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

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

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Day 1 | Day 2

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

What with the snow, the lines, the standing-room-only crowds, New York City's Winter Jazzfest can be a hectic, hectoring hell of force-feeding, a speed-read tasting menu of mad musical difference, as hard to digest in the instant as to coalesce in one's mind after the fact. It takes maneuvering at the right moments, in and out of clubs, and elbowing one's way into comfortable zones in reasonable proximity to the artists for an ultimate reward, and to savor the conceptual complexity of today's best jazz on display.

The 2011 Fest transpired over two days, Friday, January 7 and Saturday, January 8, with 30-plus acts each night distributed over five venues, at sellout capacity. Ostensibly a showcase for up-and-coming talent, the event was anchored by established musicians, often decidedly great ones. The whole prospect of the experience provokes frenzied cogitation and planning, with a schedule and artist lineup sheet, to maximize the intake of coveted slots and seeming highlights. As expected, things don't always go according to plan: attendees see different performances than anticipated, and technical difficulties beset the performances themselves. But this is the beauty of the ballgame, so to speak. The best experiences happen at times and places unexpected, and these are surprising and effervescent.

The Respect Sextet

The first surprise of the event was The Respect Sextet festival kick-off at Le Poisson Rouge. The group's relative obscurity meant a sparse attendance for the show, making for an opportunity to get up close to the stage and see exactly what the group was doing with its instruments, which turned out to be crucial as so much was going on. Band spokesman James Hirschfeld announced that he had lost his trombone earlier that day, playing alto cornet instead—a fortuitous opportunity right off the bat, for audience to experience something it doesn't hear every day.

A free opening, morphing into funk, led to a Stan Kenton-esque, big-band-style burst. A big free buildup followed, with heavy drums. In a holding pattern, some symphonic inroads were laid down, and finally Josh Rutner started a saxophone solo; edgy and modal. This all quickly became a wall of sound that, again, encroached upon the continuing saxophone solo, serving to punctuate it.

A bass buildup from Malcolm Kirby Jr., with African percussion from drummer Ted Poor, preceded more sax, this time evoking Archie Shepp, sassy and dry. Hirschfeld played random percussion toys on the floor, as Rutner and trumpeter Eli Asher played a kind of hide-and-seek. Hirschfeld's rhythmic reveille came to the forefront, with Asher and Rutner accenting.

A Latin pace was laid down with more sax, and pastel piano clusters from Red Wierenga. Then, a bop break into a brassy fanfare. A Clifford Brown style trumpet solo built and climbed and tumbled as the ensemble got brassy and brassier, with lots of big drums and a Max Roach-like drum solo with tonal emphasis, leading to a ritardo and abrupt end. Hirschfeld explained that this was a crossbreed of Sun Ra's "Saturn" and Karl-Heinz Stockhausen's "Capricorn."

Next was a Misha Mengelberg composition, with a lightly swinging saxophone intro that the two horns underlined, as the piano came in with a lush lurch and bass and drums laid out. It was almost a variation on Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus"—or, alternatively, a cross between Duke Ellington and Aaron Copland, with loping modal lyricism. Cymbals inched in, and Art Ensemble Of Chicago-style squeaks and jumbles, with Kirby bowing his bass and then dropping the bow for some funky plucking accompanied by breathy, choppy sax. Bass and drums came to the foreground, with chirps from the brass and Wierenga coming back with a linear chromatic melody, together with a bass buildup. All reached a frenetic pace but right on the beat. Wierenga kept going, adding quick clusters like breaking glass, presaging a humming fadeout.

On the final number, a band original, Wierenga started by plucking the inner strings of the piano to a saxophone playing scalar fragments, and a muted trumpet. Hirschfeld sat down and played mbira (African thumb piano), and a gamelan sound lead to Anthony Braxton-style nervous energy. Then, a march rhythm evolved behind, like in a parade or at a circus, with an intense buildup segueing into another saxophone solo back by bass and drums, John Coltrane-like sheets of sound, ferocious circles and hot and heavy drums. All wielded their axes against the grain, and a very percussive swing came back. Asher was able to get electronic-sounding bleeps out of his trumpet mouthpiece detached from the body. Finally a cymbal ride and a glorious march to end it all.


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