NYC Winter Jazzfest, Day 1: January 6, 2012

Daniel Lehner By

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2012 NYC Winter Jazzfest, Day 1
New York, NY
January 6, 2012

No one could argue that jazz didn't have a tumultuous 2011. For the better, bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding's Grammy for Best New Artist marked the first time a jazz musician was awarded that honor, and veteran tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins was honored for his lifelong (and continuing) achievement at the Kennedy Center. For the worse, the winter was a gloomy season, having lost living, active legends like drummer Paul Motian, saxophonist Sam Rivers and trombonist/arranger Bob Brookmeyer. On a more interesting note, jazz may have even begun undergoing a socio-political reclamation as trumpeter Nicholas Payton and others have challenged the word "jazz" itself and are seeking to bring the African-American context of the music to prominence (We may yet see the emergence of Winter BAMfest, depending on the path of the conversation).

But after the cadre of young musicians step up to fill the gaps of the elders and aim to pick themselves up off the laurels of a few mainstream accolades, it will become clear again that jazz (or BAM or Stretch or improvised music or creative music...) will march headstrong into 2012, and there's no better way to get things started than with BOOM Collective and Search and Restore's Winter Jazzfest. Set up as usual with five venues, over 30 artists per night, no corporate sponsorships and no restraints, Winter Jazzfest fired the starting gun for the New Year with a starry arrangement of bands both new and old, from every thread of the improvising music continuum.

New Mellow Edwards

Trombonist Curtis Hasselbring's New Mellow Edwards ensemble made a quiet but strong showing as a quartet at 2010's Undead Jazz Festival. However, as a septet, Hasselbring's unpredictable and diverse writing dressed itself in a whole new cloak of possibilities. Comprised of Hasselbring, guitarist Mary Halvorson, Claudia Quintet-ers Chris Speed (tenor sax/clarinet) and Matt Moran (vibraphone), bassist Trevor Dunn and the twin-drum-set configuration of Ches Smith and Satoshi Takeishi, Hasselbring's set at Le Poisson Rouge used a pastiche of musical tributes to create fictional, decoded narratives about real-life shortwave radio stations, deduced by Hasselbring to be espionage transmissions (a commissioned work entitled "Number Stations")

The most important quality to be found in Hasselbring's music was the use of coloration. Smith and Takeishi were the first of two twin-drummer bands playing at the festival, but the seemingly unusual combination makes sense, considering how far along drummers have come in the jazz world. One drummer was allowed to create underlying pulse while the other peppered the sound with his own sense of color. On one song, Halvorson's spiky bundles of lines matched Dunn's scratchy bridge textures and on another, contrasted with Moran's ethereal bursts of sound. Moran's bowed vibes airlifted Speed's reedy tenor sound, which later meshed with Hasselbring's warm trombone tone.

Hasselbring's writing for "Number Stations" approached levels of both supreme quirk and optimistic sweetness. Pieces like "Create Anchor Babies" spun thick harmonies in continuous rondo form into a samba beat, repeating melodies and trading solos in a delightfully claustrophobic expression of the Jobim spirit. Some tunes sounded like grunge hits chopped up into rhythmic pieces, others sounded like honest cowboy ballads. Stories were woven into the fabrics of songs by way of Chris Speed's unique internalization of bebop vocabulary and Dunn's compositionally sound bass soloing. Everything was both melded and easily parsed, which is, to many fans, the spirit of jazz in the first place.

John Medeski Solo

A solo piano set is never an easy way to keep an audience's attention and showcase musical prowess, especially not when an artist like John Medeski is chiefly known for being a keyboardist/organist with the consistently popular Medeski Martin & Wood. However, his showcase at Le Poisson Rouge was remarkable in its vast departure from the groovy intelligence of MMW and into the realm of something more serious. Medeski's set wove in and out of lush jazz chords and soulful hymns, ever-presently permeated with splashes of spiky dissonances.

Medeski clearly had a strong fascination with the pure sounds a piano could make. After Monk/Tatum style runs of note clusters, he would create moving volleys between thumping tones with his left hand and cold, water droplets with his right. He lured his audience into repetitive structures of sound that shifted ever so slightly, even in the most extreme registers of the piano. Left-hand ideas would submit to right-hand ideas and then rebel against them later. In the muddy depths of the instrument, Medeski accustomed his listeners to the extremity and let the echoed overtones of sound ring out. His subversions of sweeter pop melodies were often abrupt but not childish, only really tugging the rug from beneath the crowd, not pulling it out from under them.

What nobody could have expected, however, was his abandonment of the piano altogether in favor of a long, wooden flute. Medeski procured the long, indigenous-style flute from the side of the stage and began to whistle out joyous fife dances, sliding his finger across the length of it to adjust what was, upon later musing, one pitch with several other overtones attached. Then Medeski returned to the piano, but not without leaving the audience pleasantly reminded that having the word "solo" attached does not mean what might be assumed.


Festivals like these are as much living workshops as they are showcases. The band, comprised of alto saxophonists Pete Robbins and Oscar Noriega, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummers Ches Smith and John Hollenbeck, may have a name later, but at Winter Jazzfest it was an exploration of the possibilities of a two-alto/two-drummer/one-bass group. The quintet functioned as jazz for the Aphex Twin set: a jungle-grooved, dub-bass heavy soundscape punctuated by ferocity, operating in both live and looped time.

The set could have felt complete with just Smith and Hollenbeck collaborating. Armed with bells, wood blocks and a whole array of other percussion pieces, the two composerly drummers contributing constant, Latin-inspired rumbles along with crashing and thumping one-drop reggae, gracefully sewed together by Jermyn. The rest of the band got in on the rhythm action as well, Jermyn echoing glitchy electronics and the horns hammering their alto keys to make long, stunted ribbons of sound. Robbins and Noriega fit in best with funky drum-and-bass numbers, Robbins often jabbing with Maceo Parker style jabs while Noriega churned out long lines and piercing wails. The two altos played mostly oblique melodies, linking up gently and briefly between their moments of autonomy. The horns would continuously tense up to a fever pitch, either by the sheer power of dissonance or by their looping cells of rhythm, heightening it all up to a satisfying release. Though there are still some kinks to be worked out (Schatz announced that they had played "one-half of a time" before this), the band's control of both sound and concept was promising.

Michael Blake's Hellbent

Last year, the Asphalt Orchestra accosted stages and marched its party music through the streets. This year, it was saxophonist Michael Blake's turn to bring the street band aesthetic. Hellbent was crafted in the New Orleans style, not just in the stepping rhythms of Marcus Rojas's tuba but also in the powder-keg funk of drummer Calvin Weston and the rollicking brass expressions of trumpeter Steven Bernstein.

Hellbent didn't just pursue the funeral band sound, either. Blake and Bernstein occasionally got entangled in free jazz bouts a la Don Cherry/Ornette Coleman. Violinist Charlie Burnham contributed an electrified, Jimi Hendrix-brand yowl, complete with the chugging of a wah-wah pedal. Weston's pyrotechnics indicated a modern gospel influence and Rojas's "tuba scratching" had a glimmer of hip-hop turntablism. The band mostly used Blake's melodies as a template for group improvisation, so when it wasn't in NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana) mode, it had the freedom to shift into different styles seamlessly.

Hellbent's cast was composed of familiar names that are still criminally underrated musicians. Rojas needs to be given superb credit for successfully doing what most upright bass players (let alone bass-function tuba players) strive for: possessing a deep pocket while playing bass lines and a strong soloing ability. With bassist Ben Allison, Blake is known for his melodicism, but he also needs to be given credit for his aggressive and lightning-fast approach in avant-garde contexts. Bernstein's slide trumpet sounded impassioned and shimmering and Burnham's double-stops wowed the crowd.

Marco Benevento Solo

If Medeski's solo piano set was aiming to search, Marco Benevento was aiming to give Sullivan Hall everything he had. Benevento was armed with a bevy of electronics and equipment to spontaneously compose washes of looped sound and effortless melodies. Most of his music was steeped in the electro-acoustic indie rock style typified by artists like Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent, characterized by a head-nodding sense of rhythm and plenty of wistfulness in the melodies. Occupied with one "acoustic hand" on the piano and an "electric hand" on his machinery, most of his melodies were deft and clever, erring on pentatonic and arpeggiated themes.

Benevento's construction was satisfying in its diversity and graduated nature. Everything moved slowly and effectively, each part getting ample time to breathe. Upper register cascades were bathed in static and coupled with warbling synthesizers. Benevento's ultra-cool "Greenpoint" followed the dub tradition carefully, with each section able to drop in and out at any point with just a little bit of soul for good measure. At a certain point, the electronic phaser, the glitchy drum machine and the adjusted timbre of the piano melded together to obscure where one began and one ended, creating a singular sound that would be difficult to ever replicate.

Gilad Hekselman Quartet

The young Israeli guitarist has forged a name for himself amongst strong competitors on his instrument, including but not limited to guitarists like Julian Lage, Lage Lund and Jonathan Kreisberg. Hekselman shines through his peers with an almost playful folksiness combined with his extremely swift jazz concepts. His first piece bounced around a snaky melody in ¾ time like a carousel. Heksleman likes chicken-picked gypsy guitar stylings as much as he likes advanced chords and blazing melodies. His band of more-than-just-seasoned young jazz musicians—saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore—was able to lend its unique support to each of his ideas.


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