Winter Jazzfest at Knitting Factory
It's hard to say which was the bigger surprise: spending an evening at the Knitting Factory hearing some of the best jazz players around or being just one of hundreds doing the same thing, with at least 50 more waiting to get into the sold-out night. True, the Winter Jazzfest takes over the one-time hotspot once a year, using all three stages to present artists that might be lured onto the festival circuit the following summer, but Jan. 12th was an unusually strong showing, with a triple-header of David Murray, Dave Douglas and Iva Bittova with Don Byron serving as the centerpiece for a bill of two dozen groups. Murray was reliably solid with his Black Saint Quartet, benefiting from heavy roadwork. Douglas presented a new trio with Mark Feldman and Scott Colley, playing standards with a nicely off-kilter feeling as if half the band was missing. Czech violinist Bittova was the wild card; with her upstate residency still fairly fresh, her trio with Byron and Lisa Moore was her first new project here; the common ground the three composers found was, pure and simple, in melody. The Winter Jazzfest also offers the chance to traipse about and stumble on pleasant surprises, as in sets by Jerome Sabbagh and Eldar. The smaller rooms housed a Wayne Horvitz quartet, Amir ElSaffar's excellent Two Rivers band and a strong performance by Matana Roberts' sextet. It was, by design, impossible to catch everything, but as Douglas said onstage, "Maybe next year they'll do two nights.
Elliott Sharp at The Stone
The multiple electric guitar onslaught is nothing new and generally (if it's not an allstar Dylan cover) holds promise of a ruckus of overtones, hum and feedback. Unless, that is, Elliott Sharp is at the reins. More mathematician than garage rocker, Sharp exercised an invisible hand over the dozen guitars (two on electric bass) employed for a realization of his Syndakit at The Stone Jan. 17th. The piece is controlled yet extremely flexible, giving the players 144 (a dozen square, natch) short phrases or 'fragments' to choose from. The group (which included Ron Anderson, Mary Halvorson, Dave Hofstra, Roger Kleir and Marc Sloan) made a varied yet coherent show of it, opening with a quickly repeated single note passed slowly around the semi-circle and slowly introducing sliding riffs up and down the necks, then quick trills as the volume rose to a powerful but short of painful level. At times two or three duos or trios would emerge against a soft background squall, but they would soon splinter or revert to the single-note motif. As the 40-minute piece reached a crescendo, a psychedelic swirl filled the room, derived perhaps from the sheer amplitude the band was pushing, giving a claustrophobic feeling of being trapped inside a Lesley speaker. But it was never about blasting chords, never about blistering leads, never about letting strings ring, never about call and response or repeated lines and variations; the overall sound tended more toward concurrent clusters or maybe shifting Tectonic plates.
~ Kurt Gottschalk
Tony Malaby at Barbes
There's nothing like the intimacy of experiencing a local legend in a neighborhood bar. During one of those sudden cold snaps common to New York winters tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby debuted a new trio featuring Chicago-based cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and drummer-about-town John Hollenbeck at Barbès Jan. 2nd, a Park Slope watering-hole for thirsty listeners. Malaby, ever adaptable to his immediate musical surroundings, seemed particularly comfortable in this setting, effortlessly intermingling with Lonberg-Holm's insistent bowing and plucking and Hollenbeck's mercurial mix of percussive and melodic gestures. The cellist used a variety of electronic signal processors (overdrive, digital sequencer, etc.) to fine musical effect, especially on the set's third number, an untitled exploration into mad science. Hollenbeck, in addition to his standard kit, blew melodica over several pieces creating a swarming soundscape on "Anemone , then hovering harmonically over a cover of Bill Frisell's "Waiting Inside and played marimba on "Warble Peck with a touch of bump and bounce. This last tune brought the opening set to satisfying closure, featuring short stuttered notes from the cello mixed with slow, soft-reed vibratos from the tenor. Together they created gentle oscillations that seemed to fill the room with ghosted wolf-notes as the ambling theme gradually cooled to a single protracted tone.
International Stride Summit at 92nd Street Y
Who said stride piano is a lost art form? Far from it: five men-with-left-hands-like-God were out in full shout on Jan. 5th for the 92nd St. Y's International Stride Summit, part of Dick Hyman's perennial jazz piano series featuring in addition to the leader's considerable talents Chris Hopkins and Bernd Lhotzky (both from Germany), Louis Mazetier (from France) and Rossano Sportiello (from Italy). Hyman acted as emcee, introducing each player and piece with historical anecdotes and humorous asides. More than a series of soloists, the performers were in fact a "conclave (as Hyman so aptly put it) a close knit group of mutual fans who took obvious pleasure in each other's keyboard gymnastics. Hyman was the consummate craftsman, hammering out well-sculpted phrases; Lhotzky exhibited flawless technique and driving time; Hopkins created fluid ornamentations with a delicate touch and relaxed flow; Sportiello was a phenomenon, spinning out fast, intricate lines with incredible swing, all the while with a copious grin covering his face and Mazetier came on like a juggernaut, generating relentless momentum with his no-holds-barred attack. The best moments came from group interactions, whether it was a temporarily sidelined performer chuckling at his colleague's musical exploits or during the numerous duets (and even a five-way, round-robin finale), when the maestros challenged each other and themselves to ever greater heights of expression and swing.
~ Tom Greenland
Anthony Coleman at Brecht Forum
Though known more for its support of the free improvised side of jazz, since being the beneficiary of a New York State Music Fund "Payola grant, the Brecht Forum's Neues Kabarett series has become a force in the commissioning world. One recipient of this recent largesse was pianist Anthony Coleman, who presented an evening of new works Jan. 12th, including one written specifically for the organization. Coleman only played alongside trumpeter Gareth Flowers, trombonist Chris McIntyre, cellist Alex Waterman and violinist Cornelius Dufallo on the seven-minute "Seven at the Golden Shovel a ridged and speckled piece where Flowers' trumpet seemed in opposition amidst the protestations of the other instruments. Waterman appeared at the beginning of the concert in duo with violinist Jennifer Choi for Coleman's six-minute "The Other of Language , whose argumentative cadences seemed earthy and mischievous. Joined by Dufallo and Stephanie Griffin on viola, they both participated in "Artifacts for String Quartet , at 16 minutes the meat of the show. This was the specifically-commissioned work and had at its core a dark dense drone. Through its three movements, played without pause, distinct personalities arose that still seemed connected like cousins at a family reunion. Not exactly pretty, not exactly atonal, Coleman later remarked during question time that while writing the piece in Belize, he kept hearing howler monkeys.
Ayelet Gottlieb; Cyro Baptista at Drom
The showcase format of many concerts presented during the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference can be trying for those interested in listening, not booking. But at Drom, a new venue in the all-of-a-sudden resurgent East Village, current and future interests were both well served. A double bill was presented featuring what from a distance would be oversimplified into the world music category but in fact was a good demonstration of the international reach of jazz. Vocalist Ayelet Rose Gottlieb performed her Mayim Rabim project, a lush combination of Israeli folk music and jazz sensibilities, as seen through the biblical Song of Songs. Ably supported by three additional vocalists (including her brother), what stood out was the multigenre drumming of Ronen Itzhik and the soaring clarinet work of Michael Winograd. A hard act to follow but up to the task was Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista with his raucous Beat the Donkey. Baptista's group, around for over a decade and giving its first show with a new trap drummer and last with one longtime member soon off to medical school, is a life-changing experience. Not just percussion folks in the group also play keys, guitar, sing and even tap dance Donkey is more of a three-ring circus, hardware store and tapas bar all squished together onto one stage. Guest tapper Max Pollak also contributed to a band that easily recalls the absolutely expert humor and musicianship of Frank Zappa.
~ Andrey Henkin
Dr. Lonnie Smith at Iridium
Dr. Lonnie Smith gave what amounted to a clinic on the dynamics of the jazz organ at Iridium (Jan. 6th), leading an allstar trio with guitarist Russell Malone and drummer Herlin Riley. Playing with a subtlety not generally associated with his instrument, the white-bearded Smith, clad in a crimson turban and black tunic, cut a commanding figure behind the Hammond B-3 as he gently set the exotic tone to Juan Tizol's "Caravan , pedaling a percussive bass line that was rhythmically reinforced by his colleagues. Drawing the audience deep into his sonic universe with supple harmonies, the organist suddenly ignited the room with a booming blast that set the basement chamber ablaze with enthusiasm, Riley laying down a clave beat on cowbell, complemented by Malone's AfroCuban comping. The Doctor followed up with a pretty original, "When We Kissed Goodnight , that showcased his and Malone's lyricism. On "Simone , the seldom-heard Frank Foster classic, the trio swung mightily, with Smith demonstrating the full breadth of his keyboard's potential by employing vocal effects on the melody line and powerful orchestral sonorities in his improvisations. A soft and gentle reading of Ellington's "Squeeze Me showed off the band's sensitive side, but it was a raw and raucous reading of "Freedom Jazz Dance , with Smith playing hand percussion on his bench and Riley putting on a flashy show with a tambourine, that generated the all-out excitement that organ aficionados crave.
Dave Douglas at Abrons Arts Center
Diversity has long been the hallmark of the artistic vision of Dave Douglas, allowing his music to evolve continually through a wide variety of ensembles with constantly shifting personnel and instrumentation. Douglas' unique approach to jazz repertory has proven to be particularly interesting, as evidenced in past projects exploring the compositions of Mary Lou Williams and Booker Little. At the Henry Street Settlement's Abrons Arts Center (Jan. 5th) the trumpeter once again found a fine balance between innovation and tradition in a program titled "Blue Nile: The Music of Randy Weston . Fronting a sextet that retained only saxophonist Donny McCaslin from his regular working band, Douglas arranged the great pianist's impressive songbook for a group anchored by the tuba of Marcus Rojas, who excelled in the dual role of soloist and member of the rhythm section with drummer Nasheet Waits and keyboardist Geoff Keezer. With Luis Bonilla on trombone filling out the frontline, the group presented forward-looking interpretations of both well known and seldom played pieces. Weston's music, the most Afrocentric of all jazz composers, was well served by Douglas' conception, which utilized variegated tonalities and timbral textures while alternating polyphonous group improvisation and call-and-response solo interaction. Starting with "Zulu one of Weston's earliest songs -and ending with the classic "High Fly , Douglas shined a bright light on one jazz' true greats.
~ Russ Musto
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