by Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews
Winter finally reared its adversarial head for last weekend’s Winter Jazzfest, which was incredibly celebrating its 15th year. The bitter cold may have deterred some would-be last minute attendees, but the bulk still huddled in increasingly lengthening lines to hear some of the world’s best and freshest jazz and creative music. The oldest, most platonic form of WJF, the marathon - now taking on an almost literal dimension - had attendees running up-and-across town to catch whatever they could get into.
Friday night kicked off with local jazz radio stalwart WBGO's 40th birthday party at SOB's. After an opening set by up-and-coming singer Alina Engibaryan, guitar virtuoso Kurt Rosenwinkel took the stage with his quartet (Taylor Eigsti on piano, Ugonna Okegwo on bass and Jason Brown on drums.) Rosenwinkel stayed onstage to play alongside "DJ Brother Mister" (aka, Christian McBride), who indulged his fetish for old school funk by spinning records while simultaneously strumming an electric bass. The crowd readily obliged McBride's invitation to get up and dance.
"Don't let me catch you standing there looking at me," McBride shouted. "It's a dance party!"
About a mile east across Houston Street, Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life played to a packed Mercury Lounge. Straddling the divide between jazz, soul, and spaced out electronica, Strickland - who alternated between tenor saxophone and bass clarinet - was joined by Mitch Henry on keyboards, Kyle Miles on bass, Charles Haynes on drums, and special guest Keyon Harrold, one of the more dynamic trumpeters to emerge on the scene in the past few years.
Of all of the homogeneous instrumental duo combinations, piano duos are often some of the trickiest to pull off. A pianist’s individual “sound” is dictated by much subtler touches and techniques than, say, a saxophonist’s, and without careful attention, the four hands can get muddled together. Fortunately, Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer had the boldness and sensitivity to make it sparkle. In an unbroken, ostensibly free-improvised set on Saturday at Le Poisson Rouge, Taborn and Iyer would swirl together manifold colors - some gentle, some tempestuous - and dramatically unearth themes and palettes therein. The format brought out some of the pianists’ differences - the way that Iyer often volleys irregular, medium-register shapes against low-register thumps, in contrast to Taborn’s more even-divided, intervallic style, but it also made evident how much the two have in common. There was a palpable funkiness to both their approaches, a sort of cyclical, Steve Coleman-esque rhythmic mode approach, as well as a pensiveness that contrasted the more intense moments.
While Iyer and Taborn were sussing out the incredible power of two, Lea Bertucci was making a strong case for the power of one. In another unbroken set at Soho Playhouse, Bertucci shifted gradually from affected alto saxophone textures to analog-made-digital tape sounds, building an aural monument towards the sky and then setting it back down. The saxophone build was a slow burn; Bertucci, in a sort of Morton Feldman style, added tones to a wall of sound often no quicker than one at a time, sometimes splitting notes in half to crack open overtones ripe for inclusion in the computer effects. Whereas the saxophone portion largely drew from tonal sources - referencing “conventional” harmony like suspended fourths resolving down - a tape recorder plugged into her rig was a concrete texture of animal and city sounds, gnashing in a audio stew where the distant sounds of church bells brought the piece to a close.
I had never heard of Finns Tuomo & Markus, who opened up the night over at SubCulture, but the crowd quickly warmed to their unique blend of prog rock, Sigur Rós, and space cowboy music, something they likely picked up during their time in the Arizona desert last year, where they recorded their debut album, Dead Circles. As with many outfits at Winter Jazzfest, Tuomo & Markus only fit within the broadest definition of "jazz," about which they were disarmingly apologetic.
"We're pushing the limits of what you can play at a jazz festival," Markus said. "But we're from Finland, so it's ok."
Close your eyes, and there wasn't anything provocative about trumpeter Bria Skonberg's Sisterhood of Swing, which started things off at the Sheen Center. It was just good, hot jazz, the kind you might expect to hear on Swing Street back in the day. But, open your eyes, and you were greeted by the sight of an all-woman big band, which was only remarkable in the sense that it wasn't at all. "We're like a one-stop shop for gender equality in jazz," Skonberg said, to loud cheers. Inspired by the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first integrated, all-female swing band from the 40's, the Sisterhood includes such top players as Sharel Cassity, Lakecia Benjamin, and Alexis Cole, among others.
There was a slow-burning energy present in Pocket Science’s performance, which followed at the Sheen Center. Pocket Science cribbed a lot from the 70’s Afro-centric jazz that its participants (particularly altoist Gary Bartz) were participatory in: devotional modal explorations, “global blues” duos with saxes, world flutes and sanzas and the permeating, souful vocals of mulit-instrumentalist Kahil El’Zabar throughout. Often without drum set (El’Zabar only played the kit a few times), the band’s rhythmic propulsiveness often lay with bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma, who had a restless, seemingly limitless library of walking, grooving and even vocal-like approaches to the electric bass. Bartz continued his legacy as a living legend of the music, playing both laconically inside and frenetically outside the harmony and pianist Robert Irving III made modernism out of soul jazz and gospel piano.
At Winter Jazzfest, the “Round Robin” - a continuous succession of duo and solo performances - is usually based around completely free improvisation, so it was a big departure of form to have it be based around not only a pre-existing release, but one that’s a reintepretation of the most pored-over pop album in the last 50+ years: “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. Kicked off by a sufficiently trippy short film, scored by a electronic remix of the album’s title track accompanied with virtuosic aplomb by drummer Mark Giuliana, the template of “Sgt. Pepper’s” gave ample material (both in form and spirit) for a crop of improvisers: strong, culturally-rich songwriting driven by forward-thinking technical innovation. Now that musicians are more technologically advanced than ever (remember how they say your phone is more advanced than the Apollo mission? Well, you can now put 1967 Abbey Road in a pedal board), musicians like Liberty Ellman and Makaya McCraven had the freedom to flesh out and chop up favorites like “With a Little Help From My Friends” and “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” in the styles of modern jazz and beat science.
Each musician was perfectly cast to cover a stylistic knack of The Beatles’ adventurism: Brandee Younger’s harp enveloped the circus effects of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, Clark Gayton’s muted and affected trombone mimicked the Indian textures of “Within and Without You” and Matthew Whitaker brought stride stylings to “When I’m 64”. The closing - “A Day in the Life” performed by the millennial quartet The Juju Exchange, helmed by rising trumpeter/producer Nico Segal - was a fitting end: the marking of a new era of standards as performed by younger musicians, continuing the cycle as it always has.
It took nearly an hour to get into Bowery Ballroom, but it was worth the wait for the Roy Hargrove tribute, featuring members of his former band (Justin Robinson, Tadataka Unno, Ameen Saleem, Quincy Philips, and vocalist Renee Neufville). Apparently, this was the WJF slot that Roy himself was supposed to fill before his untimely death this past November, and the room was spinning with joy, especially when the band broke into Roy's standard "Strasbourg/St. Denis." It was a fitting celebration of Roy's many contributions to this scene, always looking forward, with an appreciation of the past. (This was the second Roy tribute of the week, following Jazz at Lincoln Center's 5 hour blowout on Wednesday.)
I tried to stick around for the Chris Dave & The Drumheadz show with Thundercat, but by the time 1:30am rolled around with no band in sight, I decided I'd had enough of a good thing. Until next year.