioneer Works during Vision Festival 25, July 23, 2021 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

The two worlds converged more through Myers’ Voice Octet, which used choral singing as a base for wide-ranging excursions. As the group recited pleas to the Lord, Cooper-Moore (who had closed the previous night’s concert with a bracing solo piano set that similarly refracted a broad swath of American musical history) might suddenly break out into African folk-inspired shouts, or coloratura Janet Jordan might operatically soar. The ensemble could break down into a babel of voices, or Abrams and Chinyelu Ingram could veer off into a dialogue of percussive vocal affectations.

The night closed with a set by Myers’ trio with bassist Jerome Harris and drummer Reggie Nicholson that roamed through the entirety of her influences, from gospel ruminations to deep blues to the avant-garde. The pinnacle of the night was Myers’ shift to the organ for her psychedelic spin on soul-jazz, “Soul Funk No. 1.”

The festival’s other honoree this year was the aforementioned Milford Graves, who was given a daylong farewell on the 31st that appropriately swung between the rollicking and the meditative. Andrew Cyrille kicked off the afternoon with a solo set that echoed Graves’ storytelling mastery with its narrative progression along the kit, culminating in an audience chant-along of Graves’ name. The Loose Booty Band followed, with leader Joe McPhee evoking the percussionist’s words, “We shall fly on wings of inspiration” as he conducted improvisations by the octet, delighting in discovering new combinations of sound and color.

John Zorn at Vision Festival 25
John Zorn at the Clemente during Vision Festival 25, July 31, 2021 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Following a touching remembrance by Graves’ granddaughter Tatiana, Shahzad Ismaily encouraged the assembled crowd to thank the Professor with two minutes of silent reflection, gently broken by the sound of thumb piano leading into an absorbing duo set with Destefano DeLuise that wandered through mesmerizing drones and banjo plucks, shrieking saxophone, and serpentine dance. John Zorn’s set, a duo with drummer Laura Cromwell, started out predictably aggressive with the saxophonist’s virtuosic squeals and chitters, though the 15-minute improvisation took detours into Middle Eastern melody and bluesy noir. (Happily, Zorn retains his power to send small children running, fingers firmly planted in ears.)

Beyond the honorifics and catharsis, though, this year’s Vision succeeded at its most vital mission: presenting a generation-spanning roster of artists whose work reaches toward the visionary. That came in the form of fest stalwart Matthew Shipp and his reconvened string trio with Parker and violist Mat Maneri, which conjured the sound of mystery with the higher-order logic and grace of a mathematical equation; or in the exquisite-corpse alchemy of pianist Dave Burrell and saxophonist Darius Jones, who bandied ideas back and forth, warping and transforming them through each other’s singular imaginations. It was there in the heady monoliths of Ingrid Laubrock’s Monochromes, which demanded that the quartet—saxophonists Laubrock and Jon Irabagon, drummer Tom Rainey, and harpist Zeena Parkins—contend with densely layered recordings, evoking opalescent filigrees from the composer’s soprano or guttural, guitaristic howls from Parkins’ harp.

Vision Festival 25 turned out to be an ideal if deep-end plunge back into concertgoing after our quarantine year—a festival that embraces the meeting of minds, bodies, and ideas, whether they harmonize or collide, clash or combust.

See a gallery of images from Vision Festival 25 below.

Cooper-Moore at Pioneer Works, July 22, 2021

Cooper-Moore at Pioneer Works, July 22, 2021
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Photo: Alan Nahigian

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.