One of the most difficult tasks facing any vanguard is finding its audience. It’s not just a question of public taste in art: the social presentation of an avant-garde always involves more than purely aesthetic choices. Those who control the venues that serve the public usually argue that, aesthetic values aside, vanguards can’t fill their temples. That melancholy background made Cecil Taylor’s failure to show for the opening of the Knitting Factory Jazz Festival doubly disappointing. In just a year and a half, the tiny Knitting Factory has become an indispensable part of the music scene in New York City, and in the process has proved there is an audience for “outside” sounds. Its festival offered an imaginative mix of established and emerging artists in interesting, provocative programs. And people carne – not just the usual downtown denizens but folks in suits and ties. In fact, I heard some complaints that the place was becoming yuppified- as if its bandstand sounds were the birthright of a particular hip group.
Festivals are, after all, meant to open the minds as well as the cars of an audience, to help them throw off their prejudices. Those prejudices may come in handy for corporate sponsors who want to exclude non mainstream (read provocative) an from their festivals -the musicians are undependable, weird, etc. but they played no part in the Knitting Factory’s vision of how things should be. Which is why the nonperformance of kinetic pianist Taylor was so disheartening. Taylor has complained for years about his treatment by the establishment, and he’s got a point. But he’s also got his own problems, and they surfaced at the festival’s kickoff concert.
The first set was scheduled for 8 P.M., and the place filled up in anticipation. By 9, still no Taylor; the crowd, largely uptown types lured by critical blurbs about the festival, began to get restless. By 9:30 the owners, in an unusual move, were refunding the full ticket price. By 10:10, when Taylor deigned to appear, only a handful of the capacity crowd remained. He then threw a tantrum about the dressing room though he’d played the club before and should have known it wasn’t Radio City. Things ended badly; Taylor didn’t get paid because he was refused the chance to go onstage, owing to a clause in his contract stipulating a 9 P.M. show-up time-pretty generous for an 8 P.M. show.
The moral: By this point in history musicians must deal with both of the terms in “music business.” If they don’t, their complaints about not being allowed to reach the public are going to seem pretty hollow, and that public isn’t going to cut them much slack. Why should it, if they can’t even show up for their own gigs? Worse, when the artists can’t or won’t or don’t take charge of defining the relationship between music and business, the business predators can and will.
So, part of what the Knitting Factory Jazz Festival was about was redefining the relationship between music and business. And along with some concerts from the World Music Institute’s Improvisations 11 series (unfortunately more uneven than last year’s), the festival attempted to explore the problems of what jazz is by juxtaposing older and newer visions of what that elusive term can mean. The strategy both illuminated and entertained; below are some of the highlights.
Tim Berne was among the younger vanguard that played a key role in the Factory’s festival; his scorching quintet also opened the W.M.l.’s series with one of the most sustained high-wire acts I’ve seen this year. Taking new material and pushing it to the wall, they strung their taut arrangements to the breaking point without ever losing control. One of Berne’s favorite strategies is to stuff his pieces full of sudden bends from one section to the next, almost as if he wants to see whether the band will be thrown; they reacted like rodeo champs.
Thanks to Cecil Taylor, the Jazz Passengers opened the Knitting Factory Jazz Festival and stayed true to their “fake jazz” background-some of the members play with the Lounge Lizards -by throwing scraps of sounds into a grungy mixmaster. Where the Passengers are all about brash, self-conscious gestures, William Parker’s group (Dennis Charles and Rashied Ali on drums, Parker on bass, Billy Bang on violin, Charles Gayle on tenor) blasted off in that free space where jazz becomes a thing that roars and scream s and keeps you focused by subtly shifting its textures within the furnace of raw creation.
The DFR String Trio features Berne quintet members Mark Dresser on bass and Hank Roberts on cello with violinist Mark Feldman; they share Berne’s concerns with sonics and composition. The humor is sarcastic, to say the least, Their opening piece began with an edgy, boppish unison statement filigreed by a pseudo classical “flight of the bumblebee” that soon came unwound as the strings slid and chirped, spiraled into a raucous epiphany that hung squealing in midair, faded into a duet melody and crash-landed as whale calls. This sendup of classical pretension made me wonder what they’d do to Bartok.
Berne followed them onstage with fellow altoist/composer John Zorn, drummer Ted Epstein and Dresser and Joey Baron to pay homage to Ornette Coleman. It was Zom’s night to howl. Though there were times when they hurled split tones at the audience like a couple of dubious thundergods, Beme mostly wrapped sax lines around Zorn’s fierce squawking and unbridled multiphonic bursts, as the rhythm section moved nimbly to stir up and anticipate tempo change-ups. While they were at it, they demonstrated again and again that love of the jazz tradition can translate into an open-ended context and some unreverential play.
Next night’s opener was billed as A Sax Quartet, which actually went on as A Sax Trio (Zorn, Greg Osby and Ned Rothenberg) because Gary Thomas’s horn got smashed in an accident on the day of the gig. Here, even more than usual, it seemed Zorn’s show: He kept pumping out jaggedly whirling lines that, if they’d been made of more than sound waves, would have done some nasty things to the folks sitting in front.
Yet another Berne spinoff was paired with the revived and legendary Phalanx. Miniature is a trio consisting of Berne, Roberts and Baron that mixes and matches from Captain Beefheart and the Champs’ “Tequila” to snaky bebop heads an “The Happy Whistler.” Accents and melodies arise, hover and get spun wittily into something quite different from their original intent. Phalanx reunited guitarist James Blood Ulmer, saxist George Adams, bassist Sirone and drummer Rashied Ali in a reprise of the freer aesthetic of the 1970s; it hit with the force of its name. It was like being in a musical funhouse: tonalities shifting suddenly, a sirocco drone sweeping across the jagged improvisations, a horn fusillade ripping through the deliberately bleary landscape. Ideas glinted and sped past as if they were riding a hot-rodded pinwheel.
The same kaleidoscopic feeling shaped Anthony Braxton’s stunning solo spot. Braxton has one of the most inventive, imposing minds in jazz, and his alto sax cuts through expectations. He could take a banal melody like “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” and first unsnap its fragments, then realign them into a series of thoroughly new possibilities. His control is awesome: At one point he had an overblown wail going on his that was matched by the sighing intake of his breathing to create a fluid, nonstop cry of pain and power. Alone, he eclipsed the following act. Odean Pope’s Saxophone Choir, a big outfit bristling with saxes whose charts sounded like Las Vegas.
Bassist Fred Hopkins and cellist Deidre Murray, part of Henry Threadgill’s crack Sextett, joined forces at W.M.I.’s festival to uncork some unusual duos. Outstanding technical arsenals and pungently irreverent wit combined to make their set one of the spunkiest I heard. Beginning with a set of generically mournful romantic melodies, they began to split tones through them, creating the musical equivalent of those illusory pictures that change when viewed from different angles.
Murray was onstage the following evening in another duo, with downtowner, Elliot Sharp. Each wrote two pieces that put Sharp on either bass clarinet or modified electric guitar to Murray’s cello. It wasn’t an unequivocally successful set, but its high points-as in the second tune, when the blues and noir-ish motifs curlicued around classical figures until they finallyexploded into creaky elephant stomps – delivered.
As did the always delving David Murray Trio. With bassist Hopkins and drum master Andrew Cyrille churning the rhythms all around him, Murray planted himself and blew hard. He’ll lunge across the range of his tenor or bass clarinet with flat-out abandon, skidding to a halt only in the upper reaches of split overtones that he’ll drop without warning into the belching extreme low end, and then launch another atmospheric flight. There was, as usual with this trio, lots of solo time for all three players, which meant Hopkins got the chance to creak his unoiled-door effects and Cyrille scrambled rhythms with the carefree exuberance of a fine chef with an omelet to make. Breezy and high-stepping, this set captured jazz’s improvisational essence.
The Wayne Horvitz Ensemble cut loose through intense blues, “Giant Steps” romps, some Crumb-inflected pieces and everything in between. Marty Ehrlich on tenor flared long lines that upset expected accents, then paused to bend a note into raunch or take a figure and run it ragged by repeating it out of sync with the progression while Horvitz was hammering his low end to death. Andrew Hill, when he followed them onstage, took a different tack. Instead of showcasing his compositions, he preferred to spin out the pure gold of his thoughtful musings, creating an introspective feel that modulated from idea to idea in an unhurried, uncontrived way.
As did Dewey Redman’s trio. Redman, who’s suffered ups and downs both in his career and in his playing, had always amazing bassist Anthony Cox and drummer Eddie Moore kicking him into high gear whether they were working breakneck bebop classics or ballads. The rhythm section fired off unexpected accents like there was a war on, and Redman sidewinded his nonstop lines in between the bursts, occasionally arcing into a shriek or a gust of whinnying. Next was Steve Coleman’s Five Elements pumping out an enormous sound, a 1980s dream melange of funk and rock and reggae and improvisation and jazz and spaghetti Westerns and kung-fu flicks. With the grooves as intense as they could make them, the band was totally unafraid of digging into them for a ride-to the audience’s delight as well as Coleman’s, who’d plant himself in front of the drummer to dip and bop and work the band deeper and deeper into the funk. Cassandra Wilson handled vocals with her usual slinky, sensual control, while Coleman wielded his alto fiercely from rhapsodizing to raging. The birth of a new sound, and the audience ate it up.
So with its other high points – Sun Ra delivering one of his Professor Irwin Corey lectures on life and the universe followed by his Arkestra’s wild careening, Sonny Murray and Ronald Shannon Jackson leading densely rhythmic groups, and so on-the Knitting Factory Jazz Festival did what no one has done with jazz since Verna Gillis’s Soundscape offered a look at the condition of various vanguards at Irving Plaza with some advertising support from the J.V.C. umbrella. The only subsidies the Knitting Factory people got were from a small but ambitious Village record store called Vinylmania Jazz, which helped with advertising and the cost of the comprehensive program guide. That kind of relationship is an old one in the music biz. Radio stations and record stores have traditionally sponsored events because they want to sell more of the music; it’s a more understandable, more healthy context than the P.R.-intensive one established by mall makers like J.V.C. or American Express with its New York International Festival of the Arts. Let’s hope the Knitting Factory’s festival makes it back next year.