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.
A similarly piquant set was happening up north at the freshly-revived Webster Hall with Joey Alexander’s trio. Astute audiences (and really, anyone with working ears) know by now to not treat the 16-year-old pianist like a kid anymore, but the two most crucial people in that room refusing the kids’ gloves were his bandmates. Bassist Kris Funn and drummer Kendrick Scott took no issue with throwing off-kilter rhythmic jabs within everything from Alexander’s sunny originals to a blistering rendition of Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge” and Alexander never faltered. Alexander’s sense of stylistic diversity has been growing exponentially, and he showed off everything from gospel pop to bouncy rumba, McCoy Tyner to Herbie Hancock, shoving the music into new harmonic spaces only to artfully pull it back to center moments later.
Maturity does not merely manifest in verbosity, however. The trombonist Kalia Vandever, as exhibited with her quintet at the new Zurcher Gallery space, showed off a remarkable and artful refusal of the played-out, overstuffed jitteriness of young musicians, instead favoring the much more difficult job of playing only the notes that truly matter, blending her dark, burnished sound into unhurried and unconventional clusters and folding them into the total sound of the band. Vandever’s music had shades of the frenetic and folky NYC “No Wave” musicians, a midway point between the brood of indie rock and the restless freedom of musicians like Paul Motian, particularly showcased in a virtuosic and dynamic interlude by bassist Nick Dunston that bounded guitar-esque double stops, cello-like invention and free jazz bravado together into one unified sound.
In a stuffed LPR, Mark Giuliana had brought familiar collaborators together for a simultaneously dominant and thoughtful quintet performance. Similar to Pukl’s band, Guiliana’s well-documented flexibility with dizzying polyrhythms augment rather than disrupt the inherent beauty in his music. This was especially true with vocalist Gretchen Parlato, who did nimble and lovely renditions of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly” and the posthumous David Bowie piece “No Plan” (the latter artist famously including Giuliana on his last living release).
A clear highlight of the evening was vocalist Michael Mayo. It became extremely apparent about 45 seconds into his tragically YouTube-only piece “20/20” that he was something to behold when an attractive but otherwise unassuming neo-soul song goes straight to Mars with a series of impossibly-accurate spider crawls across wide, color-shifting intervals. Mayo’s ears, technique and taste felt like another milestone in what’s possible for vocal performance in a jazz landscape - a blend of improvisation schools, effective technological augmentation (he used a harmonizer sparingly enough for it to matter) and even a nod to “jazz” lineage with a playful but adroit solo voice build on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”. With very few recorded examples of his talents, Mayo is someone to pay attention to and a perfect example of what WJF is all about.