by Steven Pisano and Pete Matthews
The 4th Annual BRIC JazzFest returned this past weekend to the BRIC House in downtown Brooklyn, with some 24 musical acts over three "marathon" nights, each lasting more than 4-1/2 hours. With their biggest lineup yet, all three nights were completely sold out, leaving people begging tickets at the door. Acts included everything from cabaret to big band, from horn-heavy ear blasting to quiet introspective noodling. And, with three stages going more or less simultaneously, if the music on one stage wasn't doing it for you, you could just go next door.
One of the best things about the BRIC JazzFest is getting to know new faces in the jazz world, and such was the case with alto player Lakecia Benjamin (pictured above), who kicked things off on the mainstage Thursday night. Benjamin is an extremely capable musician, known for her work as a side-woman with Gregory Porter, Stevie Wonder, and Alicia Keys. But with her own group, SoulSquad, Benjamin's outsized, ebullient personality hits you square in between the eyes. Blending James Brown-style funk with straight-up jazz, she had the whole room clapping along.
For my money, the best shows of the night were in the intimate Artist Studio, with seating for 50 and room for another 30 or so standees. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen had me completely transfixed with his hard bop virtuosity, spiraling up into ever-more ecstatic flights of improvisation.
It's probably no surprise that Madison McFerrin - daughter of Bobby - would choose to make a career using her voice. And, like her father, she does so without any accompaniment other than a looping pedal, allowing her to sing over various iterations of her own mutable voice. With a light feminist snark that was more endearing than off-putting, she got the whole audience to sing along to her single "Shine", written in the aftermath of her disastrous rendition of the National Anthem at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. ("Don't ignore your shine/You know you'll be fine.")
Meanwhile, in the Ballroom, vibraphonist Stefon Harris lit things up with his band Blackout, with a special appearance by keyboardist Casey Benjamin. Harris, who in addition to being an in-demand performer is the Director of Jazz Arts at the Manhattan School of Music, interspersed his playing with earnest, sincere observations on the power music has to give voice to our personal histories and political concerns.
Closing out the night was trumpeter Christian Scott - or, as he now asks to be called, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah. Scott is unquestionably a musician of prodigious talent, not to mention his smoldering alpha-male charisma. Unfortunately, he chose to use much of his set (at least, what I saw of it) to express his rambling political views, rather than play. Not the sort of thing one wants to listen to once the clock moves past midnight.
Night two kicked off with the Dominican flavorings of Yasser Tejeda & Palotre on the Stoop, a set of steps separating the main gallery at BRIC from the lower-level recording studios. Tejeda, an accomplished guitarist, led the band in an easy going, dance-oriented set that was more simmering than fiery.
At the same time, over in the Artist Studio, Michael Sarian & the Chabones (roughly an Argentinian term for "dude") were blowing up a storm on trumpets, saxophones, and flugelhorn. The rhythm section was prominent, and the room was shaking.
Across the hall in the Ballroom, trumpeter and vocalist Keyon Harrold was holding court over a large, enthusiastic audience, surrounded by a sizable band including the great saxophonist Marcus Strickland. Harrold made a strong impression not only because of his impassioned trumpet playing, but his ability to connect with the audience. He spoke about having been born in Ferguson, Missouri - site of the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown and subsequent riots - then played a new piece commissioned by BRIC about "tearing down the walls that separate people so they can live together in peace."
Next up was Xenia Rubinos, a high-voltage singer who also did part-time duty on a keyboard. Not easily categorizable from song to song--a little bit of jazz, a little bit of funk, a little bit of Latin--she exploded with energy throughout the set.
Changing the tone entirely was fusion folk star Meshell Ndegeocello, who entered onto a dim stage, then asked to have the lights brought down even lower, such that she and her small band were difficult to discern in the murk. What was clear was the soft and sincere styling of her own songs and select covers, including a hypnotic version of Leonard Cohen's "Suzanne."
The closing night of the festival was perhaps the most diverse, most successful overall program. Opening up the night with a bang was the groove-based collective Freelance, which rolled out some rollicking pieces. Originally from the Boston area, the members of the band, including guitarist Yasser Tejeda, went to the Berklee College of Music together.
Following them on the Stoop was Arnetta Johnson and SUNNY. Johnson, another Berklee alum, plays a searing trumpet.
A much different vibe was going on just down the hall where Israeli-born, New York-based Noa Fort at the piano led a small combo that might have been at home in a hotel lounge, playing a mix of jazz and classical pieces, with Fort accompanying herself on vocals.
Anyone who stayed on in the Artist Studio, however, was in for a shock when the group Tongues in Trees took the stage. Featuring Samita Sinha on vocals, Grey McMurray on guitar, and Sunny Jain on drums, the music was a bit Indian in flavor, a bit performance-art in style, and a bit strange overall, at least compared to the other acts in the festival. McMurray, a mainstay of the NYC new music scene, played guitar as if its' electric current was running through his body. That said, the sounds he extracted were amazing.
A complete 180-degree turn was taken yet again when the traditional stylings of Kat Edmonson followed immediately after. Edmonson sings in a high-pitched pixie voice similar to the great Blossom Dearie, and she'd be right at home at classic cabarets like Café Carlyle or 54 Below. Although Edmonson's songs sound like standards, they're, amazingly, all originals. In introducing one of her songs, Edmonson explained that she had just gone through a bad break-up, and was sitting in her car about to go underwear shopping (because that's what you do after a break-up to feel better about yourself). She said the song just came to her in the car, so she wrote it down, and in the process got so distracted that she never made it into the store.
Across in the Ballroom, the night was all big names and big music. Starting off the night was soul and R&B songstress Deva Mahal, daughter of the legendary Taj Mahal, who wore a geodesic-looking crown. A Brooklyn native, she has a powerhouse voice, and makes you feel like she could eat you for dinner. At the same time, she seemed to grow a bit distracted at times, and brought the flame down so low on a couple of songs that the fire sputtered out. She was most touching when she talked about how hard it is to be a musician on tour (she heads to Europe next month), but stays grounded by carrying around the people she loves inside her.
Next up was the large band Brownout, which was commissioned last year to create a musical version of Public Enemy's 1991 classic album, Fear of a Black Planet (here retitled Fear of a Brown Planet). The marriage of classic big band, Latin funk, and rap (but without any singing) was irresistible. The horn section in particular was a knockout.
That could have been the capping moment of the festival, but there was still one final: trumpeter Terence Blanchard, featuring The E-Collective. Blanchard became well-known for his work on some Spike Lee projects, but his bona fides date back to his time with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (which is as solid as they come). Blanchard's trumpet playing was expectedly peerless, though it wasn't your typical bleating, tooting trumpet playing. It was very much his own long, slow, smoldering style. The biggest surprise of the set, though, was how much time he gave over to guitarist Charles Altura and pianist Fabian Almazan, who made the most of the spotlight with their magnetic, blissed-out solos.
More photos can be found on the photo page: