Winter JazzFest 2023 Returns to IRL Performance

by Dan Lehner, Mackenzie Horne and Pete Matthews

Avishai Cohen Quartet, LPR

Happy 2023, all. 

After two years of cancellations and virtual performances, Winter JazzFest - the annual smörgåsbord of jazz and other forward-thinking music that kicks off the NYC music calendar each year, triumphantly returned to in-person performance last week. With a full week of shows stretched out across 15 stages, the lineup was characteristically impressive, giving warhorses and new ensembles alike a chance to play before attentive, enthusiastic crowds. Suffice to say: despite all of the bullshit from the past three years, jazz is alive and well.

Here's a rundown of what we managed to see:

Thursday, Jan. 12: Avishai Cohen Quartet at Le Poisson Rouge

Not to be confused with the bassist by the same name (no relation), the NYC-based trumpeter performed his new album Naked Truth (ECM) straight through. Recorded in the south of France during the pandemic, the 9-part suite veered from hypnotic to jarring, erupting in a cascade of arpeggios before ending with a quiet meditation on death by Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky. 

Cohen's set was part of a showcase primarily dedicated to French jazz musicians, produced by Paris Jazz Club and Paris radio station TSF Jazz.

Friday, Jan. 13: Manhattan Marathon

There was an understated but palpable sense of enthusiasm Friday night as the Marathon - WJF's signature event - kicked off across lower Manhattan. Fewer venues and a wider spread of locations - from Nublu on Ave. C to Jazz Gallery on 27th St. - meant that crowding was even more of an issue than in the past. (We never made it inside The Bitter End or Zinc Bar.) But, despite the long lines -- in seasonably-cold weather -- people seemed to take it in stride, just happy to have WJF back.

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Back to the Berkshires: the Boston Pops and Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood

by Pete Matthews Empire Strikes Back, Tanglewood 2022

"Music is one of the most important gifts we've been given from nature. It's all out there: all we need to do is organize the sound sources, and that search is the greatest fun. It's a search for something magical." - John Williams

There is no place in the world more meaningful to me - musically or otherwise - than Tanglewood: the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra since 1937. Nestled in the bucolic Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts, it offers a uniquely intoxicating mix of art and nature, of high-level musicianship and youthful energy (courtesy of the fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center).

After no performances in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a pared-back schedule of limited capacity performances last summer, Tanglewood is happily back in full swing this year with a packed slate of concerts including opera, choral works, and new music. (The Festival of Contemporary Music is back this year for the first time since 2019.) From what I could tell during my visit to Lenox two weekends ago, everything felt more-or-less back to normal. 

On Friday night (July 15), the Boston Pops performed live alongside The Empire Strikes Back (1980), the second (or, officially, fifth) film in the Star Wars saga. As most fans know, the music for all nine Star Wars films was composed by John Williams: a living legend who has written more than 100 film scores, 52 of them nominated for Oscars, winning 5. It is hard to overstate the impact Williams has had not only on film, but on music at large over the past 60 years. His music - largely Romantic and tonal, with triumphant fanfares and bracing flashes of dissonance - is immediately recognizable, its emotional impact unmistakable. There are any number of reasons for this, most of which can be chalked up to his insistence on writing music the old fashioned way. 

"I still use a pencil and paper, the same way that I’ve always done," Williams told Berkshire Magazine earlier this summer. "I have to write every note out and every duplication of a different key. My younger colleagues all work with synthesizers and add track upon track on the recording processes, something they call “striping." In my case, I write the music and we assemble an orchestra and play it just as one might have done in 1850 instead of 1950."

Indeed, for Williams, the only difference between Hollywood and the concert hall is scale. "I am enormously grateful," he says, "as all composers are, to film for giving us the broadest possible audience worldwide that any composer has ever enjoyed. I'm certain that Beethoven would have shunned it, but Wagner would have had his own studio, with a water tower with a big "W" on it."

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Summer 2022 Live Music Preview: Out of Town

Tanglewood Shed(all photos by Pete Matthews)
In addition to all of the summer music happenings in NYC, things are finally getting back to normal at the festivals and amphitheaters out of town, many of which have been dormant - or half-baked - for the past two years. Here are some of the things worth a trip:

Tanglewood (July 1-Aug. 28) Boston Symphony Orchestra Music Director Andris Nelsons spends four full weeks in the Berkshires this summer, performing everything from Brahms' German Requiem to a concert performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Other highlights include Garrick Ohlsson performing Brahms' complete piano music (Aug. 16-25), a John Williams 90th birthday celebration (Aug. 20), and a new opera by George Benjamin (Aug. 8) performed by the TMC fellows - who also gave the U.S. premiere of his Written on Skin in 2013.

Caramoor (June 30-Aug. 19) The elegant Westchester estate offers one of the most diverse festivals in the northeast - and only an hour's drive north of NYC. Spanning classical, jazz, opera, and new music, highlights include the world premiere of Michael Gordon's “Field of Vision” (July 24), a day-long jazz festival (July 30), Handel's rarely performed opera Theodora (July 31), and appearances by Brian Stokes Mitchell (July 9), Shemekia Copeland (July 29) and Angelique Kidjo (Aug 6).

Bard SummerScape (June 24-Aug. 14) Among this year's offerings at Bard's Fisher Center is Richard Strauss' rarely performed comic opera The Silent Woman (July 22-31) and the 32nd annual Bard Music Festival (Aug. 5-14), dedicated to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the Spiegeltent, which is back open for the first time since 2019, offerings include Nona Hendryx (July 1), the George Gee Swing Orchestra (July 10) and roots rocker Martha Redbone (July 30).

Glimmerglass Festival (July 8-Aug. 21) The northeast's leading summer opera festival presents both the tried and true (CarmenThe Sound of Music) and the new (The Jungle Book, Taking Up Serpents/Holy GroundThe Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson) on the shores of Lake Otsego, just down the road from the Baseball Hall of Fame.

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