I spent six hours Saturday night at the Winter Jazzfest, and while some moments shone more brightly than others, it was all-in-all one of the most fun nights out I've had in a long time. For one thing, the crowds were less hellacious than they were Friday night, so you could actually bump from club to club without fear of getting locked out. It was also a reminder of the X-factor festivals bring to live music, be it rock, classical, experimental, or whatever floats your boat. By filling five clubs in a two-block radius with music from all ends of the jazz spectrum, it became second nature to compare notes with friends and strangers on what you'd just heard, or suggest a band to someone they might not otherwise go see. (The $25 all-in pricing certainly didn't hurt, either.)
I spent most of the night at LPR, which housed most of the big names and offered the most floorspace of any of the participating clubs. (Kenny's Castaways across the street made for a good in-between-set refuge, with cheaper drinks and it's own solid lineup.) Saxophonist Tia Fuller (above) kicked things off with an athletic, straight-ahead set that included her sister Shamie on piano and brother-in-law Rudy on drums. Echoing the title of her latest release, she urged us to take "Decisive Steps" in 2011, leaving behind all the ups and downs of the past year.
After a quick stop over to Kenny's to see Andrew D'Angelo's AGOGIC, it was back to LPR for the chameleon-like Don Byron, who seems to be up to something new every time I see him. This time out, he played clarinet and sax, but also sang backup to the astonishing DK Dyson, whose vocals were a mix of gospel and scat, throwing in a bit of Queen of the Night for good measure. As if that weren't enough, Geri Allen joined on piano, playing with such technical wizardry that Byron himself seemed completely bowled over.
The idea of pairing a visual artist improvising to live music isn't new, but more often than not the resulting painting/drawing ends up looking like a scribble. Fortunately, Nels Cline had Norton Wisdom at his disposal, doing what basically amounted to sophisticated finger paining on a backlit screen while Nels shredded his guitar in apocalyptic horror. Trees morphed into animals, gods became demons, the Earth melted into a horrifying skull with piercing red eyes. Widsom's hand was so sure, and Nels' playing so complex and pitch-perfect, it was impossible to believe that either was improvising. The fact that both were was completely dumbfounding.
After Nels, we were treated to a surprise "interlude" by the Asphalt Orchestra: a 12-piece big band who played a couple of quick numbers guerrilla-style. I'm not sure if these erstwhile Bang on a Can peeps technically qualified as jazz - they were more Slavic Soul Party than Secret Society - but it was way fun to listen to.
After what felt like an especially long delay while they got their levels checked out, Steve Coleman and his band Five Elements took the stage. Maybe I was getting tired and cranky at that point, but the muddled ensemble playing and indecipherable female vocals (contributed by Jen Shyu) didn't really do it for me.
So, it was a joy to come back to LPR - after a quick hop over to Kenny's to hear Uri Caine with the Donny McCaslin Trio - to hear RedCred (a.k.a. Chris Speed (S), Ben Perowsky (D) and John Medeski (Hammond B3, baby) blow the roof off with a lightening set that spilled over with joyous energy. For Chris, at least, this was his second gig of the night, having just played an Endangered Blood show with Oscar and Jim over at The Stone. And, Ben had to stick around to close out the night with his Moodswing Orchestra, going on somewhere south of 3am.
But, for all the great music I heard, the best part of my night came while I was chowing down on a chicken sandwich at the bar at Kenny's, listening to the James Carney Group. That's when I got to talking to Don: an expat from Boston who's been catching live jazz in NYC for the past fifty years. Don's seen it all: Coltrane, Monk, Mingus screaming at the audience, Billie barely hanging on. I asked him what he thought about the festival, and the state of jazz in general.
"There's so much amazing music out there now," Don told me. "So many young, talented players. But, everyone playing now is chasing after those early guys, trying to hit that same high Trane or Monk used to hit. And, it just isn't there, not that I've heard. If it's gonna happen, it'll have to come from somewhere deep inside."
After we paid our tabs, I dragged Don over to Nels' show at LPR - he'd never heard of Nels before - but we lost each other somewhere between the bar and the bathroom. So, Don: if you did manage to stick around, I'd love to hear what you thought. And, hope to see you out again sometime.
More pics below and on Flickr.