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The First Annual BRIC JazzFest Marathon

by Steven Pisano

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(All photos by Steven Pisano,)

If I had thought about it too much ahead of time, I probably would have stayed home. Five hours of nonstop jazz, on three stages, with overlapping start and finish times for each set. Instead, when I finally walked out of the first annual BRIC JazzFest Marathon - at nearly 12:30 in the morning - I was disappointed that the music wasn’t continuing on til dawn. 

During a week when the 35th CMJ Music Marathon, the 26th New York Cabaret Convention, and the start of the 6th White Light Festival at Lincoln Center all were in town at the same time, the idea of introducing yet another music festival seemed to be sheer lunacy. But jazz fans should rejoice—BRIC has established a new festival that is sure to be here for many years to come, destined to become just as much a fixture of the borough's musical scene as Celebrate Brooklyn (also run by BRIC).

Sometimes, a musician’s instrument has a special personality. It’s more or less the same hunk of metal or wood that you or I can buy at any music store, but certain musicians can draw out a special character in their instrument (think Miles Davis' trumpet, or B.B. King's guitar) that only he or she can evoke. 

Such is the case with Donny McCaslin and his saxophone. Nominated for a Grammy for his work as a sideman, as well with his own quartet, McCaslin’s sax has a big sound, infused with explosive rock energy. Fortunately, wherever McCaslin went with his playing, the other players followed, building pyramids of soaring sound. It was nothing short of exhilarating. 

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My body was still pulsating from McCaslin's set as I walked down the hall to the Artist Studio, where harpist Brandee Younger was holding court over a packed room fitted with cabaret tables. But, just because a harp is quieter than a tenor sax doesn't automatically mean that it's soothing. Instead, Younger was showing how a harp can rock out in much the same way as a piano. And when Younger wasn’t soloing, her saxophonist Chelsea Baratz strutted down front, commanding the room. Bass player Dezron Douglas made faces as he played, each pull of a string an emphatic musical statement.

At the end of the set, Ms. Younger played a solo rendition of Stevie Wonder’sIf It’s Magic,” which so beautifully nailed that masterpiece that a week later I am still humming it in my head. Mr. Wonder would have been amazed!

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Next door in the Ballroom, Brooklyn trio Dawn of Midi played primitive trancelike rhythms, which held the crowd mesmerized like a fire entrancing a tribe of cavemen. There was more minimalism to their sound than jazz, even though they had a traditional setup—Aakaash Israni on bass, Amino Belyamani on piano, Qasim Naqvi on drums. Their main focus was on aspects of rhythm, stripped down to the bare essentials. But unlike those minimalists who lean towards the cerebral, Dawn of Midi takes a visceral, organic approach. They go for the gut.

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Immediately following was Dessy Di Lauro, a singer from California who brought to the stage a polished, old-fashioned stage show meant to look like jazz shows from back in the 1930s and 1940s. DiLauro claimed to be following in the footsteps of Cab Calloway, whom I've always felt was more of a charismatic performer than a bona-fide musician. And the “Neo Ragtime Sound” that Di Lauro promotes felt just as phony. No one in the crowd was really biting; the biggest applause was for Joseph Wiggan, a tap dancer who stole the performance.

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Back at the Stoop, Ben Williams and Sound Effect played a quieter, more traditional type of jazz. Williams has won a number of awards as a bass player, and is clearly on the ascendant as a composer and bandleader. The members of his current quintet are all first rate, in particular Marcus Strickland on tenor and alto saxophones. Strickland, who played for years with drummer Roy Haynes, had some sublime solos.

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Nir Felder, who played next in the Artist's Studio, has already been hailed as “the next big jazz guitarist,” even if he does play a 20-year-old Stratocaster--not exactly an instrument identified with jazz. Felder has said in interviews that he grew up with rock, blues, and soul music as his basic musical diet, and it comes through in his music: a fusion of rock and jazz which was once a controversial marriage but is now just a fact of life. A special nod goes to pianist Kevin Hays, whose halting, expressive playing captivated the attention of the room each time he soloed, leaving Felder to wrest the room back from him.

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Back over on the Stoop, Takuya Kuroda blew soulful sounds on his trumpet, leading a sextet that included two keyboardists and the electric bass player Parker McCalister. McCalister spun out some long, delicious solos that so impressed the crowd, they almost didn’t want him to stop - much to the chagrin of the other horn players, who desperately wanted to get back into the mix. 

20151015-DSC_6219-2It fell to Kamasi Washington to bring the night to a close, and boy, did he ever! Washington has been in the press a lot this past year because of his solo work and arrangements on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, which has been acclaimed as one of the best hip hop albums in years. The Ballroom was packed, both on the floor and on stage, which was packed with about a dozen musicians. It was a soul-lifting, body-shaking, eye-opening, ear-waking set, with outstanding sax playing by Washington and Terrace Martin, trombone playing by Ryan Porter, and not one but two drummers, Ronald Bruner, Jr., and Tony Austin. Not to mention the extraordinary tour-de-force performance by upright bass player Miles Mosley on a piece called “Abraham” that I’ll remember for a very long time, conjuring a rainbow of different sounds. It was something to behold.  The entire set was like a sonic volcano erupting, with explosions and smoke and molten lava lighting up the night sky. And this went on for almost an hour and a half! (You can see a 16-minute clip here.)

When I finally walked out onto Fulton Street again and headed to the subway, all I could think was: I can’t wait to see how BRIC tops this next year!

(More photos from the marathon can be found here.)

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