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Never Alone: Reflections on the 2018 Winter Jazzfest


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Ornette Coleman once said that sound has no parents. But that doesn't mean we can't be its children. On that point, jazz has always been something of a parental force, connecting progenies of representation across geographic and cultural borders. Its relationship to struggle has, however, at times been overshadowed by debate. On the one hand, jazz is a space in which divisions melt away in the interest of collective expression. On the other, such idealism risks ignoring the blood of oppression staining the backdrop of its evolution as an art form. These extremes of interpretation, and the sinews connecting them, were leitmotifs of the 2018 Winter Jazzfest, over which intersections of race, gender, and politics were indelible headliners.

All the more appropriate, then, that memorialization should be a red thread of the festival, as musicians paid homage to sages now departed. It was in this spirit that pianist/saxophonist Steve Colson and his wife, vocalist Iqua Colson, offered "Music of Protest & Love" in memory of the great Muhal Richard Abrams. With the support of their attentive band, the Colsons revisited terrains of poetry, song, and survival. Tapping lyrical magma beneath the dissonant topsoil of elitism, they sought catharsis in unity. Railing against apathy in "The Problem" or deconstructing peace in "Triumph of the Outcasts, Coming," they reminded us that protest and the arts do indeed share a lung.

Other nights set up their respective altars. The most unusual of these was the "Roswell Rudd Slide Eulogy," for which five trombonists-Josh Roseman, Brian Drye, Art Baron, Steve Swell, and Deborah Weisz-played unaccompanied tunes and improvisations in honor of their mentor. The result couldn't have been more heartfelt. It's rare to hear the trombone in such intimate quarters, and to experience it in the shadow of Rudd's passing made for an unforgettable evening. As Weisz noted in a tender aside, Rudd was all about love, and love was all they gave in return. Particularly moving was Swell's concluding tone poem, as well as the double encore that brought the quintet together on stage for a joyful sendoff.

On January 14, Ravi Coltrane opened the portal of his "Universal Consciousness: Melodic Meditations of Alice Coltrane," and through it ushered in one of the most visceral experiences of the week. Band members Brandee Younger (harp), David Virelles (Wurlitzer organ and piano), Rashaan Carter (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums), Román Díaz (percussion), and Adam Rogers (guitar) were master grammarians, placing every comma, quotation mark, and exclamation point exactly where it needed to be. Díaz and Gilmore were the interlocking foundation to Rogers and Carter's anchorage. Yet it was Younger's harping and Virelles's laser-precise organ that added the most incisive details, their notes going straight to the cerebral cortex. Alice's gorgeous melodies held it all together with cosmic glue. Between "Rama Rama" and the closing "Affinity," the night was rich with constellations of her making. Albums of reference spanned the gamut, from 1970's Ptah, the El Daoud to 2004's Translinear Light. Ravi's tenor was robust and dynamic, his soprano coniferous and spicy, his sopranino verdant and exfoliating. In his navigations of "Blue Nile" and "Jagadishwar," he brought moisture to arid landscapes, and in "Los Caballos" (from 1975's Eternity) wrapped his reed around the simpatico dialogue of his rhythmists. Only an experienced sonic traveler could unpack so much from so little.

The festival's biggest draw yielded another dedicatory highlight when drummer Terri Lyne Carrington headed an all-star tribute to Geri Allen. In terms of both roster and reach, it was an extensive performance comprised of multiple groups and as many approaches to the pianist/composer's legacy. Carrington has called Allen's music "food for the soul," and judging by the breadth of her curation, perhaps no statement could be truer. Allen's very fingers were roots. They sprang from creative soil even as they plunged into its nutrient-rich backstories, cultivating the land until a veritable continent of self-expression and divine community was born, as emphasized by pianist Craig Taborn's opening improvisation-a piece which, like Allen's art on the whole, was sparkling yet deeply schooled in the necessity of shadow.

One could freeze-frame any number of memorable stills from the show: Tia Fuller pulling out all the stops, backed by Carrington, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and pianist Kris Davis; vocalist Lizz Wright putting her all into "Timeless Portraits and Dreams"; bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding emboldening "The Life of a Song" with a spoken-word tribute to Allen's omnipresence. Family was another important theme of the evening, as the dedicatee's son, trumpeter Wallace Roney Jr., enchanted with his lyrically nuanced rendition of "Your Pure Self (Mother to Son)." As if that wasn't enough, drummer Jack DeJohnette sat in for two tunes, including "Feed the Fire," off the 1994 Betty Carter album of the same name. Dee Dee Bridgewater was Carter's eminent replacement for this rendition, and her loving, sensual delivery of "Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)," in combination with DeJohnette's tactile mastery, was a high point, as was hoofer Maurice Chestnut's pointillist take on Charlie Parker's "Ah-Leu-Cha." To finish, the entire cast came together to perform Marvin Gaye's "Intercity Blues." It was transcendentally fresh.

The last (nominal) memorial concert came from Nicole Mitchell, who served as this year's artist-in-residence, and in that capacity brought her genius as flutist, composer, and guiding force across a spectrum of ensembles. From these seeds she bore precious fruit in "Art and Anthem," which paid respects to Gwendolyn Brooks with a band that included pianist Jason Moran on piano, alongside spoken word artist Erica Hunt giving life to the poet's truths. From sisterhood and protest to education and domestic violence, the program was rife with realities even more relevant than when they were first laid down. The most shattering of these was "Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon," which reaffirmed the poignancy of abused bodies in the public discourse of our current historical moment.

Mitchell was a beacon at every turn, but especially in her "Afrofuturist Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds." The effect was downright microscopic, seeking the universe as much within as without. Her stellar band sported the talents of vocalist avery r. young, shakuhachi virtuoso Kojiro Umezaki, violinist Renee' Baker, cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Alex Wing (also on Theramin and oud), bassist Tatsu Aoki (also on shamisen and taiko drum), and percussionist Jovia Armstrong. Despite the global implications thereof, Mitchell's vision wasn't about creating world music, per se, but about showing us that music is already a world unto itself. Umezaki's shakuhachi, in dialogue with Aoki's taiko, cut to the quick, while Reid and Armstrong provided infrastructure to the beat of Mitchell's interdimensional conducting. young, for his part, enacted a verbal crash, at one point chanting "We keep on doing the same thing over and over again," which was brilliant for proving that every iteration of that statement was, in fact, different. None of this was tongue-in-cheek, but deadly serious for underscoring the constant self-negotiation that any oppressed subject knows all too well. Chiseling through generations of time and influence, these musicians showed us that survival abounds in innovation and improvisation. Mitchell was central to the festival's last evening, too, when she and her Maroon Cloud ensemble brought us into darker matters. Vocalist Fay Victor was a bright star of wisdom in this context. Her words tore into the fleshy center of jazz's potential for transfiguration.

Rewinding to opening night puts us in the presence of a talented guitarist and singer/songwriter from South London by the name of Oscar Jerome. He and his band demonstrated comparable skills in both composition and execution. From the sensual ("2 Sides") to the invigorating ("Get Back What You Stole from Me"), his songs were possessed of observations beyond his years, as balanced to perfection in "Chromatic Descendants," which sounded for all like a Minus the Bear b-side filtered through the blues. Jerome embodied immense patience for such a young player, building his songs from the ground up until they could withstand the strongest winds. At the other end of the tunnel, Jazzfest's final act was the sprightly quartet known as Deerhoof, joined by legendary trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith for a surreally coherent performance. Deerhoof's upbeat antics proved to be an appropriate springboard for Smith's interjections. Via intuitive punctuations and smooth elegies, he dug out a variety of ore from the band's deceptively simple mines.

In the great divide between these poles were some tall yet humble mountains. Among the highest peaks were those scaled by pianist Aaron Parks and his group Little Big (guitarist Greg Tuohey, bassist DJ Ginyard, and drummer Tommy Crane). It was only their second gig, but the enmeshment of their sound spoke of many more on another plane. From the flowering groove of "Kid" to the guitar-driven sere of "Digital Society," Parks and friends tasted the rainbow, and then some. The pianist often doubled precise guitar lines on a small electronic keyboard, while the rhythm section kept things going (and growing) along the way. Slower tunes like "Small Planet" and "Siren" were cinematic to the core, while the atmospheric touches of "Professor Strangeweather" made for quirkier developments. All told, they swept the audience up in expansive intimacy: an oxymoron in less capable hands, to be sure, but in theirs an organic farm soaking in rain. Later that same night, another pianist, Peter Afpelbaum, brightened the dark with his Sparkler outfit. Blending spoken word, smooth earworms, and pop sensibilities in a noisy jazz-leaning blender made for one glittering smoothie. Bassist Bill Laswell even joined the group for a spell, adding explosive ambience to songs like "I Colored It In For You," a delightful splash of supernatural savvy.

January 13 saw the duo stylings of pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, who brought an abstract yet focused sound. Courvoisier was resolutely exploratory with her instrument, playing almost as much inside the piano as on the keys, making live preparations to dampen or percuss its palette. She and Feldman linked composition and spontaneity with quiet fortitude, translating solos like information between languages. At times frenetic, at others soul-searching, theirs was an utterly textural music realized through therapeutic stages of emotional transference.

Throughout the festival, it was especially encouraging to see a proliferation of jazz influences among younger genre-benders. Case in point were the synth-pop comforts of Knower, fronted by vocalist Genevieve Artadi and multi-instrumentalist Louis Cole. With high yet reined energy, gorgeous rigor, and genuine embodiment of purpose, they splashed their fiercely creative souls across songs like "Time Traveler" and "Around," slinging a fierce jungle-beat techno subtext without once looking back.

Of particular delight, however, was the Blackout band, lead by mallet virtuoso Stefon Harris. Robust in both form and function, his music and message forged an art of love in the listening. In his own words, "Jazz is a music of immigration," and by that statement he encapsulated the medium in one sentence. Whether bringing the love in a tune dedicated to his two sons or extolling the power of Horace Silver's "Cape Verdean Blues," he brought full attention to everything he touched, down to his banter. After hitting the ground running, he made sure to tell us: don't stop singing.

Such sentiments were made clearest on the festival's penultimate evening, which began with a panel discussion among Nicole Mitchell, Steve Colson, legendary saxophonist and activist Archie Shepp, and pianist/composer Samora Pinderhughes, moderated by Ras Moshe. Shepp's insights as a pioneer of musical justice tied the festival's many philosophical strands together. Although born in 1937, he spoke emotionally about the 1935 lynching of Rubin Stacy. "Even now, when I play," he admitted, "I think of that man." His music has always been influenced by such existential events, and reminds us to keep those memories alive in every musical narrative. Colson agreed, adding that social commentary has also become big part of his art. "We don't have inanimate objects," he said," but things that are less vocal." Pinderhughes, representing a younger generation of socially conscious artists, noted that we can never know what's possible until we see someone do it. We mustn't, he went on, simply engage listeners but activate and inspire them to investigate. Mitchell echoed this by saying that, in today's world, there's nowhere to hide anymore. Indifference is no longer an option. Shepp made sure to emphasize, however, that freedom, once grasped, is something to be carefully guarded. It's never guaranteed. Nothing of importance can ever be conveyed in a mere hashtag, but must be shared with others. It reminded me of a moment during Colson's Muhal tribute, when trombonist Craig Harris passed a note to violinist Marlene Rice, who picked it up seamlessly and spun it into something new. This is what communication is all about: taking that which has been given to you and knowing you'd be nothing without it. So long as someone is listening, we're never alone.

Photo credit: Richard Conde

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