A festival of avant-garde visions

Joe McPhee.

Joe McPhee.

The old-school avant-garde is now! The 17th annual Vision Festival is a seven-night, 37-event assertion by proudly unfettered improvisers that the 50-year-old principles of high energy and exploratory alternatives to traditional and “commercial” jazz still thrive.

Real estate realities have pushed this Fest from its East Village roots to a new stage: Roulette, in Brooklyn, of course. But the proud DIY esthetic and energizing, raw or extreme generation of sounds that were once shocking and now are less so, a signal the musician puts his all on the line, still apply. See the schedule at artsforart.org/event/visionfestival17/schedule.

With individualistic multi-instrumentalist (mostly sax and trumpet) Joe McPhee being honored for “a lifetime of achievement”; a revised version of The Gardens of Harlem, the late Clifford Thornton’s 1974 orchestra suite, as its centerpiece; and concerts led by two handfuls of the most iconoclastic sexta- and septuagenarian instrumentalists on the planet—among them Charles Gayle, Kidd Jordan, Connie Crothers, Dave Burrell, Sonny Simmons, Wadada Leo Smith, Elliott Sharp, singer Sheila Jordan and poet Amiri Baraka—the Vision Fest best might seem to be in search of lost time.

But with the participation, too, of up-n-comers including Gerald Clayton, Darius Jones, Matts Gustaffson, Mary Halvorson, Taylor Ho Bynum, Craig Taborn, Jeff Parker, Ingrid Laubrock and Nicole Mitchell, it’s evident that valuing musical expressivity more than musical structure is also attractive to players who weren’t around to hear Albert Ayler and John Coltrane live—they take the thrust of 1960s “free jazz” as seriously as if they had been.

That free jazz movement of the ’60s had a sociopolitical agenda to demonstrate empowerment, rip away jazz’s deadwood and shake the establishment, as well as to let loose youthful juice.

The mission of the Vision Fest retains a lot of the ancient aura. It was born in the East Village out of a cadre that buzzed around bassist William Parker; Patricia Nicholson Parker, his wife but a force (choreographer/dancer) in her own right, runs the show and the nonprofit producing group, Arts for Art, from an LES office at the “educational and cultural center” Clemente Soto Velez.

Parker believes in grounding her production in critical thinking; I assume that’s why I’m a panelist discussing “Free Jazz/Free Music—Why Then/Why Now?” Thursday, June 14, from 5 to 7 p.m. She also believes in mixing media, so there are visual artists painting the music, videographers, dancers and poets on each program. And she’s big on making music available to all, so on Friday afternoon, June 15, there are free events in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority at Rutgers Houses, 200 Madison St.

Choosing one night, I’d attend June 16 to hear trombonist Steve Swell’s Quintet; French bassist Joelle Leandre with flutist Mitchell and baritone Thomas Buckner; Trio 3 (Oliver Lake, reeds; Reggie Workman, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums); and violinist-composer Jason Kao Hwang’s Burning Bridge, with Chinese pipa and erhu in the band.

Roulette is a good bet for Vision 17, Manhattan being too upscale for unvarnished radicalism. Undaunted by age, economics or fashion, the Vision survives.

Reach Howard Mandel at jazzmandel@gmail.com