The first and last few hours of this nine-hour marathon allowed the largest degree of mobility. Taking over all three floors of the The Knitting Factory, Winter Jazzfest's overlapping stage times invited heavy stairwell traffic, the governing concept being to sample a variety of simultaneously performing acts. The pathways quickly became clogged, and it was tempting to remain in one place, preserving some kind of vantage point. As the night drew to a close, however, the avenues loosened up again, and travelling was once more an attractive proposition. The festival roster was angled towards forward-thinking jazz forms, although not to the point of any completely abstract extremity. There were usually compositional structures in place, at least to govern the soloing activities.
Down in the Old Office, tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh's quartet opened in the rocky vein, emboldened by Ben Monder's chunky guitar riffs. By the end of their set, they were gaining heaviness, and almost on the verge of a headbanging catharsis. This was to be about the only time I managed to descend into the Office whilst a band was playing, with most of the next few hours spent voluntarily trapped in the Main Space. But first, it was up one flight to the Tap Bar, to catch the Chicagoan altoist Matana Roberts and her oddly named Coin Coin group. This was conducted improvisation with an edge, as signals were given to prompt poetic vocal outbursts, curtailed just as suddenly, alternating with Roberts reading from her selection of library books, or negotiating a serpentine saxophone solo, or with pianist Shoko Nagai erupting at the keys with disconcerting aggression. Influenced by the ritualistic practices of the 1960s and '70s, Roberts is cultivating a very individual form of performance jazz, and she's set to levitate much higher in 2008.
And so to the Main Space, where we shall remain for quite some time. There might be too much hype circulating around the enigmatically named Eldar (is he a frustrated magician, or what?), but the youthful pianist ended up delivering an enchanting set, full of dynamic shifts of tone and pacing. He has a strong sense of how to vary levels of intensity, rarely running off into complacent predictability. To follow, Dave Douglas was premiering his Magic Circle trio, continuing what seems like the trumpeter's increasing immersion in jazz tradition. This music required a particular hush from the crowd, with Douglas requesting a large dip in amplification, all the better to discern the precise tonal bittersweetness of Mark Feldman's elaborate violin, and Douglas' own darting horn runs. Bassist Scott Colley was also leaving plenty of space in-between, with the threesome tip-toeing around each other's parts with particular grace. To follow this careful trio with another similarly careful trio was to prove problematic, at least in terms of general pacing. Singer/violinist Iva Bittova, clarinetist Don Byron and pianist Lisa Moore delved into a mixture of folkloric classicism, with a generally Eastern European cast. This was a mixed pleasure, occasionally sounding too pompous or self-conscious, but at its best when Bittova's voice flew most freely.
The heroic performance of the festival came courtesy of David Murray, favouring tenor saxophone, but bringing out his bass clarinet at a strategic point in the set. This is a man who, when he's in a suitable mood, can take flight and refuse to come back down to ground level, and this was such a night, with the Black Saint Quartet deciding to take their music out to the extreme quarters, and well away from the jazz conventions that they'll often adopt when performing in clubland. Andrew Cyrille was behind the drums, Lafayette Gilchrist at the keys, and Jaribu Shahid, a bassist with volcanic potential, fully realized it during this set. Murray's extended honking and squealing re always superbly controlled, an emotional cry as opposed to a technical exercise. But where is he going when repeatedly vacating the stage, following each rapturous solo? Does he have a bunk set up in the wings where he lies down to replenish his powers?
Magisterial though Murray's set was, an equal contender for the festival's pinnacle performance was that of Amir El Saffar and his Two Rivers ensemble. The leader divides his time between trumpet and santoor, a zither equivalent, also singing in the Maqam style of his Iraqi heritage. These activities are perfectly balanced, although it's his trumpeting that's the most dazzling, not least because the absence of saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa led him to double the amount of solos, whilst quadrupling their quality. The band also benefits from the dazzling duels between Tareq Abboushi and Zafer Tawil's buzuq and oud. This made a suitable climax for a fruitfully long night...
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