Winter JazzFest 2023 Returns to IRL Performance
by Dan Lehner, Mackenzie Horne and Pete Matthews
After two years of cancellations and virtual performances, Winter JazzFest - the annual smörgåsbord of jazz and other forward-thinking music that kicks off the NYC music calendar each year, triumphantly returned to in-person performance last week. With a full week of shows stretched out across 15 stages, the lineup was characteristically impressive, giving warhorses and new ensembles alike a chance to play before attentive, enthusiastic crowds. Suffice to say: despite all of the bullshit from the past three years, jazz is alive and well.
Here's a rundown of what we managed to see:
Thursday, Jan. 12: Avishai Cohen Quartet at Le Poisson Rouge
Not to be confused with the bassist by the same name (no relation), the NYC-based trumpeter performed his new album Naked Truth (ECM) straight through. Recorded in the south of France during the pandemic, the 9-part suite veered from hypnotic to jarring, erupting in a cascade of arpeggios before ending with a quiet meditation on death by Israeli poet Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky.
Cohen's set was part of a showcase primarily dedicated to French jazz musicians, produced by Paris Jazz Club and Paris radio station TSF Jazz.
Friday, Jan. 13: Manhattan Marathon
There was an understated but palpable sense of enthusiasm Friday night as the Marathon - WJF's signature event - kicked off across lower Manhattan. Fewer venues and a wider spread of locations - from Nublu on Ave. C to Jazz Gallery on 27th St. - meant that crowding was even more of an issue than in the past. (We never made it inside The Bitter End or Zinc Bar.) But, despite the long lines -- in seasonably-cold weather -- people seemed to take it in stride, just happy to have WJF back.
Miho Hazama kicked off the night over at City Winery with a kaleidoscopic circuitry of large ensemble sounds, weaving a melodic throughline in and out of styles and rhythms. Hazama’s group, outfitted with rhythm section, strings and an array of horns and woodwinds, walked a tightrope of lush and funky: careful orchestrations would carry over into breakbeats, spiky close saxophone harmonies would snap into clavé, soloists would appear out of thematic sections in Brookmeyerian fashion. The music was also evocatively visual; “A Monk Walking in Ascending and Descending”, a piece Hazama explained was inspired by M.C. Escher, really evoked its muse; stepwise lines would fall through harmonic trapdoors and sections would so seamlessly split off into different directions that “up” and “down” became delightfully hard to parse.
A smaller but no less inventive group, Adam O’Farrill’s “Stranger Days” played in the upstairs Loft. In the lineage of chordless quartets but without obvious stylistic similarities, the ensemble had refreshingly upended ways of creating engines for composition and improvisation. Trumpet and sax lines - sometimes solo, sometimes in harmonies so-close-without-touching they seemed to only feel each other’s body heat - set foundations for deep bass solos and intricate drum rhythms. Seemingly folky chord progressions would have melodies that unexpectedly dropped into low registers like a letter that fell off a billboard. O’Farrill and saxophonist Xavier Del Castillo were engaging but uncatchable soloists; the latter creating dense, harmonically-unpredictably cascades, the former engaging in sounds that seemed to come from post-bop sophistication but occasionally felt as raw as the earth itself, each conjuring ideas that seemed impossible to pinpoint from the surface of the music alone.
Back on the main stage, Ben Wendel showed himself to be an exploratory player, uninhibited by the existing language of jazz. Saddled with warbling, oceanic effects, his set was ambient and lush at the expense of his sprawling musical vocabulary and articulation. Longtime bandmates Taylor Eigsti (piano) and Harish Raghavan (bass) provided a foothold while Wendel and drummer Nate Wood springboarded off of their precipice. The listening experience was complex, challenging, and rewarding— a culmination of the spaces Wendel’s inhabited across his already-numerous musical lives.
Over at Le Poisson Rouge, spacier, more cyber-organic things were happening by way of Donny McCaslin’s quartet. Intermittently known as the “Casting for Gravity” band - and cemented into history as the supporting cast of David Bowie’s existential farewell release “Black Star” - it had been a little while since they played as an original unit, but seemed to come at their own sound more forcefully than ever. McCaslin’s music for the group pulsated with a dark swagger, much of the environment painted by keyboardist Jason Lindner, who assumed a niche role of both setting up but also diverting the energy with his synth arsenal. Compared to some of the more earthly pursuits, McCaslin’s role had an almost Darth Vader-ish quality - authoritatively wicked with cold command, “more machine now than man” as his ring-modulated tenor sounds were enveloped into the quartet’s electric badassery.
Following McCaslin, a very different type of group assembled: Joel Ross’s Parables. Ross, known as one of the scene’s premier young vibraphonists, showcased himself as a thoughtful bandleader and idea-organizer, gathering together a seated nonet of young improvisers that melded together the sort of quiet intensity you’d hear from a late-stage Andrew Hill ensemble with the spiritual optimism of someone like Pharaoh Sanders. Accessible melodic nodes would seem to exist in several places simultaneously, with no hard delineation of “solo sections'' or “heads”. The set persisted in a nearly-unbroken stream of woven-together pieces, punctuated by the ensemble fading away to give the horn soloists - some of the most visionary of their generation such as Maria Grand, Marquis Hill and Kalia Vandever - space to extrapolate on the themes by themselves. It was a remarkably mature way to end the night at LPR: a vote of confidence in the sensitivity of young musicians to go beyond show-offy bravado in pursuit of deeper meaning.
Back at City Winery, the newly-formed HERA Collective made their Winter Jazzfest debut. Saxophonist and bandleader Chelsea Baratz formed HERA as a petri dish for an internally-sustained female community. Vocalist Andromeda Turre, who served as the group’s MC, stated that HERA “is a place for every woman to wear her crown—because there’s a woman out there for every job.” Harpist Brandee Younger sat in for a performance of her composition “Respected Destroyer” (the title came from the beloved and highly-intuitive Wu-Tang Name Generator). The set included original compositions from the respective members: the warm groove of Endea Owens’s “Where the Nubians Grow”, Shirazette Tinnin’s blooming “Money Funk”, Alexis Lombre’s Rhodes dream “Boundaries”, and Baratz’s commanding “Zero Hour”.
Back up in the loft, drummer Chase Elodia performed an intimate set that straddled the line between jazz and indie, fronted by honey-voiced vocalist Claire Dickson with backing from bassist Kanoa Mendenhall and pianist Theo Walentiny. All in their mid-20's, they're still working out their feel, but are tight and show plenty of promise.
Now into her second decade of performing, alto maven Lakecia Benjamin has established herself in the top rank of young saxophonists, a charismatic force equal parts fierce and feline. Downstairs at City Winery, she ripped through a set that embraced everything from funk to soul to the spiritual dimensions of Coltrane - both Alice and John. In addition to her usual band of crack players (E.J. Strickland, drums, Victor Gould, piano, Elias Bailey, bass) Sporting a gold lamé jump suit with white boots, Benjamin was joined by guest vocalist Georgia Ann Muldrow - who appears on her new release, Phoenix - as well as her teacher/mentor Greg Osby.
Saturday, Jan. 14: Brooklyn Marathon
Now home to dozens of venues (considerably more so than when WJF was founded in 2005), the Williamsburg area of Brooklyn has evolved into a logical place to host the second Marathon night, as hundreds packed into clubs, churches, recording studios, even an opera house. Kicking off the festivities at Baby’s All Right, Sungazer was an exemplar of talented jazz nerds in the internet age. The music itself was a melange of skittering, effects-drenched synths, bass taps, sax laments and heavy grooves, drawing reasonable comparisons to everything from Meshell Ndgeocello to Meshuggah to Miles Davis to Marshmello, but specifically channeled through a Windows 98, early console game aesthetic. Loops, Ableton triggers, voice memos and detuned robot voices accompanied audience clap-alongs in 5/8, bassist Adam Neely’s YouTubian banter and the general vibe of a room in on the culture (at one point, someone shouted “play the lick!” the way shirtless Californians used to yell “Free Bird!) Their set was something of an exercise in switch-flicking: between serious and silly, singable and complex, analog and digital, sometimes gradually, sometimes abruptly.
The charismatic vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles was up next with her band SCOPE. Charles has a rich, confident voice, enhanced with synth and beats provided by keys man Jesse Fischer. She performed selections from her latest release, Blank Canvas, which pays tribute to jazz ancestors such as Max Roach, Oscar Brown, Jr., and Abbey Lincoln - at times spaced out, at others wild and free. A brilliant, mature talent.
Meanwhile, a brood of latter-day Bowie fans packed National Sawdust to hear his former drummer Mark Guiliana, while a rejected overflow of wayward Black Star devotees and jazzheads dispersed into the Williamsburg night. Guiliana, fresh off his Friday night hit with Donny McCaslin at LPR, enlisted the help of saxophonist Jason Rigby, bassist Chris Morrissey, and keyboardist Jason Linder, his monstrous right hand putting the house Bösendorfer through its paces. Guiliana’s playing is a political experience, if only in terms of his real-time negotiation, expertise, and evaluation of the music. His broader appeal is as unique as it is obvious—for people who want to hear someone welt on a drumhead (there were many present that night), Guiliana does this perfectly well while remaining inclusive and engrossing as he enters the deep jazz pocket. It’s not an unfamiliar experience for fans of Neil Pearts and Steve Gadds.
The Count Basie Orchestra was once described as being “nothing less than a Cadillac with the force of a Mack truck.” By contrast, an apt metaphor for the Revive Big Band, which played to a large crowd over at Brooklyn Bowl, might be Muhammad Ali: a sweet, swaggering fleetness of footwork combined with a near-lethal muscularity. Under the direction of trumpeter Igmar Thomas, the low ends of the band moved heavier-than-the-sun funk-metal bass lines through puncturing brass shouts and setting stages for ferocious sax soloists like Chelsea Baratz and Andrew Gould. In true selector style, the band remixed and rearranged pieces like Wayne Shorter’s “Speak No Evil” with particularly dripped-out snap to it, a name-joined mash-up of Monk’s “Thelonious” and Common/J Dilla’s “Thelonius” and, in a feat of true hip-hop expertise, an arrangement of Hiatus Kaiyote’s “Stone or Lavender” built around Nai Palm’s original vocal track. (See also: Revive Big Band at WJF 2014.)
The setup and intimate seating of Loove Labs hearkens back to the golden age of loft jazz, making it the obvious and almost too-on-the-nose venue choice for hosting the prolific bassist William Parker and his trio, with pianist Dave Burrell and drummer William Hooker. Burrell remains a thoughtful, sensitive player—a historian’s pianist. Non-intrusive, he spent much of the evening supporting Parker and Hooker with vacillations between simple progressions, crunchy two-handed chords, and methodical left-hand patterns. Hooker, a prolific poet and composer in his own right, was essential to the synthesis of improvised music and the independent rock underground in the 70s and 80s. The trio supplied a cleansing set—if Parker believes that even modern audiences are capable of authentically interacting with and understanding Black avant-garde music (which I strongly suspect he does), then his trio’s performance was a practical demonstration of what is possible when “new music” functions as a vehicle. A nurturer of creative ecosystems, Parker plays as if there is truly no beginning and no end when one walks in the spirit of the music. Community was evident in the trio’s performance, from Parker and Hooker vocalizing together, to Parker’s haunting arc blending seamlessly and cooperatively into Burrell’s lush chords.
Next up, saxophonist Alfredo Colon’s quintet brought together a youthful assembly, musicians and audience members alike. Both Colon and his trombonist, Kalia Vandever, appeared to have figured out, at relatively young ages, a musical truth that runs contrary to the early-stage allure of “chops”: a handful of notes that pierce the air and say something meaningful are worth far more than running vocabulary. Colon followed the trajectory of his music from plaintively melodic to restlessly intense, but did not lose a center of emotional truth, while Vandever continued to showcase her emerging personal style of using unpredictable but succinctly contained cells of melody to hold the music closely. Simplicity was not the group’s only musical maturity, to be clear - pianist Lex Korten frequently spun up complex layers of sound akin to something out of Ligeti, and Colon waved sheets of sound as needed - but the group’s musical environment, like Coleman, Ayler and many others before, used disarray and technique to frame beauty and sensitivity, not divert from it.
By contrast to the jammed venues on N. 6th, the Williamsburg Opera House, a grand new venue on the corner of Berry and S. 2nd, had ample seating for anyone who turned up. Julius Rodriguez’s group eased in and out of styles and vibes at a steady pace, captained by Rodriguez’s ample musical aplomb, rolling through jazz, gospel and New Orleans R&B - just in the first piece alone. Compared to some young musicians who brood to show their seriousness, the sextet’s music was resiliently optimistic and boisterous; it had a bounce and a sense of triumph. Outside Rodriguez’s own music, the group funneled its energy through a few tunes from the Herbie Hancock book: a slightly off-kilter, lightly-deconstructed approach to “Butterfly” that used the ending stab as a jumping off point for a whirling carnival of piano flourishes and a version of “Actual Proof” that used a D.C. go-go loop (a rarely-approached rhythm in the jazz world) as a chance for Rodriguez to augment his unfairly-good drumming skills.
Harpist Brandee Younger, who'd already guested with several other groups during WJF, followed with her own trio (Allan Mednard, drums; Rashaan Carter, bass). Younger, nominated for a GRAMMY last year for her major label debut, Somewhere Different, is the undisputed queen of the jazz harp, following in the tradition of Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby, among others. Her flowing glissandos were punctuated with bass and drums., weaving elements of African, Chinese, and American roots music throughout.
Dawn Richard has had a prolific career spanning the genres of hip hop, house, R&B and New Orleans bounce (She's a NOLA native.) Since joining the revered indie label Merge Records (home to Spoon, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Arcade Fire, among others), Dawn has released two adventurous albums, including last year's Pigments with experimental bassist Spencer Zahn. To my ears, the set was a bit too ethereal and meandering, with Richard's flamboyant costume garnering most of the (unwanted) attention. But, Richard did show impressive vocal chops when she finally let loose late in the set.
By 11:30, the Opera House had filled up, everyone ready to be transported to the cosmic denomination of the Sun Ra Arkestra. Leader Marshall Allen, elegant and life-affirming, received a standing ovation before a single note was played. At 98 years old, Allen - who has been with the Arkestra for 75 years - is still reaching, still blowing a storm on his alto. (Or, as British jazz DJ Gilles Peterson said in his program note: "He still gives a fuck!") Arkestra performances are punctuated by a humbling, self-aware joy that staggers the senses well into the night. The ensemble delivered moments of languid joy in spades, from vocalist Tara Middleton trading lines with Allen and bari player Knoel Scott on their classic "Space is the Place", to the percussion-driven vitality that surged through “Watch the Sunshine”.
On the far side of midnight, a staple of Winter JazzFest closed out the night at Superior Ingredients: a freely improvising, not-specifically-named group of top-tier musicians exploring their sonic similarities and differences - in this case, the trio of Nate Smith / Jason Lindner / Tim Lefebvre. Already acquainted as half of Donny McCaslin’s quartet, Lefebvre instinctively new how to embellish and support Lindner’s frenzied synth arsenal, but it was really Smith who provided a core engine of the sound: the ability to faithfully play seemingly any popular music style the music was gesturing at but with ferocious energy and a deft sense of invention. With no plan in place, the music ran the gamut of breakbeats, neo-soul, sludge metal, and all that falls in between without faltering. It was a fitting coda to the marathon: a reminder that the coolest stuff is always at the bottom of the night’s well and sometimes just a result of seeing what sticks.
Tuesday, Jan. 17: Take Two with Nate Mercereau and Friends at Public Records
Since 2018, Brooklyn's Pique-Nique recordings has hosted the Take Two series: an immersive evening of deep listening where a classic jazz album is played straight through, then reinterpreted live by musicians from a variety of backgrounds. On Tuesday, Take Two took over Brooklyn's Public Records and its custom-made Ojas soundsystem for an evening devoted to Pharaoh Sanders' 1974 release Elevation. WJF founder/producer Brice Rosenbloom noted the poignancy of choosing Sanders' music for the event, given that Pharaoh was a frequent guest of Winter JazzFest before his passing last year. With most of the audience taking seats on the floor, we spent the next 48 minutes enveloped by the rhythmic, tribal music, punctuated by Sanders screaming tenor, fierce and wild.
After a quick break, guitarist Nate Mercereau came out to lead an improvised reimagining of Elevation. Mercerau's guitar played the themes, electronically processed to sound like a synth. It was more melodic that Sanders sax, but no less intense, especially in the build. Surya Botofasina's keyboard playing was spectral, trancelike. Will Logan played on and around his drunmkit. And percussionist Carlos Niño utilized a pile of toys, chimes and noisemakers that would make Cyro Baptista jealous. It was a magical, spiritual end a welcome return to live jazz in January.
More pics on the photo page: