There are as many criticisms about modern/contemporary jazz festivals in New York as there are chances to prove them wrong. One such criticism is that Winter Jazzfest (and its summer counterpart, Undead Music Festival) has eschewed jazz's blues roots in favor of ultra-complex modernism and is too overrun with white males.
The first act of the night at (le) Poisson Rouge shattered both of those notions. Guitarist/vocalist Toshi Reagon and drummer Allison Miller headed up a vivacious celebration of the great women of blues and jazz, and the all-female musicians on stage deserved as much praise as the greats they were celebrating. The gestalt of the collective was tight, swinging, and soul-drenched, and the soloists were top notch. Vocalists Christelle Durandy, M, and Imani Uzuri celebrated classic blues vocalists like Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton, while instrumentalists like trumpeter Tanya Darby ripped through with burning conviction.
Michael Formanek recently put out a stellar record with pianist Craig Taborn, saxophonist Tim Berne, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, but as if to show off his multidinous jazz-world connections, his Cheating Heart band featured a whole different roster. Saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, drummer Dan Weiss, and pianist Jacob Sacks beautifully elaborated upon Formanek’s music, which uses his clear bass direction as a catalyst for graceful, but persistent, ideas. Particularly striking was how some of Formanek’s music seemed to collapse in on itself (each phrase getting shorter and shorter), as well as Sacks’ use of extreme registers of the piano and unorthodox voicings to coax out otherworldly sounds.
It’s somewhat straightforward to explain saxophonist Colin Stetson's sound (if not quite expanding on how he does it) when you’re not listening to it: it falls somewhere in between Philip Glass and Godspeed You! Black Emporer, with a bit of Evan Parker thrown in for good measure. However, while listening to his swirling, circular-breathing sheets of microphone-amplified sax and simultaneous (!) vocal wailings live at The Bitter End, all thought goes out the window and you’re caught frozen like a field mouse stunned by a screech owl. Unlike a rodent of prey, however, listening to Stetson’s blistering live rendition of “Judges” or his new music that seemed to draw from indie rock and Irish music is pure, transfixed joy.
The Cookers' set at LPR was proof positive that in the world of jazz, there's no substitute for sheer playing time. With over 300 years of combined playing experience, The Cookers brought together seven powerhouse innovators with a set that combined hard bop standards with killer originals. Whatever these septuagenarians may have lost in high-octane energy, they more than made up for in fluidity and grace. Young guns take note: You could stand to learn a thing or two from these old timers.
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s music is somehow getting simultaneously more accessible and more challenging. His set at LPR—showcasing new music from his new band, Gamak—expanded upon the same sort of robotically precise, linear phrases and overlapping rhythmic layers as folks have come to expect, but also includes more danceable funk and groove elements that miraculously fail to fall into cheesiness. Guitarist Dave “Fuze” Fiuczynski brought a wiry, sinewy shred to Mahanthappa’s music, making use of quarter tones and slides on his double-necked guitar. The whole rhythm section was nearly telepathic in their ability to take their jaunts way out of time (with whatever time[s] that music is in), and a particular accolade should be given to bassist Francois Moutin's unparalleled dexterity in soloing.
At Sullivan Hall, African singer/songwriter Somi lit up the room with her penetrating charisma, using her entire body to express her Earth Mother-like presence. Born in Illinois to immigrants from East Africa, Somi relocated to Nigeria last year, where she's absorbed everything from African jazz to soul and Afropop. Singing in English, Yoruba, and Nigerian Pidgin, she sounded like a cross between Miriam Makeba and Dianne Reeves: elegant and earthy, soulful and vivid.
At the Culture Project Theater, Kneebody premiered mostly new material that drew a crowd well over capacity, spilling out into the lobby. Kneebody seems to exist on the exact opposite side of the planet that every lame groove-based jazz band resides. They have all of the elements that would make a listener roll their eyes, but when filtered through Nate Wood’s frenetic drum excursions, the lockup between Kaveh Rastegar’s grungy bass, Adam Benjamin’s ring-modulated keys, as well as the triumphant unison horn lines of trumpeter Shane Endsley and saxophonist Ben Wendel, it’s awe-inspiring. Although Kneebody is known for its surprise career moves—including collaborations with rappers and songbooks by 20th-century composers—this show was just pure Kneebody, and it was wonderful.
On paper, Jason Lindner’s Breeding Ground looks like an expanded version of his Now Vs. Now band, and while the rest of his rhythm section (drummer Mark Giuliana and bassist/vocalist Panagiotis Andreou) did, in many ways, recall the same poetic ultragrooves that NVN fans have come to expect, the addition of strings, horns, and vocals made Breeding Ground an entirely different and wondrous new thing. Even separating itself from Lindner’s big-band project, the 11-piece ensemble operated as a breathtaking mixture of filmic tone pieces, post-indie rock jams, and careening world music. It takes vision to truly hear pieces conceived for strings and horns, and Lindner made it work. The addition of Jeff Taylor on vocals and whistling imbued the whole thing with a sense of meaning and urgency, not to mention a deeper appeal for Lindner’s gigantic musical vision.
With more than 30 acts spread across six stages, it was virtually impossible to get around to all of the shows we wanted to see Saturday night. Fortunately, local jazz stalwart WBGO will help fill the gap this afternoon when they rebroadcast festival highlights, including James Carter and Gregory Porter's headlining sets from LPR. Check it out at 4PM today at 88.3FM or online.