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.
Another group right on the edge of contemporary music making, L’Rain, played a strong, controlled-but-loose set at Music Hall of Williamsburg. L’Rain’s music captured the echoey, downtempo energy of late-2010’s guitar soul of musicians like Frank Ocean and Steve Lacey, but with a series of sharp edges - axis-titling harmonic shifts, chopped vocal samples and outright free jazz sound storms drifted in and out like vivid lucid dreams. Underneath the Kaoss samples and harmonized sax colors was a vulnerable-but-confident emotional appeal - L’Rain mixed in spoken intonations and a kind of sardonic laughter in between melodies, a raw, genuine human element.
It was pleasantly surprising to see the vocal elements continue through the night back at Rough Trade, where Ben Williams - apparently not content with just being one of the world’s most beloved jazz bassists - showed off his formidable singing voice with his “I Am A Man” project. Inspired by the Memphis Sanitation Worker’s strike, William’s project recalled a late-60’s/early 70’s pan-Black American Music aesthetic, drawing emotional and optimistic influence from the effervescent soul of Marvin Gaye to the regal devotions of Pharaoh Sanders. Williams still had plenty of instances to show off his chops, skating through the whole range of his double bass with the Coltrane-like strength and content to lay deep in the pockets of his electric, supporting the energy of his bandmates.
Capping off the night at Rough Trade, someone similarly equipped with a from-vintage-to-the-future sensibility, was vocalist J. Hoard. The only thing Hoard had more in ample availability than his razor-sharp vocal accuracy was his radiant enthusiasm - every note, run and melody he sang didn’t come out of his mouth so much as it radiated out of the entire topography of his body. Hoard’s music had a gospel heart with a vigorous secular music spirit - he oscillated between tenderness and grandiosity within a matter of measures. Hoard’s strength also lay in his equal-opportunity musical affections; he was equally reverent toward pop covers as he was with standards, blazing through a metrically-shifting rendition of Celine Dion’s “That’s the Way It Is” then kneeling to give tender renditions of standards like “My Foolish Heart”, an artist everyone needs to have on their radar.