Winter Jazzfest, New York City, Day 1: January 7, 2011

Winter Jazzfest, New York City, Day 1: January 7, 2011
Daniel Lehner By

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Winter Jazzfest
New York, NY
January 7-8, 2011

Since the informal move of jazz to the cities in the 1930s, the lore and legend of jazz compositions have lain in streets and places. The most common ones were the clubs, where innovations in jazz were happening, and the windy, uptown streets of questionable safety where they were being forged ("52nd St. Theme," "Five Spot After Dark"). The modern jazz composer might not have use for such subject matter, but if there's a place for these matters in the present of future musical contexts, there may be songs about Bleecker St.

Of course, New York City's Winter Jazz Festival—which has expanded to five venues for its Saturday shows and amassed crowds of thousands—is not just a place for groups to experiment. It's also grounds to exhibit, recollect, celebrate and debut. Winter Jazzfest takes some of its architecture from the jazz festivals that precede it, such as George Wein's groundbreaking Newport Jazz Festival. But with the plurality of place and music (where you could be seated at a table at one venue and squatted under another at the next) and the sheer weight of a festival crammed into such a tiny space is a visual indicator that this festival has as much in common with SXSW (South by Southwest) as it does a typical summer lawn affair.

Amina Figarova

There's a famous tradition of American jazz musicians going overseas to play for welcoming audiences in Denmark and France. More often than not these days, the trend seems be shifting in reverse: jazz musicians from all around the world, influenced in one way or another by jazz on record or in person, are now flocking to New York. Azerbaijan-born and Rotterdam-resident pianist Amina Figarova was hailed by the announcer at Zinc Bar as the "newest pianist to the NYC scene." Figarova's band was a sextet informed by more than one era of jazz; the kind of sound that can only come through years of listening, and innovation through imitation.

Figarova's band had a warm, gentle color combination of flute, trumpet and tenor saxophone, the kind of post-The Jazz Messengers sound stylized by musicians like James Spaulding. The horn section showed a lot of historical precedent, but managed to innovate in the style they placed themselves in. Bart Platteau, using the flute as his primary instrument as opposed to a double, had more than enough bebop influence to go around. Trumpeter Ernie Hammes was at home with the Freddie Hubbard/Lee Morgan sound, but also channeled the quiet nuances of modern trumpeters like Terence Blanchard when he wasn't burning. Tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas, a Netherlands native and New York resident, has formed a rhythmically and harmonically free style over the years, drawing heavily from Wayne Shorter's tenure in the Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-'60s, and found himself in a unique position to push the band to exciting places.

Figarova's precision uncovered new depth as time went by; her piano sound possessed a quiet pleasantness, tempered by a cool touch and bouncy but flowing right hand style that could not be underestimated, lest a listener be tripped up by her adroit sense of harmonic dissonance. Musically, her writing drew from the rumbles of Latin-influenced American jazz, pursued enthusiastically by drummer Chris " Buckshot" Strik, aka "Buckshot," and the funky, bass-heavy sound of 21st century soul proprietors like Robert Glasper.

Shane Endsley and the Music Band

Fans of trumpeter Shane Endsley might not be surprised at the seemingly tongue-in-cheek name of his band, but might be surprised at how appropriate that name really is. Endsley's solo project was music in plain English, songs categorized by strong melodies and concepts your grandmother could understand. While the music did not, in any way, lack sophistication or fire, there was a certain absence of all things pretentious that modern jazz sometime really needs.

Endsley's playing is becoming instantly recognizable the more he works. He has all but mastered the low register of his horn, and came through during his 7:00 PM show at Kenny's Castaways with a trademark singing style. His highly melodic improvisations lined up succinctly with his compositions, and his chops were not limited to his sound, as he plunged into the realm of the "fluttery" trumpet tone on his own composition, "Big," while creaking and buzzing his way through extended trumpet technique on "Two Parts." Endsley also aligned himself with superb sidemen. Bassist Matt Brewer was comfortable at any and all levels of his instrument, jumping registers to explore every place a melody could be extracted. Pianist Pete Rende took the opportunity to explore the depth of Endsley's compositions on the searching, atonal ballad "Young Benjamins," while drummer Ted Poor both trickled and burned on Endsley's stylistically broad tunes.

Endsley's compositions ranged from '60s soul jams to one that was announced as an outright country tune—equal parts Johnny Cash, Prairie Home Companion and Aaron Copland. Poor brought out his boom-chicka-boom Southern two-step, while Brewer explored all possibilities of what might be called a post-washboard style of country bass. Endsley's music, above all else, was a joyous tribute to music—jazz and otherwise.

Jacob Garchik Trio

Trombonist Jacob Garchik's bass-less trio, with drummer Dan Weiss and pianist Jacob Sacks, did not suffer any missing particles. Garchik's writing both allowed for space to breathe and room for the musicians to innovate. Garchik is a dynamic trombonist, providing an arsenal of technique that covered the history of his instrument—showcasing everything from illogically fast post-bop lines to a cool swinging vibrato—and was perfectly positioned to lead his own brand of musical vision.

The absence of a bassist allowed not only for freedom, but for dialogue as well. "X," Garchik's blazing reworking of rhythm changes, flourished with a frenetic melody matched by Sacks' right hand and punctuated with attacks from his left. Garchik's music provided ideas that were interesting enough to stand without the usual functions of certain players (like Thelonious Monk said, "Sometimes the best music is imagined"). When one member dropped out, the other two were able to explore a musical conversation. On the minimalist and hard-swinging "Reg," Garchik and Sacks punched out heavy chords, while Weiss filled the spaces in between. When Garchik snapped a trombone line, the other two were able to fluctuate in response.

Weiss is one of the more musical drummers on the scene, working almost exclusively to build a story with his improvisation. Sacks, who usually plays piano in Garchik's trio, was suited superbly with Kenny's Castaways' Rhodes. What he lost in potential raw intensity from a grand piano, he made up in poignancy, also providing new depth to Garchik's music. On his wandering, pensive composition "5s," the lilting melody was given an alien, almost robotic feel that reverberated throughout the hall.

Jen Shyu and Jade Tongue

Jade Tongue's performance, in a simple description, was the musical vision of vocalist Jen Shyu, but if it had to be paired down into exactly what it consisted of, more words would have be employed. Shyu's music blurred the lines between jazz, folk music, world music, poetry, theater and performance art, as the singer embellished her performance with meditative dance and a scroll-style scarf with written poetry. Whereas it might be possible to break a review into separate songs, Jade Tongue's performance was one, singular, music epic. Shyu is multitalented and it showed through her multiple instruments, including voice, piano and a three-stringed moon lute, but her biggest asset was her ear. Shyu's ability to hear dissonance, melody and every inch of her own compositions allowed her to take on the role of both storyteller and instrumentalist, through her voice.

Backed by Dan Weiss, bassist John Hébert and alto saxophonist David Binney, Shyu's musical journey traversed dark narrative readings, evoking expression with punctuated words like "slavery" and "blood." Shyu's wordless singing occasionally paired itself with Binney, only to divert in its own direction, moments later. Shyu's vocalisms were highly textual, shifting in dynamics, timbre, and even language. At a certain point, Shyu's breathy whisper danced a sonically brilliant duet with Binney's barking upper register, a musical narrative like a long walk in a dark wood, where it was difficult to see the end or the beginning. Poetry would beget sung narrative, which would then flow into free improvisation, track briefly back to a melody and ultimately recycle itself.

Hébert's thunderous bass playing mixed with Weiss's lyrical, story-like drumming, provided a Western-Eastern fusion background. Binney's role—in addition to blending with Shyu's often gentle music—was to bring himself into the picture as well, allowed all the freedom necessary to pour wild sheets of sound when required. From this group's performance alone, the notion that vocalists are lesser musicians can officially consider itself shattered.

Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth

Deluxe (Clean Feed, 2010), bassist Chris Lightcap's latest CD with his band, Bigmouth, made its share of year-end top ten lists and, from the massive crowd at Kenny's Castways, also seems to have wowed its fair share of fans. Fronted by the twin tenor attack of Chris Cheek and Jeff Lederer, and backed by drummer Gerald Cleaver and pianist Craig Taborn, Lightcap created a sound indicated by the classic convertible displayed on Deluxe's cover: the sound of the open road, filled with dramatic flourishes, head-nodding musical rides, and sudden moments of wistfulness.

Lederer had big shoes to fill, subbing for Bigmouth's usual saxophonist, Tony Malaby. In the first minute or so of his solo on "Blues for Carlos," he quickly and effectively established himself, in a exemplary solo ranging from low, buzz saw attacks to penny whistle altissimo screams. He was the Dionysian counterpart to Cheek's superbly tasteful Apollonian style, as he melodically drifted through the heightened tension of "Silvertone"—though it should be mentioned that he later got into some hard stuff. There was also a surprise visit from trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, who put himself right in the musical context of his reed-playing compatriots, flowing with the same expressionist logic and intensity. Taborn was a wizard in the context of this group; armed with the freedom and melodic integrity of Lightcap's music, the pianist filled up the sound with spacey coloring, jaunty Latin rhythms and manic free improvisation. The open road sound of this quintet was largely thanks to Cleaver's push—the key ingredient being a tambourine which, when mounted to his kit, splashed and drove the ensemble and, when separated, shimmered over top.

While the "time, no-changes" free jazz style of some of Lightcap's earlier releases—from which the set closing "Celebratorial" was drawn—have more than enough merit, his writing for Deluxe is a superb achievement in composition for improvisers. Every song sounded like the end of a film, where wistful nostalgia was seated sidecar with deliberate panache. Much as Duke Ellington described his orchestra, Lightcap's band was a Cadillac, with the force of a Mack Truck.

Aaron Goldberg Trio

Internationally renowned for his sideman work, pianist Aaron Goldberg has put together a formidable trio. Flanked by bassist Matt Penman and drummer Eric Harland, Goldberg found himself at full capability as a leader for Zinc Bar's audience.

Goldberg's trio has found a brilliant way to relate to time that seems unattainable by mere mortals. They seemed able to speed up at will, jamming lengthy pockets of sound in spaces of time that shouldn't fit such outbursts, not to mention doing it all in perfect synchronicity. Goldberg's melodic and rhythmic development reverberated like a sound wave to his responsive rhythmic section on his "One's a Crowd." The pianist's melodic inventions—which involved Coltrane-esque cycles in harmony—were matched in intensity by his fellow musicians. He also proved capable of a much more nuanced style, in a tune that was about 90% gospel and 10% jazz. Goldberg's crowning achievement of the night was his left-hand/right-hand independence, in one instance accompanying himself with a left-hand bass line that would give a bassist enough to work with—and never gave way even once—while he stretched into extremely challenging solos with his right.

His side cats were also forces to be reckoned with. Penman had complete control over his very dark bass tone through his resonant, melodic style of soloing; Goldberg compositions like "Lambada de Serpente" giving the bassist more than a few functions: acting as bass line; counterpoint; and melody. Harland has already established himself as a powerhouse drummer. Here, his jazz sensibilities, which included a super hard swing and razor precise grooves, were just prerequisites; his true brilliance lying in his deliberateness, where every separate drum hit was attacked and organized as if they were notes on a piano.

Marcus Strickland Quartet

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland has a lot of experience in the jazz world, and no shortage of influences, but his quartet seemed to be all Strickland, all of the time. The saxophonist's set was a comfortable bag of original compositions that all seemed to flow from the same source—which, while having its merits, provided the one complaint about this quartet: many of the compositions seemed very similar, if only from the way they were arranged in the set list.

Strickland's band was a wisely chosen group. David Bryant was a bluesy, conversational pianist that covered Strickland's compositions, hand-in-glove. The prodigal Ben Williams ate up the bass lines that set up Strickland's compositions, his soloing one of the quartet's highlights, as he proved more than capable of holding his own as an improviser, next to the piano and saxophone. E.J. Strickland's grooving drums were supportive and complimentary of the entire ensemble. There were moments of smart interplay, specifically on the tune "Dawn," where Bryant made perfect echoes of Strickland's melodies and improvisation. Marcus Strickland, himself, was a classy and tasteful player who has crafted a strong sound concept that he never betrayed in his solos. He demonstrated a unique sense of melody, and subservience to "riffing," that managed to avoid sounding clichéd.

Photo Credit
Dave Kaufman

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