Prophecy fulfilled: the future now at jazz fests

“Music that we’re playing now is just the blues of all of
America, all over again, it’s just a different kind of blues. This is the
blues, the real blues, it’s the new blues, and people must listen to this music
because they’ll be hearing it all the time. Because if it’s not me it’ll be
someone else that’s playing it. The majority of the younger musicians I’ve
heard in New York, they’ve begun to play this way because this is the only way
left for musicians to play. All the other ways have been explored, in the time

So sayeth tenor saxophonist Albert Ayler in December 1964 — a clip I used in my latest NPR audio piece about a Swedish documentary film on Ayler currently touring U.S. arthouses. He believed unbound, exploratory and free (yet focused) improvisation was the sound of the future. Typically depicted as a wild-eyed radical whose mysterious death 38 years ago came at the crux of his brief but ecstatic career, Ayler is being proved right by the explosive energies that seek to turn America’s vernacular music transcendent — at jazz festivals this week and next in New York City and beyond. It’s the only way left for musicians to play!

In jazz’s Big Apple, the 13th annual Vision Festival is well underway at Clemente Soto Velez, a lower East Side community cultural center (the NYT mentions it’s “ventilation challenged), with concerts tonight (Friday the lucky 13th) by saxophonist Sonny Simmons, a ’60s survivor much in the unfettered tradition, AACM trumpet wiseman with a beautiful tone Wadada Leo Smith’s Golden Quintet (two high energy drummers — Pheeroan ak Laff and Famadou Don Moyé!), solo pianist Connie Crothers, a rarely heard acolyte of Lennie Tristano (comparably iconoclastic as Ayler), and bassist Henry Grimes (who played with Ayler, and whom I profiled in The Wire last April) in quartet with high energy, self-informed East Village reeds player Sabir Mateen

One Saturday highlight: George E. Lewis, trombonist/electronic music composer/author of the brilliant A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music) in duo with French bassist Joelle Leandré; on Sunday night bassist William Parker ends what will have been six days of concerts, panels, after-show jams and youth performances with his Curtis Mayfield tribute, including scabarous poet Amiri Baraka (an Ayler advocate back in the day). I heard this in Guelph last September and wrote about it, so be forewarned.

The new headquarters of the famed Living Theatre is close enough to be the site of those Vision fest after-jams, and also hosts the three day New Languages Festival, with best unheralded tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby and blogroll entry Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society tonight (Friday); Saturday a trio led by saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh, who draws on the spirited Southeast Asian Qawwali musical traditions; Totem, a “noise rock free improvisation trio” and a more acoustic but equally freely improvisational trio comprising reedist Chris Speed, bassist Skuli Sverrsen and drummer Jim Black.

Starting on Sunday June 15 (Father’s Day), the nominally more mainstream JVC Jazz Festival-New York enfolds into its schedule such avatars of the avant-garde and not-so-abstract soul as Alice Coltrane, Maceo Parker, Marc Ribot, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock, Craig Taborn, Joshua Redman (with SoulLive) and the great Al Green.

But as Ayler knew (his triumphs included acclaimed concert appearances with New York Jazz Festival acts touring Northern Europe and in Paris), the apple ain’t all. In Canada the 2009 Vancouver International Jazz Festival runs June 20 – 29 boasting “1800 musicians, 400 concerts, 40 venues” — including ur-Outsiders Bill Dixon (trumpeter on Cecil T’aylor’s classic Conquistador recording), searing alto saxist Tim Berne, multi-percussionist Harris Eisenstadt, violinist Mark Feldman, saxophonist Ken Vandermark, guitarist Bill Frisell, bassist Charlie Haden, former downtown keyboardist Wayne Horvitz, and even Ayler-naysayer Wynton Marsalis (who believes another way to play than the 40 acts the fest categorizes as “free, improvised”: conservationally, as it were). 

From June 23 through 27 I’m attending the Ottawa Jazz Festival, and looking forward to hearing among its headliners Afropop progressive Salif Keita, the reunion of Chick Corea’s fusion to the max Return to Forever Quartet and the Sicilian Jazz Project about which I know nothing, seeking discovery if not enlightenment. I’m participating in three noontime Jazz Matters panel discussions, on “Playing Between the Words,” (6/24) “Arts Journalism — At the Intersection of Artist and Audience,” (6/25) and “Fusion at 40” (6/26) at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage — please stop by and say hi. 

And then there’s the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal — “29th edition, June 26 – July 6, leading off with Leonard (not jazz — but Sonny Rollins’ solo’d in his company) Cohen, and tenor sax exile David Murray (hear his Flowers for Albert), sax triumverate Joe Lovano-Dave Liebman-Ravi Coltrane, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Public Enemy, McCoy Tyner, Abbey Lincoln, Aretha Franklin, Cassandra Wilson, Daniel Lanois and James Carter among those booked who characteristically stretch conventions, if they don’t discard them entirely. 

So jazz inexorable evolves, staking claim to free choice of influences and directions, substantiating its absorption of new material and its expansion into previously uncharted areas of sound and fury — to the climactic Chicago Jazz Festival, with Sonny Rollins at the Frank Gehry-designed Millenium Park pavillion August 27 and Ornette Coleman at the adjacent Grant Park bandshell on August 31. Free. Free jazz. Right, Albert — the real blues, the new blues, it’s all the rage.

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  1. Jeff Schwartz says

    As I wrote a couple of days ago, it is soul singer Billy Dixon, not improvising trumpet player Bill Dixon appearing at the Vancouver Festival.
    HM: Yes, that’s very different.