The first night of Vision Festival 18, June 12, 2013, was devoted to celebrating the lifetime achievement, as the festival calls it, of Milford Graves, 72, one of the seminal drummers in the history of free jazz, who retired from the faculty of Bennington College last year, where he taught since 1973. Roulette, a bastion of avant-garde music of all stripes, had moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn not that long ago, and now the Vision Festival had followed, leaving its former home at the Abrons Arts Center on the Lower East Side for Roulette’s new space, a short walk from the Brooklyn Academy of Music and, as it happens, LIU’s Brooklyn campus, keeping me in academic echo-location of my thesis as I worked on the epilogue. I’d been to Roulette a fair number of times prior to this night, and, despite its incredibly reasonable ticket prices, which is not unusual for avant-garde music, it was rarely crowded and never sold out—also not unusual for avant-garde music rooms that aren’t tiny holes in the wall, in my experience.
But tonight was beyond sold out, with people standing up lining the walls, mostly young people—an amazingly inspiring sight at an avant-jazz gig, even if it’s the opening night of the Vision Festival, which traditionally gets the biggest turnout of the week. I had an aisle seat toward the back of the room, hence I couldn’t see the lower part of the stage all that well; I simply couldn’t see Graves’ drum set below the cymbals, and I confess I’d never seen Graves live before or even watched him in a video, so I simply didn’t know about the customized kit. During a break I went up to the stage and was stunned to find the drums seen in the photo—a perfect blend of the avant-garde and Africa, in which Africa, moreover, seems to be making a public address. I knew I had my homepage image.
See this video for a complete performance from this night: the highlight of the evening, the NY HeArt Ensemble, featuring Charles Gayle on tenor saxophone and piano, Roswell Rudd on trombone, William Parker on bass and the poetry of Amiri Baraka. Jon Pareles’ review of the night in The New York Times likened free-jazz drumming to the weather:
His drumming is almost always irregular, his patterns like weather patterns of wind or rain or pressure, ever fluctuating and forever in motion. His attack is light, precise and enveloping, rushing the music ahead with rumbles and taps and whooshing cymbals. His trap setup includes bongo drums for occasional pointed accents, with the bass drum supplying emphatic exclamation points as the music hurtles forward.
In this case, we can embrace climate change.