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NYC Winter Jazzfest 2015: Saturday Recap

NYC Winter Jazzfest 2015: Friday Recap

By Dan Lehner

 Winter jazzfest 2015 Improvised Round Robin
The Friday portion of the 2015 Winter Jazzfest, with a temperature of 17°F before windchill, was the coldest in WJF history since the inaugural festival (when it was -2°F). Not that this, in any way, impeded the festival's popularity. This year's festivities, which expanded to an unprecedented 10 venues, were so well-attended that the organizers instituted a live-update system of how crowded each venue was at any given time. (Running joke of the night: "You'll never get into Zinc Bar.") The surging popularity indicated that the goals of the festival - to have as many people as possible experience new and improvised music - were pretty much guaranteed to be met.
WJF is like the Comic Con of creative music, offering a chance to preview new groups from familiar artists that haven't released records and/or hit the clubs yet. Arturo O'Farill's "Boss Level Septet," which appeared at SubCulture, represents the leading edge in Latin-inspired creative music. The septet's music came from the same place as rhythm-oriented artists like Dafnis Prieto or Steve Coleman, but much of the music was knottier, more bombastic - almost zany in a controlled way. Much like Miles Davis adding Bill Evans's impressionism to 50's cool jazz, O'Farrill's sonic ace card came in the form of guitarist Travis Reuter, whose liquid, effects-drenched sound, plus his unique sense of harmony, propelled the music forward and sideways. The collective O'Farrills are no slouches either, with pianist Arturo taking a wide-ranging, Horace Silver "play everything" stance, and the marvelous trumpeter Adam O'Farrill finding himself somewhere between Freddie Hubbard and Peter Evans.
Trumpet sage  Ingrid Jensen performed alongside keyboardist Jason Miles at Judson Church for another yet-to-be recorded project, "Kind of New", which borrows directly from the Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis tradition. Jensen was more than prepared to take this role on - she had the same blistering upper register, used almost more as an effect rather than part of a melodic sequence. Of course, Jensen - as well as her tenor sax compatriot Jay Rodriguez - had more than enough door-breaking melodic chops to up the energy. Kind of New's music was like Woody Shaw and Bill Withers jamming in a desert - a meeting place of alternately breezy/serious 70's soul vibes existing alongside explorations of shapes and intensities.
Winter Jazzfest always keeps the door open for established European groups. Founded by Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink about 30 years ago, the ICP Orchestra took to the LPR stage like a firecracker - an exposition of free improvisation, Ellingtonian impressions and spoken word integrations delivered with the fervor of a theater troupe. The group's pre-bop was remarkably sincere - the spiky free/avant-garde edges were added to give texture, not irreverence or irony, and were aided by great soloists like trombonist Walter Wierbos and reedist Ab Baars who could change between edgy and sublime on a dime's turn. Being the "instant composers" they were, ICPO not only made music instantaneously, but with joyous process; cellist Tristan Honsinger conducted with everything from vocal growls to his entire body.
In the category of established masters, few compared to Trio 3, who appeared at the Minetta Lane Theatre, WJF's newest - if not quite largest - venue. (LPR is still the biggest.) The collective power of saxophonist Oliver Lake, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer Andrew Cyrille, alongside the fresh blood of Vijay Iyer on piano, was 60 years of carefully explained musicality and energy. Each musician showcased an inimitable musical aspect: Cyrille's inverted instincts (such as doing echoed hits on his bass drum) while remaining hard swinging, Workman's fluid, vocalistic low register, and Lake's adeptness to take post-Coltrane construction into even further sublime and transcendent territory. Iyer, known for his own trio's unique concept, showed growth as a sideman, incorporating more long lines and interplay with generation (or two) above him, remaining distinctly himself in his rhythmic/harmonic concept, but serving the quartet vibe above everything else.

There are things you want at WJF, and then there are things you didn't know you wanted. Few but guitarist Marc Ribot would have the gusto to put a group together to recreate the soulful, sweeping funk of Gambel and Huff's Sound of Philadelphia. The groundwork was pure, unadulterated TSOP - the cinematic strings, the funky propulsions by bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer Calvin Weston, the shouts of "gettin' down" - but the layers on top were more unique. The twin-guitar attack of Mary Halvorson's spiky excursions and Ribot's No Wave rock stylings kept everything just on edge enough to perk ears up. With this in mind, it gave standbys like the Ohio Player's "Love Rollercoaster" and even Van McCoy's "The Hustle" new life.

Freshly minted as Thelonious Monk Competition award winner, trumpeter Marquis Hill brought a group of young musicians to The Players Theater that at once sounded new in style but well-worn in execution. The Blacktet's brand of fleet, neo-soul infused post-bop, although not unheard of in the modern jazz world, was delivered with frightening accuracy. Apart from the group dynamic, which required feats of deftness like each horn player trading 2's while landing on the same pattern each time, there were some breathtaking solos by the verbose and controlled Hill and a dazzling diversity of approaches by vibraphonist Justin Thomas.
One of the last acts of the night was the Improvised Round Robin, kicking off at 1am at Judson Church. The daisy chain of improvisers was an unbroken narrative similar to Richard Linklater's "Slacker": characters came, spoke their piece to drive the narrative, and then made way for a new addition. The Round Robin gave musicians a chance to play outside their wheelhouse - like trombonist Robin Eubanks exercising his Sun-Ra-honed free chops alongside Ab Baars - or combinations that work well, but would otherwise never occur - like saxophonist Mark Turner's poetic, contrapunctal duet with bassist Ernst Glerum. Some of the best moments came when the mood shifted abruptly, like drummer Mike Pride switching from skitter post-punk with Brandon Seabrook to a lonely, painterly duet with Ambrose Akinmusire. Like it always has, it served the M.O. of WJF perfectly: music that has never been made, and will never be made again. 
Saturday recap from WJF 2015 coming soon.