Winter Jazzfest: Nicole Mitchell's Black Earth Ensemble at Le Poisson Rouge
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra with Daniele Gatti at Carnegie Hall

Winter Jazzfest: Wadada Leo Smith and Deerhoof, with Nicole Mitchell's Maroon Cloud

by Dan Lehner

Wadada Leo Smith and Deerhoof - Winter Jazzfest 2018It's often hard to see the forest for the trees at an event like Winter Jazzfest. WJF has set itself apart from other jazz festivals through its expansiveness, its large physical presence, and its commitment to inclusion and social justice. But, it can at times be difficult to know just what kind of person the festival is really for. There's no 100% definitive answer - any good jazz festival is pluralistic by nature - but last night's festival finale at Le Poisson Rouge might have given the closest indication.

The musical intersection of Bay Area experimental indie-pop veterans Deerhoof and Mississippi-born avant-garde jazz sound painter Wadada Leo Smith, in tandem with an audience who enthusiastically embraced both, felt like it belonged right at the heart of a festival that uses its energy to shatter both genre and generation boundaries and relentlessly asks the question, "What if?"

Deerhoof's sonic milieu regularly runs the gamut from riff-laden UK garage rock to aggressively wobbly free jazz - sometimes in the same 30 second span - and true to form, they blazed through a set of cheery, noisy, disorienting and catchy music with ease and gusto. The real interest, though, was where the band found common stylistic and improvisational ground with Smith. The most immediately apparent similarity is that Smith and Deerhoof had a knack for turning simple, even beautiful melodic lines into something more adventurous with a simple directional or stylistic turn. Smith's subtle strains and muted note rips would compliment the pinched harmonics and stuttering effects of Dietrich and Rodriguez's guitars, and he would complement their more droning moments with low, expressive trumpet tones.

Apparently operating on no real rehearsal, Smith, thanks to decades of improvisational intuition, quickly found space within the compositions to contribute. He could be extremely pretty in his melodies, floating along in the spaces of Deerhoof's quiet moments, but in punchier stop-time moments, he would sound similar to 70's era Miles Davis, using the gaps to smear a fiery line into the space. There were a few brief moments of struggle (Smith appeared, at one point, to signal for a rhythmic riff that the band was probably not within their element to reproduce), but for the majority of the time, Smith found the perfect accompaniment to Deerhoof's wide-ranging and abruptly shifting brand of indie rock, proving the timelessness and elasticity of an under-appreciated generation of free improvising pioneers.

The night began with a fantastic performance from WJF '18 artist-in-residence Nicole Mitchell's Maroon Cloud quartet. Mitchell's writing has a Mingus-ian approach to weaving hard-worn, Afrocentric blues and spoken word into 12-tone classical and free improvisation; sections would evolve from sometimes apocalyptic, sometimes darkly beautiful interwoven melodies into textural improvisation and back, shaped around vocalist Fay Victor's darting mixture of from-the-gut soul and a complex roster of vocal sounds. No single member of the quartet served any static role, as both improvised and written sections would rise and fall together, single lines would split off in duos and full-band writing would slowly become embellished in improvisational textures. Mitchell herself was a major highlight as an instrumentalist, showing off her accomplished and personalized flute skills with rapid, spidery lines, multiphonics, and interspersing played lines with sung interjections. 

That's a wrap for the 2018 Winter Jazz Festival! Links below to our other coverage: