By Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews
New York is nothing if not a land of contrasts, so it was jarring if not totally surprising to slog through a warmer-than-usual rain storm on Friday’s Winter Jazzfest Marathon having just experienced a colder-than-usual near-sub-zero snowstorm only a week prior. However, New York is also full of tough natives and intrepid tourists, so no crowd was too deterred to pack and hop between the 11 venues (on the third of a record eight-day-long WJF) to see new configurations, old favorites and adventurous mixtures of the two on the first marathon night.
Over at Zinc Bar, alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis was both riding and twisting a robust swing in trumpeter Josh Lawrence’s Color Theory, punctuating flowing melodic lines with wild zig-zags in unexpected directions at unexpected times. Propelled by drummer Anwar Marshall, bassist Luques Curtis and a rare Fender Rhodes/piano team of Zaccai Curtis and Orrin Evans, Lawrence’s beautiful and ambidextrous writing would alternate between gentle tippin’ and Blakeyesque group runs that would cluster around close harmony (sometimes on the same tune). One piece would have Lawrence and Curtis gently flicking specks of color on an orchestral canvas, then a faster one would show off Lawrence’s deftness as he carefully constructed, expanded and contracted melodic cells, all while never losing his mature, relaxed trumpet sound.
At the New School Tishman Auditorium, Stefon Harris cemented his reputation as one of the world's leading vibes players, leading a large band that included saxophonist Casey Benjamin. Though his dizzying improvisations spoke for themselves, Harris, who last year was named the Director of Jazz Studies at the Manhattan School of Music, felt compelled to address the less inspiring events of the day. “The number one thing I love about this music," he said, "is that you need to listen to each other first, before you play a single note."
Down the block at the New School Jazz Building, Portugese vocalist Sara Serpa offered "Recognition": an extended commentary on colonization and the exploitation of the people in Angola, which only gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. Performing together with harpist Zeena Parkins and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, Serpa's ethereal vocals brought to mind Meredith Monk while images of trees falling and women working and dancing were projected overhead. It was a reminder that sometimes, the purpose of music is to introduce you to new worlds, new people you'll never encounter on American TV or in the newspapers.
Upstairs, the extraordinary pianist Mara Rosenbloom subverted the traditional piano trio sound, freely mixing bop, minimalism, and more dissonant strains with her bandmates, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Chad Taylor. Rosenbloom, who overcame a severe injury to her left arm in a car crash, plays with a fluidity lacking in more percussive pianists. But, it is her intellect which truly impressed, her ideas flying from her fingers faster than you could keep track. She ventured into some deep, dark waters, but never lost her swing.
Sons of Kemet only has two melodic voices (and no harmonic ones) but it’s a testament to their ferocious rhythmic power and devotional energy that they built their set at Le Poisson Rouge up to a fever pitch a good five minutes before the lower voice even entered. Tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’s thunderous, carbonized sound would interact and occasionally lord over everything from dancehall, Afro-Carribbean folkloric musics and deep trance grooves. As a band influenced by myriad diasporic styles, their improvisational approach is a persistent, devotional one that allowed for constant rhythmic variation. A drummer (one of two) would push the rhythm even when Hutching’s was soloing and tubist Theon Cross would be a reliable bassline until he would occasionally upend the arrangement with a flurried brass rip.
At SubCulture, pianist Aaron Parks was playing the second gig ever with his new quartet, Little Big, and even in their nascence they managed to capture Parks’ M.O. of combining cinematic landscapes, modern jazz and rock-ish emotional value in a fresh way. Armed with more than just the usual piano, Parks’s synth and laptop sounds would rearrange his presence in the sonic space, oscillating between a dense texture and a searing cohort to guitarist Greg Tuohey. Little Big would play the long game when it came to arranging styles and space for improvisers. Compositionally, sections would take their time moving from trading over Afrobeat-esque rhythms to mournful slow grooves and improvisationally, Parks and Tuohey would ring out long, ardent solos, come together in a melodic line then disperse as quickly as it came.
A true testament to the quick, improvising wits of the performers and organizers, a sudden cancellation at Bowery Ballroom led to an impromptu, all-star jam collective (a group later named “Fractured Talent” by WJF Founder/Producer Brice Rosenbloom) with members of Sons of Kemet, Donny McCaslin’s band and Lakecia Benjamin’s Soul Squad creating a performance really just as good as any of the night’s planned acts. Given ample time to stretch out, the saxophone trifecta of McCaslin, Benjamin and Shabaka Hutchings showed their remarkable contrasts, Hutchings rhythmic pings, Benjamin’s deep pocket and McCaslin’s wide-ranged threads all given space to breathe and box. Two ace cards of both harmony and texture were keyboardists Devonne Allison and Jason Lindner; Allison would flip between rowdy montunos and disco grooves and Linder unfurled wiry, boppish synth lines (think Kenny Barron meets George Duke) to put a starry, computery shimmer over the whole groove.
Guitarist Marc Ribot closed out the night at Bowery Ballroom with his punk-funk-rock project Ceramic Dog, accompanied by like-minded iconoclasts Ches Smith on drums and Shahzad Ismaily on guitar. Mixing protest and outrage with more wistful ruminations on aging and love, it felt like a prescription for our tumultuous times.