by Dan Lehner and Pete Matthews
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.
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.”
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.
At Le Poisson Rouge, alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin assembled a who's-who of jazz luminaries for her ongoing John and Alice Coltrane project "Pursuance". In addition to fellow sax players Greg Osby (alto) and tenor Marcus Strickland (tenor), and violinist Regina Carter, there was an audible gasp in the room when she introduced Coltrane's own bassist Reggie Workman, 82, recently named a 2020 NEA Jazz Master. Together, they delivered a memorable, ecstatic performance of "Acknowledgement" and "Pursuance" from A Love Supreme.
Latin music, for all its numerous contributions to the jazz lineage, is often either left out of programming entirely or tokenized to include only the most historical sorts of projects, which is why it was so refreshing to see WJF program Cuban vocalist and bandleader Issac Delgado (leader of one of Cuba's most popular timba bands NG La Banda). Delgado's band was stacked like an orchestra but with the agility of a small group, weaving muli-layered horn lines through slick montunos and shout choruses. Delgado, at 57, was as rich as ever, commanding the same sort of rich vocal phrasing that exemplifies timba's compound pop and roots sensibilities. Delgado's band was equally exciting, featuring a heterogenous mixture of Cuban legends (like Cuban master trumpeter Elpidio Chappottin, grandnephew of the legendary Felix Chappottin) and young lions like Delgado's son, Issac Delgado, Jr.
For something extremely different, a never-before-seen configuration of drummer Mark Giuliana, keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre (the erstwhile rhythm section of saxophonist Donny McCaslin and core musicians for David Bowie's final album, Blackstar), known collectively as UNHOLY ROW, took the stage at The Dance. Whereas with Bowie and McCaslin this configuration may have leaned heavily on their rock and electronic predilections, with UNHOLY ROW they went full tilt. Thundering EDM breaks, glitchy synths and penetrating sub-bass all coalesced into long stretches of slowly evolving trances. Each member felt right at home in this more intense setting in their own unique way - Linder using the full range of synth set-up, Lefebvre alternating between woofing subs and funky bass melodies and Giuliana free to chop up the beat however he wanted. A group like this is, in essence, a core part of the WJF experience: a chance to see something unusual, extraordinary and before you can see it anywhere else.
Speaking of McCaslin, his own set over at S.O.B.'s was more garage than art rock (certainly not "jazz"), but McCaslin lit the stage up with his fiery tenor while Ryan Dahl contributed vocals and guitar, with backing organ, bass and drums. Driving, intense, head-bobbing music.
Finally at Zürcher Gallery, pianist and composer Uri Caine presented a chamber version of his ambitious oratorio "The Passion of Octavius Catto", named for the 19th century African-American abolitionist and voting rights advocate who was murdered on election day 1871. A fully composed suite, it was premiered in 2017 by the Philadelphia Orchestra. (The Boston Symphony will perform it in March with these same forces at Symphony Hall in Boston.) Besides Caine's own jazz trio and gospel choir, the performance was carried by the remarkable Barbara Walker, who sang, shouted, and passionately delivered several of Catto's speeches.
WJF continues this week with a series of one-off events including Artemis and Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom at LPR (1/13), Brazilian legend Seu Jorge at Town Hall (1/16), and the first-ever Brooklyn Marathon on Friday 1/17, with sets by Kneebody, Meshell Ndegeocello, Quantic and more across six venues in Williamsburg and Bushwick. Tickets - including marathon passes and single-venue tickets - available on the WJF website.
More pics on the photo page.