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ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2019

Tyran Grillo By

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ECM @ Winter Jazzfest 2019
(Le) Poisson Rouge
New York, NY
January 11-12, 2019

On January 11th and 12th, Winter Jazzfest attendees were treated to two nights of performances by some of the ECM's most vibrant affiliates. The impressions left in their wake verged on moving pictures, comprising a montage of producer Manfred Eicher's voluminous commitment to the music at hand. Shades of that same commitment resounded through every set, by which one chapter after another hinted at an ongoing master narrative.

In that spirit, saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist, Michael Formanek, and guitarist Mary Halvorson didn't so much set the tone as reveal its vulnerability to change. To do so with their combination of microscopic attunement was a feat in and of itself, and rendered their strangely wistful buoyancy that much more realistic. Cohering and separating like beads of mercury, the instruments seemed to acknowledge their molecular similarities. While jazz might be said to center around expansions of rudimentary themes, this trio accomplished that rare magic of making fearlessly intimate music with grand elements. Halvorson, all but drowned in Formanek's Ensemble Kolossus in a 2016 Winter Jazzfest concert, was now a central figure. With a style perhaps best described in oxymoronic terms as legato angularity, she lit every microtone like a match. Formanek, too, toed a line of polarity between anchorage and free navigation, while Berne brought his hairline-fractured lyricism to fruition with humility. Appropriate, then, that the trio should end with a tune called "But Will It Float," a Fibonacci groove that was as rhetorical as it gets. The trio is set to record for ECM this year.

Music of a different order was in store when Shai Maestro, a new addition to the label's roster, took to the stage with bassist Jorge Roeder and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Not since Tord Gustavsen has a piano trio's debut been so achingly melodic, and to witness their making of music in such close quarters was a privilege. Over the course of a set that shed its skin many times over, Maestro brought his strain of "meta-swing" to bear on a host of originals. He opened "The Dream Thief," the title tune off the album in question, with an almost G. I. Gurdjieff-like intro, as Roeder and Nehemya worked into his quiet, sunlit arena. Throughout both "The Forgotten Village" and "Looking Back," Maestro shuttled between arid and oceanic textures in a mosaic so seamless it felt like one meticulously painted tile. The dynamics of the trio were a festival highlight to be sure, especially in the ways that Nehemya's ecstatic softness offset Roeder's pliancy. The drummer was like a pilgrim dropping stones into water, Roeder the painter fixing those ripples in time, and Maestro the interpreter translating their patterns into song. The result was music that evolved into something greater than the sum of its own parts, especially in "What Else Needs To Happen," a song dedicated to saxophonist Jimmy Greene's daughter, Ana, and which featured a mournful speech by Barack Obama on the dangers of gun violence. But nowhere was their spirit of confluence so present as during the last tune, when the audience began singing along with the theme: an all-too-rare commodity of togetherness.

Closing out the first evening was a new super group spearheaded by trumpeter Ralph Alessi. By far the most celebratory configuration of the sequence, it featured saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, pianist Andy Milne, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Mark Ferber in a mélange of Alessi originals. "Fun Room" kicked things off in style with a fluttering intro from Alessi and Coltrane. The latter's tenor proved to be a robust foil for Alessi's plasticity, and made the hip beats that followed even more ecstatic. As Gress and Ferber tessellated their rhythms, the evening was clearly about to get more interesting. Next was the abstract yet tender "Iram Issela," which found the group digging deep, while "Oxide" showed Alessi at his chain-reactive best. "Imaginary Friends," which titles the band's latest album, was quintessential for its slow start and busy denouement. The set ended with the upbeat "Melee." With intensity all around, especially from Coltrane's peerless sopranino and Ferber's rip-roaring accents, this was as real as real gets.

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