Never Alone: Reflections on the 2018 Winter Jazzfest

Tyran Grillo By

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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.
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