Honoring Heroes of Jazz, with Words, Silence and Improvisation


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Jazz has a long tradition of heroism, both in practice and reception, in the acts of musicians and how they are understood. For the last few generations, hard-core jazz audiences have spent a lot of time worrying that the academic might be riding up on the intuitive, and that the sense of heroism might be slipping away. But this is never a problem at the Vision Festival, where American free jazz has its annual rites.

Thursday nights Vision Festival bill at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side included a panegyric for the living, in the form of a lifetime-achievement celebration for the pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams; a eulogy for the deceased, in the form of a 10-minute silence for the saxophonist Fred Anderson, who died earlier in the day; and a handful of performances that were all at least reaching for something beyond formal excellence. It wasn't all great, but there was a lot beyond notes to consider. Each part of the night including the silence contained stamina and resistance and a kind of morality.

Now 79, Mr. Abrams helped found the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago in 1965. (After moving here, he started up the New York chapter in 1983.) It was and is a collective, nonprofit organization, urging the writing of original music, challenging any perceived boundaries of what jazz can be or include, creating performance opportunities for its members and educating young musicians from the South Side of Chicago in an alternative academy.

On a more basic level, hes a father figure. Muhal is the boss!, the saxophonist Joseph Jarman sang, over free-rhythm accompaniment, toward the end of his set with the tenor saxophonist John Tchicai. He showed the way to free music, free joy, free happiness of the sound, he went on. He pushes the button in your head and says gogogogogogogo!

Mr. Abrams started the night with a solo piano set, disciplined and continuous and thoroughly improvised. He kept both hands on the keyboard for nearly an hour, with pulsating rhythm and ambiguous tonal centers. He kept the sustain pedal down a fair amount, and sometimes let his bass-clef locomotive figures press on without development.

This could get fatiguing. (But it didnt grow torrential or cathartic or suggest physical movement, like Cecil Taylors solo shows; Mr. Abrams is a constitutionally drier guy.) Toward the end he started containing the harmony and the dynamics, narrowing the music down, and he ended with a banged, two-handed cluster.

At the end of the evening Mr. Abrams played in a trio with two other Chicagoans, the saxophonist Ari Brown and the bassist Harrison Bankhead. Again it was free improvising, but it started off like chamber music, with Mr. Brown playing discrete hunks of melody that sounded as if theyd been written, as Mr. Bankhead bowed his bass, and Mr. Abrams practiced a flowing concision, never overstaying in any idea. (At one point he reached inside the piano, but he wasnt opening a whole new chapter: he plucked a single note, then got back to business.)

At that time they began the process of loosening the valves, and by the midpoint they were improvising in unbroken streams. Mr. Brown vocalized through his instrument, and Mr. Abrams was playing much harder than he had when he was all alone. His passion came through.

Fred Anderson, also from Chicago, also an example and a gray eminence he was another of the Creative Musicians groups founders had been scheduled to play, but had suffered a heart attack 10 days earlier. With characteristic respect, the Vision Festival never took his name off the program or the Web site; its director, Patricia Nicholson, called for 10 minutes of silence in the house, with lowered lights. She and Mr. Abrams stood at the front of the stage, hands folded; Mr. Abrams wore a faint, resigned smile.

The Vision Festival continues through Wednesday at performance spaces in Lower Manhattan; visionfestival.org.

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