By Dan Lehner
Winter Jazzfest’s famous marathon, a two-night musical expedition that lasts eight hours and stretches almost the entire width of Manhattan, had apparently become so popular that a third needed to be added to sate the voracious appetite of New York creative music fans. No less crowded than the full marathon has been - and likely will be when it returns next weekend - fans packed into clubs and performances spaces along Bleecker St hoping to grab a seat, or at least a window between heads, to see new acts and old favorites.
Ghost Train Orchestra’s reputation as a historicist band with modernist proclivities was in full effect during their tribute to one of New York’s most iconic and idiosyncratic composers: Louis Hardin (better known as Moondog). GTO’s episodic tribute to the Viking of Sixth Avenue brought to light the warm, approachable dualities of his Hardin's music: attractive melodies that seemed to belong to no one genre in particular, with themes that were approachable but buoyed by snaky polyrhythms and counterpoints. Horns, strings, vocalists and blocky percussion broke down barriers between indie rock, Native American music and bucolic American classical, with particular stylistic provinces supplied by the exuberant avant-rockisms of guitarist Brandon Seabrook and the probing, history-laden soloing of clarinetist Dennis Lichtman.
Pianist Marta Sanchez’s music was a similar dance between the complex and the simple. Sanchez was both sensitive and spry in her solo development, setting themes into forward motion but darting in delightfully unexpected ways. Her compositions, particularly the way her band performed them, also had the same sort of layered development, with tunes like “Cascadas” wringing all the tricky underlying rhythmic subdivisions of 3/4 time and soloists like Jerome Sabbagh soloing around the melody to let the band envelop him. Much of the material was brought to life in particular by drummer Daniel Dor, milking different rhythmic and stylistic possibilities and squaring the often spiky and complex counterpoint of Sanchez’s music with it’s gentleness.
Leyla McCalla’s set at The Bitter End was a deeply personal one, lyrically drawing inspiration from Syria to capitalism to lead levels in her daughter’s blood, but one delivered in an enticing musical pluralism. Switching roles as a banjoist, cellist and guitarist, she and her band told stories in the languages of Bessie Smith blues, guitar-driven art rock, Haitian folk rhythms and dipping its toes into ska-esque island pop musics. McCalla’s relation to a “jazz” festival is an important and oft-overlooked one: a modern artist that draws from the folkloric and storytelling traditions of the American and Carribean afro-diaspora.
Storytelling and political history came into play (albeit quite differently) at Theo Bleckmann and The Westerlies’ set at SubCulture. The collaboration between brass quartet and vocalist emphasized the strengths of each participant - notably Bleckmann’s impeccable diction and clarion tone quality alongside The Westerlies’ acute sense of harmonic invention - brought together under the banner of songs about refuge and resistance. In contrast to McCalla’s purely personal approach, the quintet drew from vast stylistic and historical sources, performing gorgeous originals like Bleckmann’s Pulse-shooting-inspired “Another Holiday”, but also Joni Mitchell, a garment worker’s anthem, the actual text FDR’s Japanese-interning executive order and Woody Guthrie song as a 20th century beer hall anthem. Not merely a programmatic exercise, the vocalist and brass quartet combined the former’s haunting, effects-laden soundscapes and the latter’s kinetic sense of harmonic motion to create a truly unique sonic event.
The stories told by saxophonist Melissa Aldana and her band during her set were purely instrumental ones, but were no less powerful. “La Madrina”, a selection from a Jazz Gallery commission about Frida Kahlo, built emotional and sometimes deliriously complex suites befitting of the late Mexican painter. The rest of Aldana’s compositions showcased the Santiagan tenor player’s tremendous might as an improviser; her sense of rhythm and harmony gave her the ability to play melodies at just about any speed and level of complexity. Her compatriots’ contributions were no meager entries either; vibraphonist Joel Ross’s amazing sense of voice-leading (expanding thematic development from both sides of his lines) and pianist Micah Thomas’s wicked sense of dramatic intensity made for a fiery and collaboratively stunning group performance.
Despite having far fewer members, there was no less drama and dynamicism between pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Both Cuban musicians of enormous regard and deep musical wells, the duo made potent and traversing musical statements over the course of their set. Though armed with a plethora of music-making devices - Rodriguez with a vocoder/synth set up atop his piano and Martinez with a splendor of congos, bata drums, cymbals and snares - it was mostly their seemingly limitless abilities as musicians, performers of everything from American songbook jazz to electronic Cuban folkloric music to funk, that made the duo so powerful. Their sensitivity to each other’s performance was a key part of its success: Martinez’s conga playing could be almost shockingly sensitive, whereas Rodriguez was more than happy to abandon his classical adroitness from something significantly gutsier. Duos like these, the excuse for two musicians of such heightened persuasion to try some things out, is just one of the reasons why Winter Jazzfest has had such a staying power over the years.