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January 2020

Winter Jazzfest Brooklyn Half-Marathon

 

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Keyon Harrold

 by Dan Lehner

It’s hard to believe, 16 years in and with improvised music culture consistently moving out of Manhattan, that this was Winter Jazzfest’s first foray into Brooklyn, but the Williamsburg/Bushwick terrain felt instantly home and welcoming for a shorter, less expansive, but no less engaging “half-marathon” of performances. The Bushwick venues required a train ride, but the Williamsburg venues were refreshingly close to each other and spacious, making the process accessible and relaxed. 

Though he might be a thoroughly cliche examples of a jazz musician, there aren’t actually a lot of trumpet players who genuinely seem to channel the spirit of Miles Davis, but Keyon Harrold is a notable exception. Harrold’s set at Rough Trade bore some of the hallmarks of the Prince of Darkness - sly and pointed upward climbs, heated and ringing single notes, a sort of devotional energy and rock n’ roll bravado - but with a wide and twisty harmonic palette and 21st century technological attitudes. Harrold even cribbed a little bit of Davis’s wry pop-melodicism, peppering originals with quotes from old classics like “My Favorite Things” and newer classics like OutKast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious”. Not to be boxed in the past though, Harrold ended his set with a blistering rendition of Childish Gambino’s 2018 song “This is America”, translating the unmelodicized trap chorus into a punchy, searing statement.

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Mid-afternoon Caroline Polachek Solo Set at Rough Trade

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Veritable indie pop darling Caroline Polachek delivered a warm and inviting set at Rough Trade on Sunday, replete with pre-arranged and off-the-cuff piano arrangements from her latest release, Pang.

The show–which was free and open to the public in conjunction with a record signing event—was packed to the brim, so much so that half way through the show Ms. Polachek invited folks to sit up on the stage in order to make more room for the people hovering by the entrance of the venue. This gesture was emblematic of the generosity and casual candor of the artist, who commiserated with the crowd on everything from being hungover, to the power of a cappella group singing. This concern for her audience would be less remarkable from someone newer to the music scene, not from an artist with songwriting credits for superstars like Beyoncé and Travis Scott, not to mention Billboard 200 hits of her own.

The mid-afternoon show featured tracks like “So Hot You’re Hurting my Feelings,” “Door,” and audience requests like “Hit me Where It Hurts,” demonstrating flexibility from her set list written on a coffee filter. The improvised arrangement for “Hit me Where It hurts” turned out beautifully, once someone from the audience was able to answer what key the song was in, and despite her self-deprecating caveats. Highlighting her power as both a songstress and musician, her solo performance delivered everything one could want from an indie-pop act, both substantive and inclusive.

In her almost two decades on the scene, Polachek has been a founding member of the band Chairlift, and has two prior solo albums: the self-produced Arcadia, (produced under the moniker "Ramona Lisa"), and Drawing the Target Around the Arrow (under her initials CEP). Pang will be Polachek's first studio album under her full name, yet it holds to the same vulnerable themes of unlucky love and missed connections that have established her as a synth-pop stable with staying power.


Winter Jazzfest Marathon - Saturday

by Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews

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Greg Osby and Lakecia Benjamin at Le Poisson Rouge

A warm Friday gave way to an even warmer Saturday - making Winter Jazzfest seem almost like Spring Jazzfest, encouraging causal wandering between venues and neighborhoods. Fortunately for attendees, there were plenty of reasons to get out of their comfort zones (literally and physically) to check out what each venue had to offer. 

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L-R: Matt Brewer, Steve Lehman, Damion Reid

Starting at Zinc Bar, saxophonist Steve Lehman’s trio with bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Damion Reid is well-known for its icy precision, darting between the cracks of rhythm and harmony. But the addition of pianist Craig Taborn opened up even further dimensions to Lehman’s aesthetic map. Taborn countered Lehman’s intensity with a certain softness, allowing Lehman’s microtonalities to become even more pronounced, and he even seemed emboldened by the piano’s presence to round out some of the hardcore edges. Nevertheless, velocity was still the name of the game in Lehman’s group, the group’s energy bounding and stopping on a dime, through Lehman’s originals and one particular burning version of Kurt Rosenwinkel’s “A Shifting Design.”

 

Helen Sung Winter Jazzfest 2020
Helen Sung and Kush Abadey

Over at The Dance, Helen Sung was trying out a new configuration as well with her “Sung With Words” project. Not only was this a new instance for the acclaimed pianist to work with vocals (in this case, the adept and nimble Christie Dashiell) but also to adapt pre-existing text - in this instance, the poetry of former NEA chair Dana Gioia. Giving the audience a preview of the poem first, Sung's adaptations were diverse and layered; interpolations of the text would sometimes be in full, Mingusian avant-blues song form, sometimes reduced to the hush of single notes and cymbal scrapes. The musical landscape was, on its own, intricate enough - Sung utilized saxophonist Steve Wilson not only as a solo voice, but as a harmonic technique, locking in with right hand piano lines in unexpected ways. Not to be left out of the fun, Sung even had Wilson and herself contribute lush background vocals for a tune, giving Dashiell's interpretations even more depth.

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Winter Jazzfest Marathon 2020 - Friday Recap

 

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Charles Altura, left; Jure Pukl, right

by Dan Lehner 

An unseasonable warm spell may have made for an odd environment for Winter Jazzfest this year, but encouraging people to not merely park themselves in one space always yields the best results. The landscape of WJF this year was sprawling but manageable (the festival no longer utilized the New School auditoriums but a series of relatively convenient galleries and performance spaces in NoHo and the villages) and there was plenty of reason to go wandering.

Jure Pukl kicked off an early set at The Dance (a new addition to the map) with a stimulating quintet set. Pukl’s music had a maximalist, go-for-broke inventive quality built around easy-to-latch-onto ideas, anchoring the ambition of its performers with a catchy ideas, preventing it from losing focus. A robust tenor player, Pukl made long ropes of dense harmonies through the range of his horn, but was also adroit at a melodic gentleness. The same can be said of his bandmates: vibraphonist Joel Ross did a tremendous job of coalescing exciting melodic ideas out of the knotty logic of Pukl’s music and guitarist Charles Altura nestled his wide swath of intervallic ideas within the scope of prettiness and taste.

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