by Dan Lehner
There was a sense of freshness in the air as the first night of the Winter Jazz Fest Marathon kicked off on Friday. The first real snowfall blanketed car windows, the first few days of 2017 were helping ease away the emotional drag of 2016 and the ever-expanding roster of artists and venues participating in the WJF lineup reminded us that there are people working hard and creating challenging, joyous and diverse music and plenty of people who want to see it happen. WJF also helped us prepared politically and emotionally for the coming Trump years by declaring a theme of social justice that permeated through its literature and testimonials from its artists.
Dayme Arocena made an explicit plea for US audiences to engage with the next generation of young Cuban musicians during her band's set at Le Poisson Rouge, and they more than backed that case up with their performance. Arocena's music has an old history - its imbued with a rich variety of Afro-Cuban musics from both the island and the motherland - but her conception also has a 21st century attitude, with vocoders, odd-meters and Arocena's stuttering vocal effects punctuating the rhumba phrasing. Ever the ambassador for her country's traditions, Arocena graciously showed the audience the diversity of Cuba's dance music landscape through guajira and cha-cha stylings, powered by her alluring and rich vocal style.
In an example of parallel cultural journeying, New York actually has its own version of the Cuban traditional music, interpreted by its numerous salsa bands like Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who played at the New School Friday night. SHO's modus operandi is relatively humble - they have a old school Nuyorican sound and just try (and succeed) to swing as hard as they can - but they're not without their specialties. Their music tastefully inserted jazz chordal substitutions a la Eddie Palmieri and the vocal harmonies between Carlos Canscante, Jeremy Bosch and Marco Bermudez was rich and meaty. Bosch also had an added surprise up his sleeve, getting into a flute battle with Mitch Frohman, in which Frohman was surprisingly evenly matched.
The social justice theme of WJF 17 was both explicit and implicit in Craig Harris's "Breathe". In addition to the surface level inspirations from the death of Eric Garner and the writings of Amiri Baraka, it felt musically and physically connected to the spirit of social justice. The titanic group - the full count was around 38 musicians - operated with a sense of community, a notion that New York landscape of improvising musicians are united by their questing spirits and loving sense of justice. Harris's work was long and simmering, with brief interludes between conducting amidst wide sections of 6/8 rhythm, allowing alternating members to improvise with each other from across the cavernous New School auditorium. The improvisations evolved from the individual to the collective, eventually turning into an every-member free improvisation that managed to feel triumphant rather than cacophonous.
Steve Bernstein ended his set with a dig at the President-Elect's allegedly short fingers, but the actual content of his Universal Melody Brass Band's set, both in name and in its music, strove for a simpler, loving sense of musical expression. UMBB's performance took styles as diverse as NOLA funk to klezmer to Messiaen, but it still kept a simple, almost primitive sense of wonder. The trombonists Art Baron and Curtis Fowlkes in particular gave the music a crying, joyous sense of Ellingtonian blues, while alto saxophonists Matt Dariau and Oscar Noriega's blistering solos gave the music its headiness. Bernstein capped the band's set with a celebratory version of "America The Beautiful" that was tinged with a sense of unease, as he blared his famous slide trumpet into an uncertain but resolute future for America.
At Bowery Ballroom, Isaiah Sharkey was swimming his way through a fluidly arranged torrent of notes on an unaccompanied guitar solo before his trio broke in. Sharkey has graced stages in the past few years with D'Angelo and the neo-soul legend's preference for Sharkey was immediately apparent; he had a scorching sense of rock n roll energy with a James Brown finesse on everything he did. Sharkey is truly a guitar player of seemingly limitless talent; on his cover of Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love", he ushered the song in with a dizzying guitar intro, replete with abrupt tonal shifts and Stanley Jordan-esque tapping, faithfully laid down the original and closed it with a rollicky, Texas-style boogie blues.
Speaking of limitless ability, it would be exceedingly difficult to think of what more could be done with a saxophone after watching Battle Trance. New Amsterdam Record's group of just four tenor saxes collided not only genres of music making, like Glassian chamber music and Aylerian free jazz, but also sound itself. "Extended technique" is becoming a stale word in the new music sphere and Battle Trance's technically impressive, hauntingly sublime and often terrifyingly visceral performance of their newest work "Blade of Love" had sound-making that deserves to be a technique unto itself - evoking whistling forest winds, police sirens, running water and martial arts fight sounds. The quartet's unbroken performance filled the innards of SubCulture's performance space like a Kubrickian burst of color and emotion (which is to say, both the blood elevator of "The Shining" and the light field of "2001: A Space Odyssey"), shifting between reeling arpeggios, drooling splatters and ethereal singing.
But the most intense sound the group made the entire night was what seemed like minutes of silence the group stood for at the end - allowing the rapt attention of the audience and the preceding cacophony to congeal to a maddening degree, until leader Travis LaPlante mercifully said "Thank you".
(Pics from Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at SubCulture, performing excerpts from the dark and eerie "Real Enemies," which muses on paranoia and conspiracy theories.)