For fans of creative, improvised music, Winter Jazzfest is probably one of the few times they’ll actually want the festivities to be overcrowded. It created a little glimmer of hope for the state and popularity of this music that, in spite of the seasonal cold and decidedly unseasonal rain—not to mention the added distance between this year's six venues—festivalgoers were still copious enough to cause jammed venues and long lines outside.
Drummer Bobby Previte christened WJF's first-ever Bowery Electric performance with his Bari Trio. The combination of Previte, guitarist Mike Gamble ,and Austrian baritone saxophonist Fabian Rucker made for equally funky and ethereal music. The trio seemed to be developing and challenging themselves to see how much music they could make, initially starting with crooked funk lines accompanying Previte’s roster of assorted grooves, but gradually flowing into episodic trances where the reaches of Rucker’s boppish ferocity and Gamble’s soundscapes rested on only a few bass notes from the guitar.
At the Culture Project Theater, Bryan and the Aardvarks kicked off the venue’s performances with some of the prettiest and most thoughtful music existing in the lineup. Led by bassist Bryan Copeland, the Aardvarks absorbed and exposited cinematic soundscapes, baroque-pop chord changes, and a post-bop sense of melodic invention. The diverse range of sonic possibilities the band employed, and the musicians that were on board mostly aided their unique sound: Chris Dingman’s vibraphones burst with color amidst his improvised motifs, guitarist Jesse Lewis burned and swelled with the music, and Fabian Almazan’s piano and organ added a sense of classical finesse throughout.
Michael Attias' SPUN TREE changed the mood of the space almost entirely. Attias’ music was a knotty and intriguing mixture of carefully constructed counterpoint, free improvisation, and deconstructions of the quintet itself. The full blend of clockwork mechanisms was strong, but the real magic was revealed with a breakdown of elements, where the various elements (Kris Davis' thoughtfully thundering piano, Ralph Alessi's pristine trumpet intervals, Sean Conly’s muscular and fervent bass lines, drummer Tom Rainey’s lightning-fast template changes and Attias’ thoughtful alto sax verbosity) compacted and collided with each other.
Fleshing out trombonist Jacob Garchik’s intensely sublime 2012 solo project, The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Choir, his nine-piece version of that band continued to fill the gap that modern jazz didn’t even know it had: brass gospel-shout music, both the avant-garde and not-so-avant-garde varieties. As a living sound system for the record (which the band played from front to back), the sonic prowess of hearing it live was worth enough. However, hearing it live also provided potent and often beautiful solos from trombone co-conspirators Jason Jackson, Alan Ferber, Josh Roseman, Curtis Hasselbring, and Reut Regev, not to mention Kenny Wollesen’s adrenaline-pumping gospel beats and a truly evangelical call-and-response between Garchik (as the nontheistic preacher) and the rest of the ensemble (his nonhierarchical disciples).
Don Byron's quartet wasted no time in getting to where the audience expected from the multireedist. Augmented by Aruan Ortiz's multidisciplined piano playing, Cameron Brown’s fleet and effortless bass, and the incomparable drum range of Rudy Royston, Byron’s twisted compositions caught fire quickly, continuously stoked by Byron’s seemingly endless range of improvisatory ideas. If there was any disappointment to be found, it was realizing that the handful of tunes that Byron’s band played (ranging from the furthest depths of post-bop weirdness on clarinet to the most soul-drenched ballad on tenor) was only a fraction of what Byron was capable of doing.
Nasheet Waits' EQUALITY was as powerful as it was mysterious. Given Waits' massive playing experience, his versatility was something to be expected, and he showed it off with terrifying virtuosity on the drums. His cast of sidemen took Waits’ energy to heart by both matching and counteracting it. Pianist Vijay Iyer wrapped each composition in his special brand of linear/harmonic logic, bassist Mark Helias speckled with woody and singing textures (in response to Iyer’s pulsating bass notes) and Logan Richardson’s subdued but fervent alto sound soared over the proceedings magnificently.
Over at Sullivan Hall, harpist Brandee Younger led a tribute to Detroit native Dorothy Ashby, whose 1968 release, Afro Harping, set the standard for this most unusual—and transporting—of jazz instruments. With its African and Afro-Latin grooves, Afro Harping has since become a favorite among hip hop and R&B artists such as Pete Rock, Jill Scott, GZA, and Flying Lotus. Joining Younger were Casey Benjamin on alto sax, Sharel Cassity on flute, Ameen Saleem on bass, Kim Thompson on drums, and DJ Raydar Ellis.
Closing out the night, trombonist Corey King laid down some intricate, funky grooves with his young and charismatic band, which included Tia Fuller on alto sax, Takuya Kuroda on trumpet, Max Siegel on bass trombone, JefMatt Stevens on guitar, Leo Genovese on piano, Jamire Williams on drums, and Adam Jackson on percussion. And stuck way in the back on electric bass was a petite, unassuming girl by the name of Esperanza Spalding, who just happened to have an off night from her own ongoing tour (in which King is a band member). Just goes to show you never know who's going to show up at Winter Jazzfest.
Another 30-plus acts take the stage tonight starting at 6PM. $35 gets you into all six venues; check the festival website for details.