Free jazz percussionist Andrew Cyrille introduced tenor player Kidd Jordan from behind the kit at Roulette on June 11, the opening night of the 2019 Vision Festival in Brooklyn, NY. “We’re going to take you someplace else,” he said before jumping into a mesmeric repartee with the saxophonist and monster improviser.

The Vision Festival, now in its 24th year, celebrates free jazz of all stripes, and this year Cyrille was its recipient for a Lifetime of Achievement award. In accepting the honor, Cyrille agreed to curate almost five hours of programming for the first evening of the festival, which ran through June 16. He pulled together eight different performances, each a distinctive showcase for his deftly calibrated drumming.

The artists he chose to accompany him varied widely—over the course of the evening he improvised with a dozen performing artists from several different artistic disciplines. He kept each performance compact, though, in a duo or trio format, thus leaving every riff, note, and word exposed before the packed 400-seat theater.

Before jamming with Jordan, Cyrille had opened with “Haitian Fascination,” an extended Afro-Caribbean improvisation featuring Jean Guy “Fanfan” Rene on Haitian drum and poet Quincy Troupe reciting spoken word. While a projector flashed historic photos of Cyrille’s musical life against a screen behind them, the three experimented with the visceral sounds, pulses, and verbal imagery of the African diaspora in America.

Shifting gears, in the third piece of the evening, Cyrille and cellist Tomeka Reid sensed their way through shifting dynamics and expressive feels while modern dancer Beatrice Capote created spontaneous choreography to their music. Interestingly, Cyrille has been working with dancers for most of his career, though with Reid and Capote only more recently; he credits his collaborations with dancers as an important contribution to his own creative development. “When I was in school and needed work, the people who saved me were the dancers,” he told the crowd. “They taught me so much about playing the drums.”

At the evening’s midpoint, Cyrille joined fellow percussionist Milford Graves, a friend and collaborator of more than 50 years, in evoking the improvisation of their 1974 album, Dialogue of the Drums (IPS). Throughout the impassioned, churning number, Graves interjected simple vocals, wails, and chants, Latin hand percussion, and a panoply of polyrhythms; Cyrille matched him in this syncopated mastery, at times drumming with both elbows. Toward the end of their playing Graves paused, moved to be working again with his longtime co-composer, concerned about health issues that had almost derailed his participation in the tribute. But as he resumed the performance he shouted, “For Andrew and the Vision Festival!” The crowd stood in ovation.

This same appreciation for Cyrille’s work ran through the evening as each of his chosen artists—representing only a handful of his many collaborations over the years—took the stage in praise of his contribution to free jazz.  Among them was pioneering visual artist Stefan Roloff in the first live performance ever of Big Fire, Roloff’s ground-breaking digital video from 1984. As Roloff projected a kaleidoscope of images—the spinning Earth, distorted faces, ravaged cityscapes—on the screen, Cyrille created a real-time percussion soundtrack that mirrored the video’s dystopian visual content.    

Following Big Fire, Cyrille played from last year’s ECM release, Lebroba, with the album’s co-creator, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and guitarist Brandon Ross (guitarist Bill Frisell played on the original). The Lebroba trio—from the contraction of Leland, Brooklyn, and Baltimore, the birthplaces of the original trio members—provided some of the most subdued, graceful music of the evening, with Smith offering up muted, dulcet tones in bas relief against Ross’ simple arpeggiated chords.

Lisa Sokolov, a dynamic vocalist, pianist, and lyricist, then recalled Cyrille’s work with avant gardist Jeanne Lee (1939-2000) as she sang her own dramatic compositions—modal melodies and expressive vocalese against Cyrille’s subtle, intricate beats—a fitting homage not only to Cyrille but to Lee, who had first introduced Sokolov to the “Gentleman Andrew Cyrille,” as she wrote in the program notes.    

In the final set of the evening, German multi-reedist Peter Brötzmann led Cyrille in a cacophonic jumble of an improv, all steam and fury, toward a definitive conclusion befitting the Machine Gun (BRÖ) auteur. Brötzmann had met Cyrille in Paris through free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor in 1966, just two years before the release of this seminal work; after reconnecting 15 years later, the two continued to play as a duo during the intervening decades. And all these years on, Cyrille’s “big smile still is there,” Brötzmann noted in the program. 

While Cyrille captured most of the attention at this year’s Vision Festival, more than 100 other prominent performing and visual artists crossed the stage during the Festival’s week-long run. Even a random pick of festival events strikes gold: guitarist Marc Ribot’s recently hatched quartet; the alto-sax-based quintet Alto Gladness; pianist Matthew Shipp’s duo with bassist William Parker; pianist Kris Davis’ trio, January Painters (featuring Jeff “Tain” Watts); free jazz dancer Patricia Nicholson; the poetry-and-music collective Heroes Are Gang Leaders; and the Arts for Art’s Visionary Youth Orchestra. And like Cyrille, they all managed to take us someplace else.

(Reprinted from Downbeat Online, 20 June 2019)