The Jazzcat

The Ojai Music Festival with Music Director Vijay Iyer

by on Jul.01, 2017, under Events, Festivals, News

For many decades, the Ojai Music festival has been presenting music to a well seasoned community of listeners. One of the most vital elements of experiencing sound is not so much hearing but, listening is key. So many take music and artists for granted and fill venues, stadiums and amphitheaters with an energy that says, “I want to hear THIS”. From my short few days with the Ojai Music Experience, I witnessed such exuberant openness. Ready to hear and experience a world of work, familiar or unfamiliar to the ear did not matter. Openness, the ability to seek, discover new sounds, tones, cultures and be ready to let these vibrations sink into your being and embrace them is a truly respectful the art.

I’m sure each artist who performed has felt this overwhelming generous canvas on which to perform and in actuality, that generosity created a more richer, rewarding experience for the artist and the audience, an energy of one! Vijay Iyer has just been extraordinary in amassing this global community of culturally diverse, like minded creatives who not only share and perform their compositions but, enrich lives allowing people to hear instruments, music and expand consciousness. When hear you something different, you learn something new about life and you experience a new awakening inside yourself as well. As adults, it’s almost impossible to experience that childlike wonder once again. This festival, with these artists in particular, laid the pathway for new journeys and old dreams!

I missed the first day of performance which included opening afternoon talks with Vijay, Wadada Leo Smith and Steve Schick. Hearing from the artist is so instrumental in learning and understanding their being, their path, their personality, and the secret that makes them thrive. All of this blossoms inside the music and you begin to travel along the lines of their story while being spectator to a soundtrack that provides new prospectives to yours! I also missed the sound of my dear friend Wadada who gave his last breath to dehydration while on stage.


Ojai Music Festival took great care of him, got him checked out and made sure he rested well the next day. You have to take notice of the kind of loving soul that gives their everything to the audience ,not just for the sake of the music but, for the spirit of the moment. In music and in life there are moments, these are the special times that we relish as they happen and look back on as they are etched into the fabric of our being. That is the passion Wadada plays with, the relentless way in which he lives his life and all based on love and compassion for humanity. If you were there, you were the recipient of that overwhelming benevolence.


An early morning start, leading the pathways and piercing the veil of typical Friday morning Los Angeles traffic, I arrive. Yes a day late but, in quite enough time to inhale the sounds and capture the Day Break concert of the Seven Breaths of the mighty Jen Shyu. An artist that can not quite be described in any of the boxes where mere humans find their comfort. The only way to indulge this fine delicatessen is to silence your mind, bathe in the sound and story and as the darkness turns to light, become a spectator in your immobile shell and let your your active conscious be whisked away by operatic jazz dramatics painted by dance and song. As you enter, the screen above shows footage of a Timorese woman singing and villagers dancing. We are soul watchers as we peek into the past voyeuristically treading upon ancient sound that suddenly comes to life in this dimension. Vietnamese, Chinese, Taiwanese, intrigue at its finest always prevails through the pinnacle of cultural experiences all wrapped in one! Art on high meets truth, past, present and future and you can now consider yourself closer to enlightenment. Just the true natural harmonies of Mandarin language has its genuine Bolero properties and Jen layers and intertwines each plane with seven languages cultivating a unique palette visual sonics derived from real life global journeys back in time. Watch, live, learn and listen to the stories. Language is no barrier to our many senses and through the sonics, you will discover that humanity is the answer. You start with the question and the journey always leads back to the answers within.
Here is one of those stories…

A poor, young, hungry, village girl, whose mother died while giving birth to her, takes care of her blind father Mr. Shim who falls in the river and is saved by a Monk who makes a proposition for daughter to become virgin sacrifice for band of sailors in order to restore father’s sight, doesn’t work. Sailor’s ravish and toss naked body into the sea as she sings to her death, dragon kings-men hear and save her. King falls in love, marries and new Empress send out invitation and invites all blind men to banquet to reunite with her father who thinks daughter is dead and does not believe Empress but, his desire brings back his sight as well as sight of all the blind people and animals in the land. Now that’s an opera!

Hop in your mode of transportation and travel on down the curves of Ojai Road to the center of town and you will arrive at Libbey park which encompasses the Libbey Bowl outdoor amphitheater, where most of the performances take place. In the park you will also find the Libbey Park Gazebo where a few of the Pop-up concerts (short 30 minute performances) are performed, well as a sonic installation of fine natural art made of rainsticks, rocks, wood and metal masks composed by Douglas Ewart and George Lewis, members in fine standing with the Association for Advancement of Creative Musicians, called the Rio Negro.


Clair Chase, flute master and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble performed unconventional solo flute expressions. Loose lips normally sink ships but, in this case they are used as just one of the many colorful ways that Clair expresses her art of sound. Purring, sonic tone matches, voice and long wind articulations are just a few ways Clair communicates her compositions.
Solo yes but look! Amassed behind his kit of brass, silent at first, but shortly ringing the air with echoes of vibrations is Mr. Tyshawn Sorry. I say Mr. Out of respect to a man of youth with a world-wind of percussive wisdom!

Ojai Music Festival – 6/9/20167 Libbey BowlOjai Music Festival – 6/9/20167 Libbey Bowl

Claire is playing a flute that is bigger than thou! It’s called a contra bass flute and the two instruments together create a big story on the corner where genres become life long friends in pursuit of open invention and intervention. The audience is listening. No pre-conceived notions, only a willingness to ingest the nutrients of sound until the moment when sound is all that is on the stage. Clair and Tyshawn have left and we are experiencing the stimulus perpetual vibrations.

From silver shorts to a skirt of 3 dimensional proportions, Claire returns with a voice and breath on the ethereal side. From the rear of the audience, her partner Pauchi Sasaki approaches as the two cross each other on stage and combine skill sets flute and violin! Thunder storms and tumultuous weather is the sound while we bask in the warmth of the sun. In a moments notice, 20 people are on the stage with Clair at the center playing various flutes and then its the dynamic International Contemporary Ensemble in full effect.

Ojai Music Festival – “Autoschediasms for Creative Orchestra” by Tyshawn Sorey 6/10/2017 Libbey Bowl

Brother, Master, musician, composer, conductor Tyshawn is in the house conducting and performing movements for his double trio strings and piano, bass and drums. So many wonderful sounds from Rubin Codheli on cello and Chris Tordini on double bass arco. Their duo combined with all four string instruments dropping such deep, deep luscious harmony and infectious love mixed with the sun and cool breeze make for a setting of perfection! Tyshawn seen composing out front one second with the lightest footprint, a quick sneak off to interject percussive mastery, then back to the podium. After a string section, Tordini drops down into that special place! The music is low resonating peaceful mastery and the counter balance between Corey Smythe on piano and Fung Chern Hwei on violin is playful and creates just the right texture. The most peaceful prelude in the most troubled of times only shows that LOVE prevails! This proves that all good music deserves great listeners and not confines of a box.

A Power Stronger Than Itself”, A force, not necessarily to be reckoned with but, one that is undeniably united in a way of thought, a way of being. It’s mere existence begs the question of where YOU stand. It’s not a challenge or a threat it’s just a simple little fact that can only be determined through truth and honesty; fear plays no factor. And it’s okay if you don’t know, the fact that you question or even contemplate says that your mind is open to the experience, to the sound. AACM! “What is the AACM?” Well, if you know, then you are rich with wonderful echoes of sound, if you don’t and you asked the question, then you are welcome with open arms to experience a foray into new creative plateaus, freedom of expression, a discovery of self through sound, a whole new way to look at the same situations life presents and now have the ability to choose new outcomes!

Born and founded in Chicago, the AACM is an organization of creative musicians whose mission it is to nurture, perform, record and procure original music. Some of the dynamics that a composition is based on my at times be of a serious nature but, the intent is not specifically to create serious music. Trombonist and composer George Lewis is one of the original members and he is the author of “A Power Stronger Than Itself: And America Experimental Music”. Before the performance there was a panel discussion that included George, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell along with Tyshawn Sorey and Claire Chase discussing the continued impact of such creative music. Dynamic insight from the creators themselves gives you a look inside-out into their views of freedom, complexity and relevance.

Ojai Music Festival – “Afterword” by George Lewis 6/9/2017 Libbey Bowl

George wrote “Afterword, an Opera” and we had a chance to witness it’s West Coast Premier. “Originality self determination all of these things are in the opera. Some things based on tapes of old AACM meetings. Ethnographic sampling, it’s all in there. The opera is not a tragedy the AACM wins.” We were soon to discover quite a fascinating display of work. Conductor Steven Schick lead members of the International Contemporary Ensemble through two acts of incredible works that supported the powerful voices of soprano Joelle Lamarre, contralto Gwendolyn Brown and tenor Julian Terrell Otis. The work is based on the conception of the AACM, how the ancestors migrated to the windy city from the south, struggles with daily life and the yearning for better, the desire to establish a meaningful future, the ideals of the first AACM Meeting and other scenes based of old recordings of the members, the death of visionaries and realizing the world is the audience. Yes, there were many dynamics going on that split my mind into about four parts, each trying to figure out the symbiotic relationships. A true engagement in logics, sonics and search for resolve. It’s like life, if you had all the answers, it would already be over! As Muhal said, “it’s important to get involved in the dialogue of the music. With the labels and things as such, the music needs acceptance more than cataloging.”

 We begin the Saturday morning daybreak concert began with the American premier of “Engraved in the Wind”, a peaceful entrance as Nicole Mitchell comes in the back door playing solo alto flute. The audience here in Ojai really love and appreciate music. The lure of the solo flute is captivating and the way Nicole incorporates voice intermingled with her tone has indigenous implications. Always taking the instrument to new heights by stretching the imagination of sound. I would imagine being apart of the principled AACM organization instilled strong values of self creation. George Lewis is here on hand after success with his smashing operatic premier last night.

While the members of ICE are exuding celestial sounds, a slithering entity makes its way on the floor, dancing and slowly incorporating its presence into the fabric of the sonic and visual tapestry. Suddenly the tall elegant dancer reveals himself discarding his vail of red. Movement and sound stimulate multiple regions of brain activity. An exercise in thought and conclusion which has subjective interpretations of meaning. Life is not just a series answers to questions. I see, you see, we see differently and those differences teach us the things that we know we don’t know about ourselves and others. The World Premier of “They Witnessed and Unfolding”.

Inescapable Spiral”, the sphere of sound, bold and adventurous, rich with vast diversity and common in the language of love and music. A sound the world can learn from as we see and hear our tones represented, speaking freely in conversation and admiring our individual sonics as well as the strength of our unity! The poet Lord Byron Scot speaks as he lifts, twists contrasts and draws attention to the message. What is it, do you know? Are you perplexed? Do you need answers? What is it? Perhaps it is an exercise to make you see and hear outside of your own perspective; smelling and feeling the world with other optics. Tapping into other human universes deep inside yourself synonymously formulating and answering thoughts instantaneously! Brain activity is registering on higher artistic frequencies and all are enlightened! The ebb to your flow, the call to your answer, the dawn to your new day!

The afternoon performance in Libbey Park Gazebo was a quick ICE Pop-up concert featuring the World Premier pieces “Labrys” and “Mysterium” performed by Claire Chase, Josh Rubin, Rebekah Heller and Levy Lorenzo and an education workshop at the Ojai Art Center with elementary school students learning through music and enticing their audience to participate in movement and song. At Libbey Bowl, classical pieces by Kurta’g and Motzart were performed before hearing Vijay’s composition “Motzart Effects”.

Ojai Music Festival – “Autoschediasms for Creative Orchestra” by Tyshawn Sorey 6/10/2017 Libbey Bowl

Low frequency Electro magnetic energy with flute, violin, viola, french horn, oboe, bass, trombone, piano and percussion. A sound orchestration with no melody, no harmony, no rhythm but, loaded with improvisations and implications. Tyshawn Sorey’s Autoschediasms for Creative Chamber Orchestra is a story slowly unfolding the sum of its parts revealing the mystery of its magic in a secession notes, mathematically arranged to produce emotional algorithms. The desired effect has relative implications, peaking intrigue in an audience that leans typically towards more traditional classical frequencies. As the piece enters the uncharted waters of the abyss, tone individuality unifies as land approaches. The father of the avant guard Muhal Richard Abhrams watches on from the audience witnessing and contemplating what I gather must be inner joy, to see and hear visions of individual truth and sound manifest in a blossoming new generation!

Ojai Music Festival – “The Trio” f- Muhal Richard Abrams – piano, Roscoe Mitchell – reeds, George Lewis – trombone & electronics 6/11/2017 Libbey Bowl

The adventurous are all In attendance to witness the original sounds of the AACM! For decades these musicians have built their entire careers on approaching music on their own terms. Developing powerful sounds that reflect their ideology, philosophy, mores and life’s experiences; those of their own and of the global human experience. Yes, theses are different sounds indeed. Look at Roscoe playing two horns at once. One of course because he can but, more likely because these are the sounds that are necessary to convey this moments message. Muhal Richard Abrams with his cascading chords of truth and dear brother George Lewis poignantly delivers vocal tones of clear determination .Life is full of beauty, pleasure, pain and suffering. This is the musical language that speaks for those who could not, cannot as well as for those who can. Bold statements that spin, politically corrected or watered down, however you want to put it, it’s Black music plain and simple. You don’t have to understand it, like it or fear it but listen and learn, open your minds and don’t concede. This is culture at its finest and within the walls of these extraordinary sounds three are stories, messages, healing and love. Vibrations to and from our ancestors, respect for those who have suffered injustices brought to life in a world creativity expressed at a moments notice.

Ojai Music Festival – “The Trio” f- Muhal Richard Abrams – piano, Roscoe Mitchell – reeds, George Lewis – trombone & electronics 6/11/2017 Libbey Bowl

As they go through life, their journey has certainly not been to create one composition and continue to make a career out of playing that same composition for their entire lives. You don’t sit on your laurels for the rest of your life after one success. Everyday has many gems and jewels that present themselves. These gentleman have been spreading these jewels their entire lives. And once discovered, many other musical lives have been built on these principles. At the core are some pretty basic foundations; freedom, respect, kindness, love and human dignity. Only these Founding Fathers want this for everyone and not just the chosen few. In this beautiful outdoor amphitheater, you can hear the birds reply as part of the ensemble and the soundtrack could not be more perfect. Universal love!! This is not just his-story, it’s yours too!

Tonight marks the first public performance for this incomparable quartet of Vijay Iyer, Zakir Hussain, Rudresh Mahanthappa and the brilliant Arina Sirham. The world never made so much sense or felt so infectious. These four cast a love spell with such encompassing vibrations. One drink from this sonic potion and you have visions of a harmonious world where give, receive, share, honor and happiness are the virtue and sonnets by which we live.

Rudresh has an ancient sound that calls the spirits from the heavens down and connects us through this vibration he calls, “Eeeeeeeee’. Zakir is the thunder, the sound of magnificence literally right at his finger tips. Arina, I am not sure what her name actually means but, it should be, “The Goddess of Sound”! Talk about incredible music in the world, this is happening right now, and it has all descended upon us this weekend.

Culture rich, incredible rhythms and Arina’s heavenly blessings making the sound is so much more intensely beautiful. Her transcendent aura is breathtakingly mesmerizing as she sculpts the sound into expanding rings of illumination; she is the drop of water, mother music herself! 
Dancing on a plane of possibilities is where the music lives and breathes. Vijay’s “City of Sand”, spectacular ragas simultaneously meditative and majestic. Arina’s rhythm and sense heavenly articulation is angelically unmatched. The birds sing in syncopation!

Ojai Music Festival – “Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi” by Vijay Iyer & Prashant Bhargava 6/10/2017 Libbey BowlOjai Music Festival – “Yet Unheard” by Courtney Bryan 6/10/2017 Libbey Bowl

The Story – Lord Krishna, the Hindu God lived by the banks of the river Yamuna. Kaliya, the five headed snake killed all of the fish, trees and birds with its poisonous venom. They engage in a playful battle like dance where Krishna stamps out the serpent and restores life to the village. Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring adapted from dark to light in Prashant Bhargava’s film RADHE RADHE: the Rites of Holi. Vijay scored this film of happiness and brilliant color symbolizing the union of Lord Krishna with the Godess Radha, an explosion into spring through joy, dance, color and seductive passion! Prashant was a great friend of Vijay who recently transitioned at an all too early age and this work will forever mark an emotional milestone in collaborative creativity and true friendship.

After a short break the quartet inject their brilliance once again on one of Rudresh’s compositions as he employs his staccato style articulations, Zakir with deep non stop rhythm on “Snap” and Vijay’s tune “Abundance” all with timely natural improvisations by our singing, flying friends in the trees above. The low resonating melodies layered with tablas and topped with Arina’s mystical vocal magic is just the thing and with space for Rudresh embellishments makes for some Bad Ass music here in Ojai.

Ojai Music Festival – Vijay Iyer Sextet 6/11/17 Ojai Libbey Bowl

We end the festival with a group of cats that Vijay has played with for the last six years Graham Haynes, Steve Lehman, Mark Shim, Stephen Crump and the man who has made a significant mark of the people here in Ojai Tyshawn Sorey. They have a new album coming out in the fall called, “Far From Over” and you better believe that is guaranteed to be another incredible work of art. Tyshawn is a monster on drums; at times moving the entire drum kit with his exuding energy. Brilliant and hard core execution laying down a bed of sound together with Vijay in the trenches. Stephan Crumpt is amazing on bass as usual with his empirical bowing providing saturating texture and neutralizing all body and brain waves to match his frequency.

The most talented cats to have your back when it comes to sensational explorations and transendant experiences! Super strong front line with Graham tearin’ it up on coronet, Mark Shim throwin’ down those sweet melodic lines on tenor, and new school alto mad science from Steve Lehman turning out the close of the festival with a heavy dose of J A double ZZ! Watch out, these cats dissect a groove like a one handed Rubix Cube wizard! One truly outstanding weekend of synapse firing beauty.

Forever Changed!

LeRoy Downs

All Libbey Bowl Photography by David Bazemore

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