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NYC Winter Jazzfest 2016

Dan Bilawsky By

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A midwinter's dream of an event that understands and emphasizes the hip factor in jazz of all shapes, colors, and sizes.
NYC Winter Jazzfest
New York, NY
January 13-17, 2016

If you make the rounds in New York City on any night of the week, during any week of the year, there's always an abundance of quality jazz to hear. But when NYC Winter Jazzfest takes hold, the cup truly runneth over. This massive annual event amplifies this already-vibrant scene, bringing it to critical mass while drawing in jazz fans, musicians, and industry members from near and far. Over the course of its existence, NYC Winter Jazzfest has grown in status, changing and evolving from insider's affair to institution, and, ultimately, becoming what it is today: A midwinter's dream of an event that understands and emphasizes the hip factor in jazz of all shapes, colors, and sizes.

The twelfth edition of this festival made that point just as well, if not better, than previous versions, appealing to catholic tastes and curious ears. With well over a hundred acts on the bill over the course of five days, attendees had the opportunity to create individualized listening itineraries that suited their interests and needs. There were notable stand-alone shows dotting the landscape—a triple bill kickoff at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Wednesday, January 13, featuring The Ex, the duo of bassist Bill Laswell and saxophonist Colin Stetson, and Happy Apple; the Jazz Concert for Disability Pride at The Quaker Friends Meeting Hall on Thursday, January 14, bringing a slew of legends together for a worthy cause; and the fest-ending Channeling Coltrane, also at (Le) Poisson Rouge, with Rova's Electric Ascension featuring Nels Cline and an opening set from guitarist Julian Lage—and the ever-popular Friday and Saturday marathons, with music filling a multitude of venues from 6pm until the wee small hours of the morning. There was also one unfortunate postponement—the highly anticipated concert from saxophonist Kamasi Washington, originally scheduled at Webster Hall on Thursday, January 14, had to be moved back to a late February date, as he was unable to travel due to an injury. But that notable snag couldn't dampen the spirit of NYC Winter Jazzfest. The show must go on, and boy, did it ever. Here's the scoop on one man's experiences over the course of the two marathon evenings:

Friday Marathon (January 15, 2016): "The Northbound Odyssey"

Those who've attended a NYC Winter Jazzfest marathon know that choice and opportunity become a double-edged sword. The one-ticket-covers-all-venues approach for the marathon event(s) allows for easy access to a tremendous amount of music, but there are far too many shows that deserve attention going on at the same time. Hard decisions have to be made as a route is sketched out, leaving some shows behind. It's a good problem, as this remains a pick-your-passion event with no wrong choices, but it's a problem nonetheless. For this writer, the ones that got away at the Friday Marathon were many and varied—drummer Makaya McCraven, vocalist Rene Marie, Evan Christopher's Clarinet Road featuring vocalist Hilary Gardner, guitarist James Blood Ulmer, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Avishai Cohen, saxophonist Mark Turner, and drummer Mark Guiliana, to name just a few. With over sixty acts performing on a single night, you're guaranteed to miss a lot more than you see. But it's far better to appreciate and recap what was caught than lament what was missed.

The pathway for the evening—part planned, part spontaneous—turned into a northbound odyssey that started in Tribeca and ended at the border of Union Square. It began with a stop at one of the new participating venues—The Django, at the stylish Roxy Hotel. This cozy basement club played host to Chilean-turned-New Yorker Camila Meza, who gave a powerful and entrancing performance in support of her forthcoming album—Traces (Sunnyside Records, 2016). Armed with guitar and voice, and accompanied by a killer unit featuring bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Kendrick Scott, and pianist James Francies, she delivered a set that spoke both to her adopted home and motherland. Her playlist included the title track from the aforementioned album, a winning take on Djavan's "Amazon Farewell," and a solo nod to Chile, all delivered with passion and dynamism. Unexpected harmonic shifts and metric twists were both part of the package, but they all served the music. Meza's reputation as a talented triple-threat—guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter/composer—proved true, and Scott was a force to be reckoned with. It was a brief but memorable show built on the marriage of stability and surprise. The Django, while off the beaten path at nearly a mile's walk away from the nearest participating festival venue(s), proved to be a fine addition to the mix, offering intimacy, great sound, and unobscured lines of sight.

The second stop of the evening was (Le) Poisson Rouge, where the ever-zany Sexmob—slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr, and drummer Kenny Wolleson—celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Winter Jazzfest founder Brice Rosenbloom and his partner-in-production, Adam Schatz, spoke warmly and humorously in their introductions of this mercurial band, but the music did most of the talking. Bernstein and Krauss sputtered, spewed, and stammered out avant-melodic thoughts; Wolleson engaged his comrades and the audience with gong warfare and groove-making; and Scherr, by and large, played the straight man, holding things down with solid riffs while the aural shenanigans came from all other sides.

From there it was a short trip to Judson Memorial Church, where saxophonist Dayna Stephens was getting ready with his band—3wi featuring Sam Yahel. Sound problems seemed to plague the group at the beginning of the set—guitarist Gilad Hekselman was visually displeased and the mix was a little off—but that didn't stop 3wi from exploring its sound to the fullest. Hekselman's liquid lyricism was on display for all to hear during "Like Someone In Love," drummer Adam Arruda held everything in place, and Yahel and Stephens (on EWI) brought a distinctive blend to bear on the room.

That show was sparsely attended, but there was quite an audience for the follow-up event: a performance by organist Dr. Lonnie Smith's Evolution that, not surprisingly, proved to be the feel-good event of the night. The always-boomy acoustics of the church played to Smith's advantage, as his stylish smears, swirling sounds, and viscous chords filled the air. His set took off with a high energy "50 Ways To Leave Your Lover," continued with "Straight No Chaser," and climaxed with "My Favorite Things" and a modulating soul winner that put guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg in the spotlight. Through it all, the drumming team of Jonathan Blake and Allison Miller—flanking Smith and alternately working alone and together—provided incredible grooves and horsepower.

After spending a considerable amount of time at Judson Church, the night called for a change of venue, a different viewpoint, and another decent walk—a straight shot through Washington Square Park and up 5th Avenue to The New School's Tishman Auditorium. That's where the eagerly anticipated ECM Records showcase was taking place on both marathon evenings. At that point in time, the trio of drummer-percussionist Ches Smith, pianist Craig Taborn, and violist Mat Maneri was mid-set, delivering a series of outward bound chamber works that could be cunning, confounding, and/or caustic in nature. Smith moved between drums and vibes, delivering bedrock beats and questing/questioning statements; Maneri skirted expectations with his every thought and whim; and Taborn reminded the audience that the piano is both a construct of melodic and harmonic intent and a percussion instrument. Taborn's clawing and hammering attacks were startling, as were Smith's shifts in mood and Maneri's angular expressions.

The auditorium was near capacity for that show, and most if not all of the remaining seats were quickly occupied before the Vijay Iyer Trio took to the stage. That band's mesmeric set was filled with rhythmic crosscurrents, poetic-cum-powerful gestures, and hypnotic tidewaters. The emotion-rich music, which highlighted the deepening relationship between Iyer and his longtime trio mates—bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore—was awe-inspiring. Once that set ended, the auditorium cleared out, leaving a much smaller listening pool in wait for pianist David Virelles' Mboko. Many, no doubt, anxiously rushed out to try to catch part of The Bad Plus' "surprise" midnight show at Judson Hall; some, likely, went off to other venues; and more than a few probably called it quits—as this writer did—after a long and fruitful night of listening. After all, this two-day endurance event—like the marathon itself—requires pacing.

Saturday Marathon (January 16, 2016): "New Night, New School"

After a Friday full of trekking around, a change of plan was in order for Saturday. The new strategy, built both for interest(s) and comfort, involved gathering moss while exploring the Winter Jazzfest offerings at The New School. First up was an extended stay at the aforementioned ECM showcase. Bassist Michael Formanek kicked off the evening with Ensemble Kolossus—a bold big band stacked with an incredible pool of left-of-center talent that included guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Tomas Fujiwara, pianist Kris Davis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and saxophonist Chris Speed, to name but a few. The group's lengthy set, which consisted of material from The Distance (ECM, 2016), truly had it all—free excursions, tightly executed unison work, braying declamations, clustered chords, small group interplay, and full band roar. It was a sonic epic that intelligently fused the act of surrender, the adoption of serenity, the brilliance of post-gothic architecture, and jazz in the key of strife. It was also the first of many Saturday night sneak peeks of what ECM has in store for the coming months and year.

Next up was Theo Bleckmann's Elegy—a yet-to-be-recorded project that will ultimately serve as the vocalist's leader debut for ECM. In short, it was an earthly encounter with an angelic vocal presence. The gleaming sonic haze of Ben Monder's guitar melded with Bleckmann's live looped vocals, pianist Shai Maestro built gentle pools of reflective sound, drummer John Hollenbeck delivered everything from cymbal dusting to propulsive gestures, and bassist Chris Tordini added to the ethereal mixture with his arco work. Bleckmann's electronic tinkering, masterful use of the microphone's full range of possibility, and poetic grasp of sound were all on display during this beauty of a set.

Saxophonist Chris Potter, in keeping with the soon-to-be-recorded subtext, followed Bleckmann with his own new project—a quartet featuring pianist David Virelles, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Marcus Gilmore. The auditorium was packed for this world premiere, and the band didn't disappoint. After delivering a strong, odd-metered opener with fluid tenor work and an impressive piano solo, the group moved in a variety of different directions. Potter went on to display his mastery of soprano as the semi-balladic follow-up took off, he took to his bass clarinet for a journey through a mournful pseudo-spiritual, and then he returned to his tenor to take the show to its conclusion. While this band is in its infancy, there was already a clear group identity stamped on all of the music. If this show is any indication, the album should be a real stunner when it arrives.

After spending three-and-a-half hours in the same place, it was time to stretch the legs and take a short walk down the block to The New School's jazz building. That's where the 5th Floor Theater—a compact little venue with space for less than a hundred listeners—could be found. Drummer Will Calhoun's "Celebrating Elvin Jones" project was already at it, delivering a crowd-pleasing brand of music. Some of the material (early on) seemed to lack the oomph factor that only the late Elvin Jones could've given it, but the set, by and large, was a success. Trumpeter Keyon Harrold clearly came to play, saxophonist Antoine Roney had his fair share of things to say, and Calhoun's tribal-cum-chopsy drum solo late in the set brought the energy level up to, if not beyond, the Jones level of intensity. The finale—a spirited performance of John Coltrane's immortal "Mr. P.C."—proved to be the perfect ending to the performance.

Pianist Shai Maestro's trio followed Calhoun's group there, performing music that was alternatively ruminative and restless. Drummer Ziv Ravitz's morphing beats pointed to everything from rock and jazz to EDM and drum and bass, with choppy broken phrases and steady-as-they-go grooves all working into the picture; Maestro alternately painted kinetic art and fragility across the piano; and bassist Jorge Roeder proved to be a compelling presence, gluing everything together and speaking with clarity and emotion through his instrument. Their set, which included "When You Stop Seeing" from Untold Stories (Motema Music, 2015) and a medley of a brand new number and "Gal," was an entrancing escape into a world of wondrous sounds.

At that point in the evening—nearly midnight—a return to Tishman Auditorium was in the cards. After hearing the tail end of trumpeter Ralph Alessi's quartet show, the duo of pianist Ethan Iverson and saxophonist Mark Turner closed out the ECM stage. This pair, nattily dressed for the occasion, delivered a set built around new music. "We Come From The Future" was the duo's nod to science fiction, with classically-infused arpeggiated notions and a sense of mystery working hand-in-hand; "Time And Tide" accentuated the after hours vibe in the room at the point, as the duo showed a keen understanding of the value of space and flow; "On The Beat," complete with finger snaps, was all about the art of movement and masking; and "Turner's Chamber Of Unlikely Delights" was Iverson's way of utilizing Turner's talents with difficult material. Iverson spoke between each number, setting up the performances with knowledge and humor, and he took the time to address the legacy of the late Paul Bley near the end of the set.

As with Friday, there were more than a few acts that were sadly missed—pianist Fabian Almazan, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by saxophonist Marshall Allen, vocalist José James, and guitarist Rez Abbasi were high on that list—but there were no regrets with the chosen ones. Both marathon evenings offered innumerable riches that pointed to the inclusive nature of this event and the musical equipoise at work in the programming. NYC Winter Jazzfest remains a boon to the New York scene and the entire jazz community. Long may it thrive.

Photo Credit: Bart Babinski

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