Vision Festival survives and flourishes

Celebration of jazz's avant garde hits 15 on the upbeat

It’s no secret countless arts organizations have shuttered as the recession has ravaged public arts funding. Those still standing exist as shells of their former selves, which makes it all the more surprising when a donation-dependent organization appears stronger than it did when money was flowing freely.

The Vision Festival, a celebration of jazz’s avant garde and its intersections with other disciplines, is a case in point. About to present its 15th edition (June 20-30), it has outlasted a good number of other New York City festivals, even those dedicated to jazz legends and other music closer to the mainstream. When it started, Vision Fest was unique, and in the current climate it is the largest festival of its type in the United States. Last year it was New York’s only large-scale jazz festival.

Patricia Nicholson Parker, a dancer, choreographer and founder of Arts for Art, which books Vision Festival, says finding sponsors continues to be a tough task, noting arts organizations were better off in the 1970s than the 1990s or 2000s. Most of Vision Fest’s sponsors are audio companies.

“We’re not as secure as we want to be,” says Nicholson Parker. “You need to cross a certain financial line, which varies from year to year, to become secure. It’s easier to raise money from the government than from foundations because it’s a conservative time. Having a home base (Abrons Art Center) that’s remodeled and comfortable helps.”

The 11-day event will feature about 55 different bands/performance pieces and be held in seven venues, with most concerts taking place at the 330-seat Abrons and the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center. The final night’s concert, a one-time only collaboration between indie-folk rockers Akron/Family and avant-jazz musicians William Parker and Hamid Drake on June 30, will held at Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village.

“There’s electricity in the air,” says bassist Parker, 57, a leading light in improvised music who has been involved in the previous 14 Vision fests. “All the musicians from different parts of the country are there, listeners from Europe and throughout the States. No matter how you think it’s going to come out, it comes out differently.”

Vision Fest overlaps with the CareFusion Jazz Festival produced by George Wein, who had overseen the JVC Jazz festival from its inception in 1972 through its final year in 2008.

CareFusion runs June 17-26 with 45 concerts, featuring a Herbie Hancock 70th birthday party, Keith Jarrett with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, Joao Gilberto and Chris Botti, all at Carnegie Hall.

Unlike other jazz fests, Vision Festival has programmed crossover efforts into visual art, poetry, dance and indie rock, a union that dates back to the late 1960s when Frank Zappa jammed with the likes of Archie Shepp, and Warner Music contemplated issuing a record featuring the avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor on one side and Jim Morrison reading poetry on the other.

Parker has played with Yo La Tengo and shared bills with bands such as Sonic Youth and Henry Rollins’ bands. “It’s an open-minded thing,” Parker says, “and maybe (one of these collaborations) will lead to a tour together. That would be a nice cross-pollination.”

Highlights at this year’s Vision Fest are numerous, featuring musicians with lengthy resumes whose New York appearances are rare, or Gotham-based performers such as pianist Matthew Shipp and saxophonist Charles Gayle who will appear in newly created settings. Nearly all the musicians leading bands in the fest were part of the downtown music scene of the 1980s and early ’90s that found its epicenter at the Knitting Factory, the adventurously booked club that brought together jazz and rock bands on bills that catered to both audiences.

In the 1990s, when the Knitting Factory ran its KnitMedia Festival, the Vision Festival catered to an even smaller subsect of the jazz world, mainly musicians who had an association with Parker. Vision Fest, while certainly still Parker-centric, has grown since 2001 as more and more of the KF veterans have found a home at Vision Fest.

In turn, the event has seen its audience grow along with the size of the venues being booked.

Muhal Richard Abrams, the Chicago pianist who was among the founders of the Assn. for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in the mid-1960s, will receive a lifetime achievement award June 24 at the Abrons. He will perform solo and with a band featuring saxophonist Ari Brown and bassist Harrison Bankhead. Fellow Chicago legends, the 80-year-old tenor saxophonist — and fellow lifetime achievement award recipient — Fred Anderson and reed man Joseph Jarman (Art Ensemble of Chicago), also will appear on the bill.

A six-act benefit concert, which raises a fair amount of money to pay the musicians, is held June 23 at Abrons and will feature two Nicholson Parker dance performances, pianist Shipp in three settings, the band In Order to Survive with pianist Cooper-Moore and a Parker-Kidd Jordan blues project. Jordan, an experimental saxophonist from New Orleans whose R&B credits include Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin, received a lifetime achievement award a few years ago; Sam Rivers, the saxophonist who shepherded the New York jazz loft scene in the 1970s, and Marshall Allen of the Sun Ra Arkestra are the two most recent recipients of the award.

The June 26 program will include afternoon and evening performances plus lectures and panel discussions. Among the prominent performers that day are Jarman, burgeoning saxophonist Tony Malaby, and reed musician Ned Rothenberg with bassist-guitarist Jerome Harris. A tribute to the bassist Sirone, who died in October, will feature saxophonist Gayle with a quartet of bassists and a drummer.

Parker, whose Southern Satellites will open the closing night set, will appear in eight different bands during the fest.

“The challenge is knowing that each situation has to work,” Parker says. “I’ll play three sets consecutively one night, and all will be different even if it’s same instrumentation. It’s all about being sensitive to following each other with direction — you have to go with the flow.”

For more information Vision Festival and a schedule go to http://www.visionfestival.org/

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