By Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews
Night two of the 2018 Winter Jazzfest Marathon began in the intimate fifth floor theater at The New School, where a crack team of trombonists were paying homage to the uniquely blithe and expressive spirit of Roswell Rudd. Art Baron honored Rudd's famously potent physical presence by "sanctifying" the room, facing each of the four walls and blessing them with little music segments, before launching into a sweet, genuine, plunger-and-pixie mute rendition of Ellington's "I Got it Bad". Brian Drye honored Rudd with his original "For Roswell", a gentle, folkish tune embellished with multiphonics and little mouth pops and swishes, ending with "Pannonica" (a nod to the Roswell Rudd/Steve Lacy recordings of Monk tunes). Josh Roseman's performance recalled some of his playing on his own "Treats for the Nightwalker", imbued with dubby wah's and hisses through a Harmon mute, and seemed to relate closely to Rudd's later work in the realm of world music.
By its very nature, a tribute to the music of Dr. Dre is also a celebration of Parliament Funkadelic, Labi Siffre, David McCallum, David Axelrod, and dozens of other crate-dug favorites. In this way, "The Invisible Man", Sylvester "Sly5thAve" Onyejiaka's tribute to the legendary producer at Bowery Ballroom, was an almost folkloric exploration of the revolutionary power with which the simultaneously transparent and line-blurring practice of sampling has bewitched the world, translated into a powerful and supremely funky orchestra. Onyejiaka's arranging power spoke for itself (he has a highly deft feel for orchestration, some of which recalled the cinematic works of Bernard Herrmann and David Shire) as did his harmonically-expansive baritone sax playing. Not to be boxed into a written-only vibe, "The Invisible Man" featured several great soloists: saxophonists Andrew Gould and Jason Arce took turns burning through "No Diggety", percussionist Kofi Hunter merged complex Afro-Cuban bongo and Indian tabla rhythms, and singer Jimetta Rose brought a Shirley Bassey-level sense of bravado to her feature on "I'd Rather Be With You."
Antonio Sanchez Migration's set at (Le) Poisson Rouge was an environment of extremes. The band's energy, particularly the relationship between Sanchez and pianist/keyboardist John Escreet, could be almost frighteningly intense. Escreet threw down deeply distorted guitarist-like wails framed by complicated modern jazz runs, all the while propelled by Sanchez's particularly muscular breakbeats. But, Migration's set could also be extremely searching, with vocalist Thana Elexa guiding the band through a slow section with razor-precise vocalise. Despite the instrumental diversity and disparity, Migration was tethered together in many places, with Alexa and saxophonist/EWI-ist Chase Baird sharing fast melodies and long, keening improvisational wails.
At Subculture, Fred Hersch's Pocket Orchestra set was contemplative, quirky, and full of both sun and sadness. The unusual set up of piano, vocals, trumpet and percussion gave it a light, but not unserious touch that gave Hersch the freedom to move around in the harmony. Mike Rodriguez's trumpet had a bouncy, almost Louis Armstrong feel, while vocalist Aubrey Johnson was gentle yet endlessly nimble in matching with her upper melodies. Hardly all sunshine, the middle of the set contained an elegy for slain gay student Matthew Shepard - on the 20th anniversary year of his death - that felt like a long, disoriented dream. The most reliable highlight was one of Hersch's originals, a contrafact on the standard "You Stepped Out of a Dream" where his unaccompanied solo made careful classical constructions, implying and subverting meter along the way.
Trumpeter Nicholas Payton's Afro-Caribbean Mixtape project is an ambitious synthesis of jazz, funk, hip-hop and scholarship, tracing the various threads of the African-American experience through it's roots in Caribbean culture. Payton brought his liver version to S.O.B.'s, alternating between trumpet and keyboards while backed by bassist Vicente Archer, drummer Joe Dyson, and what must surely be the world's leading jazz turntablist, the deeply impressive DJ Lady Fingaz. As I tried vainly to stand my ground in the packed house, it struck me that this is what Winter Jazzfest is all about: pushing boundaries while staying rooted in tradition.
It isn't easy for foreign musicians to get gigs in this country due to the U.S.'s serpentine visa laws. So, it was a rare treat to hear an entire evening of French jazz at The Bitter End, presented by Paris Jazz Club. When I arrived, I was treated to a guest appearance by local favorite Becca Stevens, singing with the Guilhem Flouzat Trio. They were followed by a high energy set from Yacine Boularès' AJOYO project, blending Afropop with soul and straight-ahead jazz.
In a way, the Sun Ra Arkestra live-scoring "Space is the Place" almost felt like an steampunk affirmation of the film's Afro-Futurist ethos: a world where musical accompaniment to films is the not the business of organ players for white vaudeville pictures, but for radical black big bands accompanying experimental films. The Arkestra, led reliably as always by Marshall Allen on alto sax and EWI at the New School Tishman Auditorium, weaved through and embellished the eccentric and parabolic story of Sun Ra's messianic voyage to liberate the black people of Earth to farther galaxies, punctuated and accessorized with glittery space noise, risqué bump-and-grind swing and devotional sung melodies. Never one to be confined by any physical limitation, the Arkestra carried on the film's title track after the closing credits were rolling, walking up and down the aisles, helping close the night with the message that a better world - even one lightyears away - is possible.
Winter Jazzfest continues tonight and tomorrow at (Le) Poisson Rouge with Nicole Mitchell, Tyshawn Sorey, and a unique collaboration between Wadada Leo Smith and indie stalwarts Deerhoof. Tickets and info on the WJF website.
More pics on the photo page.