by Steven Pisano
The BRIC JazzFest Marathon, three nights of topflight music now in its second season, opened Thursday night with a night of free jazz. Not free as in style, but free as in: No Cost. All you needed to do was show up at BRIC House and enjoy four and half hours of quality jazz (and other music) for absolutely nothing, thanks to financial support from the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment.
So, did you stay home and binge-watch Netflix?
Nine very different acts performed in three different spaces. The Stoop has rising steps that act as seats, bleacher-style. The Artist Studio is an intimate club-like space with cabaret tables in front and standing room in the back. And, the Ballroom is a more traditional concert space. Moving between the three was easy and encouraged via staggered scheduling, though there was usually a line for the popular Artist Studio. I managed to catch 8 of the 9 acts, missing only Ben Allison & Think Free.
Kicking off the night was Bria Skonberg, who recently put out Bria, her first release on Sony Masterworks. Hailed by numerous jazz publications and the general music press, Skonberg plays trumpet and sings, sounding a bit like one of her idols, Anita O'Day. Accompanied by a quartet of clarinet, keyboards, upright bass, and drums, Skonberg was breathy, light and pure.
The highlight of the night for me was Kenyatta Beasley in the Artist Studio. Originally from New Orleans, Beasley began playing trumpet as a toddler, and his band -- Dezron Douglas (bass), Alvester Garnett (drums), Keith Loftis (tenor sax), and Anthony Wonsey (piano) --was superb. Wonsey's piano technique was astonishingly hot - how he doesn't break his fingers is hard to comprehend - and even his bandmates couldn't help but smile with joy each time he soloed.
Inyang Bassey is a deeply emotional singer who gave a mesmerizing performance at the Stoop. Part confessional séance, part emotional blood-letting, Bassey, who was born in Nigeria but raised in New York (and once was pre-med at Columbia) defies the usual stylistic definitions. You could hear her voice beckoning from the far reaches of the BRIC complex, and people followed the call like parishioners to prayer. With hands gyrating in circles like a snake charmer, her songs started out deep in the heart before flowing through her extraordinary voicebox. You want to pin a label on Bassey, but she just shakes you off and morphs into something new, song after song.
The Michael Leonhart Orchestra filled the Ballroom with big band sounds that had people sashaying across the floor. Leonhart recently played trumpet on Bruno Mars's 2016 Record of the Year, "Uptown Funk." As a conductor, he struts, preens, blows his horn, and generally has a good time, which makes the band one big party.
Taylor McFerrin (son of famed vocalist Bobby) and Marcus Gilmore filled the Stoop with the sort of lush, ethereal improvisations on keyboards and drums that might best be called sound landscapes. Beautiful to listen to, but also the kind of music that's often forgotten soon after hearing it.
Krystle Warren, with her shaved head, men's jacket, and skinny pants, sang about love, peace, and social justice. With a voice that was at times sultry and seductive, other times husky and politically charged, I could hear hints of Tracy Chapman. Because she performed on such a one-on-one level, her set probably would have been even more powerful in a more intimate room.
The Jason Marshall Quintet performed slow-burning ballads in the Artist Studio, reminding people that jazz can explore slower and darker moods as well as any genre. With his baritone saxophone and soft-spoken introductions, Marshall's set was a chance to cool down and appreciate a more thoughtful type of music.
Topping off the night in the Ballroom, the David Murray Infinity Quartet played solid traditional jazz. Murray has been a master of the saxophone a long time, dating back to the beginning of the famed World Saxophone Quartet in the late 1970s and later heading up a string of his own bands. On stage with a solid lineup of Orrin Evans (piano), Jaribu Shahid (bass), and Nasheet Waits (drums), Murray was the epitome of professional cool.
The BRIC JazzFest Marathon ends tonight, with sets from Terrace Martin, Marc Ribot, Marc Cary and more. Tickets and additional info here.
More photos can be found here.