Twenty years is a remarkable milestone for any activity, let alone one that comes with the wear and tear of a high-profile jazz festival that every year strives to up its own ante, like the Winter JazzFest.
From January 11 to 18, 2024, fans, musicians, promoters and other industry people from around the world will converge to mark this special anniversary and celebrate what has become a cornerstone of New York's cultural architecture.
At the heart of the programme, however, are the two marathons, on Friday, January 12 and Saturday January 13, which follow the tradition which goes all the way back to the first edition of the Festival, when 18 concerts were held across the Knitting Factory's three stages.
This year the two marathonsin Manhattan on January 12, and in Brooklyn on January 13will involve almost 90 groups (in addition to the over 60 other groups or sets taking place during the rest of the festival). And since a festival marathon is where love and devotion for jazz meet endurance, weather forecasting and project planning, we come to the rescue suggesting a few ways you could skin this jazz cat, by criteria like prominence, convenience, gender-inclusiveness, generation, provenance, personality. (Detailed schedules and maps are available at the end of the article.)
As usual, our suggestions reflect personal preferences, but we do our best to break down the JazzFest's extensive schedule to allow for maximum customization. If you have a different approach than those suggested here, please share it in the comments section below.
One final bit of advice, always check the JazzFest website for last-minute changes and for its neat crowd watch to make sure you're not leaving front-row seats in a comfy venue just to get yourself in the endless line of a club that is packed wall-to-wall.
Hold On, I'm Coming!
A.k.a. The maximalist's approach
You are the typical NYC by-product. You care only for the best of the best. You are not fazed by long lines, as they represent an opportunity to meditate your way to excellent performances. You are fit, so running from a venue to another to check-mark all the highlights of the festival is a welcome opportunity to keep your Fitbit at bay. And if the need to constantly get to the next best gig means that you won't be able to stay at a concert for its full duration, your FOMO monkey mind will get endless supplies of dopamine rewards. If this is who you are, then those listed below might represent a few ways to match the most promising performances of each time-slot with the realities imposed by the festival's schedule as well as the distances between venues. To resolve your dilemmas if you find that the time between shows may be tighter than your transportation mode permits, we have marked with an asterisk the shows you may wish to prioritize.
You are an observer. Your position within a crowd is never random; it is always chosen with surgical precision to ensure that you are front-stage in four moves max, something which cannot be done if you keep hopping from venue to venue. You know that perfection is the enemy of good. You have assigned reward points to all concerts and have figured out a geo-referenced manner to maximize the reward-to-footsteps ratio, so you choose to stay put, or quasi-put. One thing you may need to consider, though, is that if you're staying at a venue where they charge a minimum at each set (i.e. Bitter End, City Winery, Zinc Bar), you may need to be ready to drink, or eat, quite a bit (practical tip: after the second consecutive burger consider a doggy bag option, after all the next morning you might be hung-over from the jazz binge, and don't forget to tip the staff appropriately or they may end up resenting jazz crowds)... Below are our favorite options, in order of preference.
Friday, January 12 [Manhattan]
City Winery 6:00PM-1:00AM: Cyro Baptista; Aaron Parks Little Big; Rogê; Immanuel Wilkins; Shabaka & Quartetto Fantastico; Nduduzo Makhathini.
Bowery Ballroom 6:30PM-12:00AM: Marc Ribot New Trio feat. James Brandon Lewis; Marc Ribot & Mary Halvorson; Marc Ribot's Ceramic Dog; The Jazz Passengers Celebrate Curtis Fowlkes.
Union Pool: 6:15PM-1:15AM: Samir LanGus; Natural Information Society; Mendoza / Hoff Revels; Ryan Sawyer & Wendy Eisenberg; Harriet Tubman.
Best alternative: go for a combo by splitting the evening across two venues, a good compromise between not having to move around too much and getting more flexibility. To accomplish that, in addition to mixing the concerts from the venues listed above, consider:
The Superior Ingredients/Superior Ingredients Rooftop Combo. Superior Ingredients Rooftop 4:30-10:30: Laaraj (Sunset Meditation); Steve Lehman Trio with Mark Turner; Tineke Postma; Caroline Davis' Alula; Oran Etkin Open Arms Project. Then go downstairs and catch Matana Roberts; Intercity Sound Ensemble; Kahil El'Zabar's Ethnic Heritage Ensemble; Damon Locks & Rob Mazurek.
The Loove Labs/Music Hall of Williamsburg Combo. Loove Labs 7PM-11:30PM: Anna Webber; Kate Gentile: Find Letter X; Simon Moullier Quartet; Roy Nathanson: 82 Days. Then just hop to the Music Hall and catch the tribute to Pharoah Sanders.
However, if you are both a stationary pragmatist and one of those Manhattanites that is incapable of crossing bridges and tunnels, then on Saturday, January 13 you may consider going to NuBlu, and the related RadioNuBlu, where they'll run a "Winter JazzFest at NuBlu" series. Between the two venues from 6:00PM and 2:00AM you can catch Léon Phal, Harish Raghavan, Brandon Seabrook, Felix Pastorius, Jonathan Maron, Ilhan Ersahin and Dave Harrington's Pranksters.
Winter JazzFest has been at the fore-front of gender-inclusive programming for so long that, by now, festival-goers do not find it refreshing that there's balance between female-identifying and male-identifying musicians on stage, they expect it. Below are various ways to support this thread that goes through the marathons' programming:
1:30AM. Nite Bjuti: Candice Hoyes, Val Jeanty, Mimi Jones, Maria Grand, Marta Sanchez (Zinc Bar)
Young and (Not) Foolish (At All)
A.k.a. The generational approach
Winter JazzFest has traditionally offered the opportunity of discovering young talent, putting them on the same stage with more established artists, giving them the opportunity to play to larger audiences but also to build relationships with other musicians and promoters, agents etc. If you enjoy nurturing emerging artists, these are concerts you might want to consider:
Friday, January 12 [Manhattan]
6:15PM. Next Jazz Legacy (Le Poisson Rouge)
7:15PM. Micah Thomas (Zinc Bar) or Kalia Vandever at 7:30PM (Zurcher Gallery)
10:45PM. Zoh Amba, Shahzad Ismaily, Jim White, Steve Gunn (Baby's All Right)
The inter-generational approach
This edition of the JazzFest will feature a number of interesting concerts where today's masters will pay tribute to yesterday's masters. If you like this inter-generational dimension, then these are the concerts for you:
Friday, January 12 [Manhattan]
9:30PM. Ray Angry & Friends feat. J.Period: A Tribute to J Dilla & Amp Fiddler
11:00PM. The Jazz Passengers Celebrate Curtis Fowlkes (Bowery Ballroom)
12:30AM. The Harvest Time Project: Tribute to Pharoah Sanders (Le Poisson Rouge)
Saturday, January 13 [Brooklyn]
11.30AM. The Harvest Time Project with Irreversible Entanglements: Tribute to Pharoah Sanders (Le Poisson Rouge)
The WJF might be the festival where fans and promoters from all over the world come to learn about the New York scene's going-ons, but it is also the event where Newyorkers get a rare chance to remedy the thirst for foreign musicians caused by the protectionistic practices that make it prohibitively expensive for them to tour in the USA. While the Chicago and London showcases of the past, which brought some of the highlight performances of the previous editions, seem to have somewhat dried-out, there are still some very interesting trails:
The Paris trail
Friday, January 12 [Manhattan]
As per tradition, The Paris Jazz Club will take over the Bitter End and present emerging projects from the French scene, with the highlights being the hooky brand of electro-jazz by Léon Phal and the tribute to the Grateful Dead by Stephane Belmondo and Lionel Belmondo featuring pianist Eric Legnini. Before and after: the Aurore Voilqué Quartet; the Alexis Valet Quintet, and the Ludovic Louis Quintet.
11:00PM. Shabaka & Quartetto Fantastico (City Winery) or at 11:15PM Karl Denson Project (Le Poisson Rouge)
Improvisation over planning
If you think that painstakingly planning how to approach the Festival goes against the improvisational spirit of the music it features, just follow your instinct, feel the vibe, keep your ears open, and engage in real-time-problem solving. Going from venue to venue, concert to concert, may then turn into a performance in itself, and the leader is you! Given the quality of the programming, even a totally random selection approach should ensure a rewarding experience.
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