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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.

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