by Dan Lehner and FoM
The first venue to host the Winter Jazzfest, The Knitting Factory, moved to Brooklyn five years ago. One of the venues that showcased the festival's later iterations, Kenny's Castaways, no longer exists at all. But now its 10th year, Winter Jazzfest is stronger than ever, having grown from a one-day marathon at The Knit to five days of shows at a staggering 10 venues (including Judson Church, above), all nearly overflowing with eager patrons by 8:00 p.m. It shows that—despite the dire straits forecasted for jazz/improvised music, and the shifting geo-economic landscape that has turned NYC into a warzone between art and commerce—there is still a growing fervor to see new, challenging music performed live.
There were several wonderful picks to listen to Friday night, spanning both age range and style.
Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio, (le) Poisson Rouge
The newly minted recipient of last year's coveted Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, Aldana doesn't play like a competition winner—she plays like a storyteller. Despite her young age, the Chilean tenor player has made both justifiable and interesting use of the classic "chordless" trio, both as a composer and improvisor. The harmony provided by Aldana's sax and Pablo Menare's bass floated and turned together, creating swirling, lightly dancing music that was at home as much with Sonny Rollins as it was with South American music. The music told stories in episodes; it would pause, diverge, breathe, and then go back.
Aldana's playing recalls the sinewy, irregular soloing of tenorists like Mark Turner or Warne Marsh, but it's notably heavier, with a resonant low end. She soloed with the same thoughtful but intentioned power on her own music as she did with the classic Warren/Young standard "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." Drummer Fransisco Mela was a huge standout here as well; he had a dazzling pocket that used scratchy, deadened percussion pieces to move seamlessly from drum 'n' bass to NOLA-style snare stomps.
Ben Wendel Quartet, NYU Law
Saxophonist Ben Wendel's quartet, consisting of bassist Joe Sanders, pianist Gerald Clayton, and drummer Henry Cole, led off their set with Fiona Apple's "Regret," the kind of song choice usually reserved for the middle of a set. Wendel's take on modern-rock changes allowed for a dynamic ebb and flow of the music, ripping up and down but also favoring long, consonant tones that gave room to the rhythm section. Even more impressive was Wendel's orchestral arrangement of Michel Legrand's "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" starting off with the melody underscored by rich counterpoint, which then transformed into a triumphant rock exploration propelled by Cole's cavernous pocket and diverse bag of sounds.
Wendel is best known as a member of the genre-defining Kneebody, and one of that band's newest selections, "Still Play," benefited from happy and expansive interpretations by the quartet, with Sanders and Clayton making the most of their acoustic prowess. The sole piece originally conceived for this band, "Jean and Renata," featured Wendel's irregularly sloping patterns and Clayton's restlessly contained phrases.
Gary Bartz Quartet, Groove
In the course of their 45-minute set at the diminutive Groove Music Bar, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and his current working group (Barney McAll on keys, James King on bass, and Greg Bandy on drums) made sure he exhibited all they could do. The very first cut, "Uranus," had a head that almost felt like four combined into one—a long-traveled bebop/post-bop/modal excision. Bartz, in his elder statesmen wisdom, managed to make unifying sense of it all, covering every aspect in an elegant and hard-swung style.
Sidney Bechet's "Si Tu Vois Ma Mere" had a footloose-and-fancy-free sort of jaunt, bookended by a warm, generous take on the melody. But Bartz also showed he still has ferocity in him, dragging dissonant, assertive motifs in unlikely places.
The rhythm section had their moment of fortitude on the quartet's cover of Michael Jackson's "Can't Help It." The groove was crackling every which way, topping itself to go harder after every iteration. McCall's biggest moment was found here: While Bartz was exploding in unexpected moments, McCall looked at every aspect of the melody and scattered it out like a diamond cutter.
Lionel Loueke/Jeff "Tain" Watts Duo, (le) Poisson Rouge
Guitarist Lionel Loueke is a percussive player in his own right, so to pair him with a drummer like Jeff "Tain" Watts made for a thoroughly enjoyable discourse on rhythm. Loueke has a stacked arsenal—pinch harmonics, pops, scratches, Spanish-style upper flourishes, gurgling bass lines—and they all danced around Watts, who, through a good chunk of the set, was content to eschew flash in pursuit of the deepest groove he could muster.
Loueke and Watts, in an ostensibly improvised set, also found some time and space to create separate passages, winding down into slow jam grooves before picking back up. The duo's deconstructed take on the songbook staple "How Deep Is the Ocean" found Loueke ripping apart each segment of the melody and using the pieces to create a whole new tapestry of sounds, moving as fast or slow as he wanted, making new Tangram-like shapes.
Roomful of Teeth, Judson Church
It's been a banner year for Roomful of Teeth, the broad ranging vocal octet whose debut album (New Amsterdam) has garnered numerous awards, not the least being Caroline Shaw's Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for 8 Voices. Music Director Brad Wells MC'd the group's set at Judson Church, which included works by Bill Brittelle, Judd Greenstein, and Merrill Garbus (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs), as well as Wells himself.
All of the works sounded, but the electricity in the room shot up when it came time to perform the "Allemande" and "Courante" from Caroline's Partita. This was the first chance I'd had to hear it performed live, and I was immediately aware that I was in the presence of something remarkable, with its dramatic arc and multiple effects. Caroline, who sings alto in the group, told me afterwards that she was happy with how it sounded. "We've gotten a lot better!" she said, laughing.
Next up for Roomful of Teeth is a trip to L.A. at the end of the month to perform at the Grammys, and hopefully bring home some awards (they've been nominated for three). And, word has it that there will be another NYC Teeth performance later this year at a certain uptown performing arts center; stay tuned for details.
Roy Hargrove Quintet, (le) Poisson Rouge
As WBGO's Josh Jackson introduced trumpeter Roy Hargrove Friday night at LPR, he made note of the fact that while most peformers come to Winter Jazzfest get discovered, "this man needs no introduction." A veteran of the scene for more than 20 years—I first saw Hargrove at the Vanguard way back in 1992—Hargrove still exudes youthful exuberance, wearing a mohawk and Nike hightops with his crisply tailored suit.
Hargrove and his longtime quintet (Justin Robinson, alto; Sullivan Fortner, piano; Ameen Saleem, bass; Quincy Phillips, drums) ripped through an hour-long set that covered all the bases, including Hargrove himself singing a bit of Cole Porter. For all of the wild, experimental sounds floating around this 10th edition of Winter Jazzfest, this was just straight up brilliance.
More pics on the photo page.