Live Music in New York City in Summer: Nothing could be more natural or welcome. But after the canceled summer 2020, nobody knew what to expect this year. The mayor hailed the city in a big way, although it always seemed as much a hoped-for economic boom as a description of what was actually going on.
The city’s usual festivals began to announce their schedules and an air of disbelief set in. Would we really gather, admonish, exhale, and generally have dangerous social interactions every day? Or were we more at risk of losing our shit if we didn’t?
I felt with the organizers having to deal and plow forward with changing variables, indoor / outdoor / masked / etc. One thing was certain: the musicians were ready. They had spent much of the woodshed last year, and they were dying to knock it down.
The River to River Festival was the first festival with a concert by this year’s series organizer, bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding, a tribute to Wayne Shorter through a film with Arthur Jafa and an opening trio with Terri Lyne Carrington and Leo Genovese. In the film, Shorter roams freely through various subjects while seeming to erase music instead of writing it – a startling image that suggests his own mortality and, strangely enough, all of ours at that sobering moment. As for the concert itself, the amazement at how music sounds and feels on a balmy summer night was hard to overcome. I felt grateful.
I also spotted a recent series, the Walk with the Wind concerts, organized by producers and photographers Jimmy Katz and Nasheet Waits in honor of civil rights activist John Lewis. The concerts took place at Summit Rock in Seneca Village, a historic section of Central Park that housed some of the first black-owned properties in the city in the 1820s, and a brilliant natural stage. There I saw Sunday afternoon concerts by Antoine Roney, supported by his fantastic drummer son Kojo and the empathic bassist Saadi Zain, as well as another one with the excellent Abraham Burton. Katz also took up the concerts, the whole undertaking arose exclusively out of Katz’s friendship with the artists and love for music. In the same vein, Katz recorded a set by saxophonist Darius Jones and his group in the green heart of Green-Wood Cemetery, which gave listeners the opportunity to hear his delicate sound explorations on graves, a very pleasant memento mori for a summer’s day.
Another long-running series, SummerStage, put on their first Central Park concert of the season, a kick performance by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, just before they embarked on a world tour. I always thought the JLCO was a noble endeavor that never did what it promised because the music lacked exactly what Artistic Director Wynton Marsalis always praised: a true evocation of that often elusive characteristic, swing. I don’t know what has changed – them, me, the times, or all three – but they sounded deep in the groove and brought the repertoire pieces by Duke Ellington and others to life.
With its Restart Stages program, Lincoln Center offered a centenary homage to the great pianist and television and radio presenter Dr. Billy Taylor who started my favorite New York City concert series, Jazzmobile, which over the years has given me the privilege of seeing shows by Art Blakey, Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Heath and many other true giants at Grant’s Tomb . For this show, the gospel-inspired powerhouse style of Cyrus Chestnut was pitted against the deep groove of longtime trio members Winard Harper (always a knockout) and bassist Chip Jackson. Diz protégé Jon Faddis joined in towards the end, conveying his subtle style and ardent authority.
At the end of July, the Vision Festival returned for its 25th anniversary. I attended six out of seven nights full of engaging, flaming sounds and kept getting blown away. The festival was started by dancer and community organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker and supported by her husband, bassist Willaim Parker. Their dedication to the spirit of free jazz has made this festival an annual pilgrimage for many, and their mission is reflected in performances that are alike past and future to create a more glorious present. Held at the Pioneer Works in Red Hook, its lush garden perfect for breaks from the action, and the Clemente Center on the Lower East Side, the festival sometimes featured and combined music, dance and poetry to make these shows one welcomed physical quality after this period of isolation.
William Parker is an important cohesive force in these gatherings. He played in different contexts every night, but always gave the music a kind of natural lightness, mixed with a searching quality that I find in so much of the best music. It sounded in the midst of the storm of Dave Sewelson’s Music for a Free World Sextet (drummer Marvin “Bugalu” Smith kept these far-reaching innovations in his pocket) and as a quiet cheering force in the amazing Matthew Shipp String Trio. This trio combined the strings of the bass and viola (lovingly rendered by Mat Maneri) with the vibrations of the piano wires, everything swirled like a steady, sometimes billowing blue flame. Shipp is such a gifted pianist and composer, and he plays with full commitment to bring the listener into his compositions and his inner world. Classical and jazz influences blend and really fuse – a rare achievement. I couldn’t overcome the deep inner quality of his playing; he almost leaned into the piano, with a style and intensity reminiscent of Bill Evans, as he walked safely in his own direction. Some musicians are playing at You, but Shipp, invites you to his territory for a spell instead, making it less of an accomplishment than a shared experience.
The second evening was dedicated to the composer, pianist and singer Amina Claudine Myers. As this year’s winner, she was able to present three very different ensembles and shone in every context. Their vocal octet group opened the night, showcasing another unusual fusion that worked brilliantly, improvised forms that fused with choral music. I had never used a choir like this before, and the octet here sang with passion and precision, with Lisa Sokolov taking particular turns. When Myers turned away from the piano and struck the first note on the organ, the crowd literally jumped up and their attack sound was immediately decisive. Next up was Generation IV, working with the gospel legacy of groups like The Caravans and the Clara Ward Singers, honoring it for its beauty and vibrant syncretistic history. Myers seems to draw strength from the chordal inversions of sacred music and to convey their power. She gave direction to the group (the other quartet members were her students) and her piercing alto animated and tied these performances. A fantastic documentary about the artist, directed by Moon Lasso, demonstrated her particular style and quirky humor and told the story of her development as a person and a composer, including her great contribution to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM). in Chicago; The story of her early years is punctuated by some spectacular footage from shows she previously saw in Blackwell, Arkansas and Dallas. She drew up a trio with bassist and guitarist Jerome Harris and drummer Reggie Nicholson, which at one point blew a rough blues that led to her admonishing herself after a breakup to stick her thing together and move on. Exquisite at the age of 79, she appeared to be doing just that.
Third Landing is a new band put together by guitarist Ava Mendoza who broke the tropes of improvised music and dared to put crispy, electrified fusion back into focus. But instead of indulging in its known excesses, Mendoza returned it to a more reduced state; she let go with unexpected, jagged, sloping solos, under which the music swayed and swayed. The best thing is that the extraordinary Abiodun Oyewole from The Last Poets sets the whole thing to an evocative verse. Sometimes sad, he also embodied the power to go on. James Blood Ulmer, an immensely powerful and renowned guitarist, ended the night with his Odyssey band and brought his special extension of the instrument to Hendrix to bear. To hear his booming strings stutter and howl again was life-affirming, an experience that only live music, preferably played loudly, can offer.
In the second week of the festival I started with a set from the quartet of tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis. His soaring, roaring style is of great originality, as influenced by Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman, but determined to represent his own experience, establish his own sound. Supported by a great band (the surprising pianist Aruán Ortiz, the bassist Brad Jones and the drummer Chad Taylor, who could be heard in numerous contexts at the festival), Lewis played several excerpts from his breathtaking album Molecularwho uses the colors and screams of free jazz to advance the story, to propel the band on a treacherous path.
The David Murray Octet was reassembled the next evening. Murray hasn’t lost a step in his more than four decades on stage. It looked and sounded great and brought a welcome fire to the occasion, its arrangements sparkling with life. The festival closed with a tribute to the polymath percussionist, visual artist, inventor, herbalist and martial artist Milford Graves, an ancestor of free jazz. The original group of five grew to around 20, and miraculously, which could easily have turned into cacophony, they swung and blazed with equal aplomb, hovering and taking the audience with them.