Into the Fire: Winter Jazzfest 2010

Gordon Marshall By

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Winter Jazzfest
New York, New York
January 8-9, 2010

Fast-forward 30 years from the days in the late 1970s and early '80s when the world-weary wisdom that jazz wasn't a living force anymore was whispered to us—maybe you are getting out of jail, maybe waking from a cryogenic sleep. Before this happened, Charles Mingus had just died, and Miles Davis was out of commission. Now, out free in the world again, you soak up what's new. And it is new—not only still around, but still evolving like any living species.

Darcy James Argue, a colossal ensemble that applied its pastel tones to the backdrop of a slowly shifting rock guitar ostinato. Sebastian Noelle was the guitarist, and it was the edge he gave the band that saved it as it veered at times toward blandness. Credit goes to drummer Jon Wikan, too, for his sparse punctuation, which was almost minimalist but came hard on the downbeat at just the right climactic moments.

Two or three things become apparent to the recently freed "incarcerate." First, jazz doesn't swing as hard as a rule. It can get bland. On the positive side, rigid hierarchies are being dismantled. Drums, for example, aren't just there to provide propulsion anymore, they give nuance and texture and stay in conversation with the horns.

The direction this so-called fusion has taken is the most intriguing part. In the '70s, the players in this genre sought to blend jazz and rock in a melting pot to give us a new, homogeneous product. Today's artists, as evidenced by this weekend, take a different route. Strands of bop alternate with a dose of hard rock, then a Latin or Arabic tinge is rounded off, maybe, with some classic swing.

Such eclecticism is not new in itself. What is an advance, is this simultaneous deployment, where one instrument will adopt one style and others, a complementary or contrasting one. This goes hand in hand with the new, more democratic musicianly regime: everyone has a unique role to play. Ellington once said that jazz bands create "utopias." As with all utopias, I would add, some are more equal than others. More to the point, some performances are more memorable than others. What follows are some memories of what struck me most in Winter Jazzfest.

Briggan Krauss' Trio Coordinate, New Bump Quartet
Kenny's Castaways
January 8

Briggan Krauss led an all-star trio on sax with Kenny Wollesen on drums and Skulli Sverisson on bass. Krauss had a remarkable ability to bring his playing to a near boil then simmer down and pass the pot to Sverisson or Wollasen, who would likewise hint at high-energy stylistics without spilling over the brim. Even more remarkable was the intuitive communication among the artists. Bass, for example, would pick up what sax was doing, take the pattern, translating it—reweave it into a new filigree. Or Krauss would take the chords Sverisson was playing on bass and turn them into arpeggios on his sax. Krauss inspired with a tonal mastery that ranges from the liquidity of Jimmy Giuffre to the holy drama of Albert Ayler, styles Krauss deployed in carefully calibrated increments throughout the show.

Later in the evening, drummer Bobby Previte was bound to impress. What some may not have anticipated was the verve and vibrancy of his vibraphonist, Bill Ware. The two other members of the New Bump Quartet, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and bassist Brad Jones, were also excellent. But Ware gave us a new kind of music. Employing electronics and distortion pedals, he never let these rule, yet he was able to give a micro symphony, all the while staying under Previte's eye and incorporating the input of Eskelin and Jones.

The Metta Quintet, Deathblow, Terraplane, The Claudia Quintet

The Bitter End

January 9

Marcus Strickland is a disciplined John Coltraneist with shades of Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. In the outfit he starred in, the Metta Quintet, he traded fine lines with altoist Mark Gross. In the heads, the pair often played one beat ahead or behind the other. Strickland lives up to the hype bestowed on him. Not just another flashy showman, he shows great restraint and taste, never getting in the way of others and spitting out licks with hard, biting intensity.

Amanda Monaco's Deathblow not only has a great name, it is an act that pulls off the paradoxical feat of provocative understatement, as much as the scarlet pumps and black dress of the comely leader/guitarist. Monaco bounced ideas off her band—whether the mellow blues she started with, the heavy Jack Bruce number in the middle or the avant-bop that finished her set—with a seductive soupçon of freedom and fun and just the right, wry smile. She's a rising star—luminescent and enchanting.

Elliott Sharp's classic Terraplane featured postmodern blues belter Eric Mingus. Mingus was the perfect foil for Sharp's sleek, sneering aerodynamic string attacks, whether on standard electric guitar or lap steel. Sharp delivered infectious funk blues lines inflected with angular avantisms, daring you to tolerate it all. Meanwhile, Mingus was warm and soulful, daring you to dig out your own soul just as he was doing. The balance was like a Rube Goldberg contraption—a mousetrap for what ails you.

The Claudia Quintet—featuring Chris Speed on reeds, Tim Reichman on accordion and Matt Moran on vibes—was a mesh of minimalism and maximalism. At times, accordion and clarinet dueted and sounded almost alike, the slightly thicker liquid sonority of the latter all that distinguished the two. At other times, guest pianist Gary Versace would solo and Reichman would amaze with funk punctuation one wouldn't have thought possible on the instrument. Delightful and heady.

Bitches Brew Revisited
Le Poisson Rouge
January 9

Bitches Brew Revisited was the climax of the fest, at midnight at Le Poisson Rouge, and it did not disappoint. James Blood Ulmer, in blue robe and fez—and toting a sparkly blue axe—was featured. Graham Haynes led the cast of masters on computerized trumpet. Much was verbatim from Miles' 1970 masterpiece, although a hip-hop beat was added here and there. I could have done without the latter, but it pleased the kids, who were bobbing their heads.

So there you have it—club kids grooving to the classics. Contemporary masters doing justice to an immortal, and speeding his mean machine into a new decade and century. If I were imprisoned for another 30 years, I bet there'd still be new club kids, new masters and the same immortal Miles.


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