by Dan Lehner
Editors Note: Both Dan and I were originally supposed to cover this year's Winter Jazzzfest, but your's truly got COVID on Wednesday, so I've been self-isolating all weekend. I'm still hoping to make it out to Wednesday (1/17) night's Ryuichi Sakomoto tribute at Roulette with DJ Spooky, Yuka C. Honda; tickets available here.
In 2004, Winter Jazzfest’s first roster counted a total of 20 bands claiming the three floors of the Knitting Factory’s old Manhattan location on Leonard Street, occurring as a one-night-only event. Twenty years later, the festival now boasts 700 artists over 9 days over several miles of both Manhattan and Brooklyn real estate, with two evening-length marathons and a kaleidoscope of one-night presentations and talks that span subgenres, historical tributes, artist-in-residence curations - and all the work by artists young and old that’s worthy of showcase under the broad banner of “jazz”. For financial and spatial reasons, it behooves festival-goers to be selective about where they spend their time, but Friday's Manhattan Marathon gave audiences a chance to slice through a concentration of clubs in the East and West Villages to sample some of the best new sounds to check out in 2024.
Kicking off a three-set 70th birthday celebration at Bowery Ballroom, veteran guitarist Marc Ribot was ripping through melodies at a searing intensity with his “New Trio”, featuring bassist Hilliard Greene, long-time collaborator Chad Taylor on drums and special guest James Brandon Lewis on saxophone. Though separated by about 30 years in age, Ribot and Lewis’s compatibility was extremely obvious; both men favored the radical simplicity of melodies more related to folk music (which is to say, touching on gospel, blues, Woody Guthrie and punk rock) than contemporary harmonic constructions. Songs were free in form and time but with dynamic contours; a Led Zeppelin-ish rock tune would burst into free jazz flames before settling into spoken word. Taylor worked as both catcher and instigator, moving from restless jazz to stadium rock as the music necessitated, and Greene complemented Ribot’s musicality with both Mingusian bowed bass and rock n’ roll bombs he literally bent the bass forward to drop. (After I left, Ribot played in a duo with fellow guitarist Mary Halvorson, followed by a set with his longtime band Ceramic Dog.)
Vulnerability was also the name of the game at Samora Pinderhughes' set at Le Poisson Rouge. Pinderhughes’s “Healing Project”, a multidisciplinary work that has been showcased in a variety of physical and digital arenas, was offered in a simpler but no less meaningful music-only presentation with the pianist and singer flanked by a rhythm section and small choir. “The Healing Project’s” sounds were musically and lyrically lush, with musings on masculinity and honesty delivered atop soulful but urgent chords, sometimes slowly, sometimes with blistering dance rhythms. The choir moved both individually and as a unit, passing around features but also interpolating work songs and layering close harmonies together, living up to the sense of community that the music was asking for.
In a 2012 interview, composer and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, perhaps best known for his work in the realms of cutting-edge modern jazz and genre-defying compositional work, lamented a relative lack of opportunities to, “swing his ass off.” As exhibited by his trio’s recent releases (Continuing, Mesmerism, The Off-Off Broadway Guide to Synergism) and their LPR set Friday night, Sorey has proved to those who might be skeptical how deep his knowledge of drums-in-jazz really goes. Though consisting of well-known Great American Songbook standards without any serious deconstruction, Sorey’s persona as an artist steeped in the deepest trenches of minimalism and maximalism was perfectly on display here -- he would build achingly slowly from the most basic tom strokes to the most active polyrhythms without losing his musical telepathy with his bandmates. Pianist Aaron Diehl in particular was a fruitful collaborator with Sorey’s sensibilities: an experienced classical musician in his own right, Diehl gave Sorey infinite textures, melodies, ranges and points of musical reference to play with. Winter Jazzfest can sometimes feel like a highly curated exhibit, but Sorey’s trio was a reminder that at its best, it can also be a place to watch great musicians just play.
A few events still remain in this year's Winter Jazzfest, including the aforementioned Ryuichi Sakomoto tribute at Roulette (1/17), a two-night presentation by Danish performance art ensemble Hess is More at National Sawdust (1/16-1/17), and a closing show at Brooklyn Steel on Thursday (1/18) featuring Memphis-based bassist MonoNeon and guests. Tickets currently available for all shows at the box office or online.