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Winter Jazzfest, New York City, Day 2: January 8, 2011

Winter Jazzfest, New York City, Day 2: January 8, 2011

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

Kirk Knuffke Quartet

Trumpeter Kirk Knuffke certainly has an enthusiasm for the "hot" jazz of the 1920's, even if it isn't straight from the source. Knuffke's quartet—co-fronted by trombonist Brian Drye, and backed by bassist Mark Helias and drummer Jeff Davis—demonstrated the rollicking playfulness of Louis Armstrong's early groups, and Knuffke's robust trumpet tone, coupled with the Drye's expressive, occasionally wah-wah'ed playing, certainly lent credit to the New Orleans masters. However, his quartet is, in actuality, a third reiteration of the group's raw, improvised brass sound; the second being the work of soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, to whom Knuffke paid tribute during last summer's Undead Jazz Festival. Knuffke's quartet is part of a post-Lacy generation that embraces the wryness and musical theatrics of the New Orleans sound, much like its contemporaries, Mostly Other People Do the Killing.

At its Kenny's Castaways show, the quartet also delved into a good deal of intricate writing and delightful anachronisms. Knuffke showed phenomenal technique, capable of switching into modern language at the drop of a hat. Drye's playing became raucous and harmonically adventurous, but never lost that Duke Ellington-ian spirit. Helias and Davis were more than happy to oblige the horns their slightly manic swing but, when providing a hip-hop based backbeat, the paradox was appreciated. Knuffke's band knew exactly where it came from in the lineage of history, and honored that connection even further by creating exciting, honest music in the creative process.

Jamie Baum Septet

Jamie Baum is one the few New York-based musicians who makes a name and a career primarily as a flautist. Whereas other reed players usually have the instrument as a member of their arsenal, Baum performs with hers as a primary axe. At her Bitter End performance, Baum's septet was flanked by some of New York's finest musicians, including guitarist Brad Shepik and pianist Kevin Hays. Hays was one of the many musicians throughout the festival playing Fender Rhodes and, though at the time it may have seemed like a equipment and/or venue based choice, the prevalence of the Rhodes as an artistic choice at the Winter Jazz Festival could not be understated.

Baum's music was mostly based around groove and rhythmic exposition. Her set opener had a playful feel that evoked images of running, unfolding like the opening of a film score. Baum's music liked to hold a center and deviate where necessary—the melody appearing and staying constant, but with the harmony changing underneath. A tune would be set in a complicated time signature like 10/8, but the soloists, particularly trumpet player Taylor Haskins, would maintain their melodic integrity. Baum's compositions also drew from personal experiences and programmatic writing. "The Monkeys of Gorkana" was meant to evoke a spooky feeling of extremely dark and treacherous woods and used turbulent horn lines and spooky ostinatos to convey the appropriate feeling of dread.

Bad Touch

Arriving at the Bad Touch's Kenny's Castaways set during the second half of its performance, the group had already worked itself into a controlled frenzy. Guitarist Nate Radley and organist Gary Versace were providing a pulsating, hard-driving rock feel underneath alto saxophonist Loren Stillman, along with the persistent support of drummer Ted Poor. The groove of the three rhythm section players was dominant and fighting for superiority, but it was the timbre of the group that lent it its depth; the echo of the organ and the ping of the electric guitar joining with the resonance of Stillman's alto to create a robust, almost alien sound.

Stillman played all over the horn, bending his solo flourishes upwards with a fluttery tone. Radley and Versace—who, in other contexts, have both shown a sense of melodic subtlety—exhibited a sense of fire and reckless abandon. Versace, who in certain instances sounded as if he was playing accordion voicings on the keyboard (he's known for his accordion work with artists like Maria Schneider, moved constantly upwards atop Poor's stuttering drum beats. It was a deliberately intense, deliberately ferocious brand of music that could be labeled "grad school badassery."

Andrew D'Angelo's AGOGIC

All too often, players in the avant-garde are regarded as enfants terribles, who either lack integrity and sincerity or possess these qualities but choose to ignore them. Saxophonist Andrew D'Angelo's quartet did not fulfill this stereotype in any way. AGOGIC was a hard-hitting quintet that showed the utmost sincerity for classic funky music in its avant-garde dealings. While its angular and sometimes atonal compositions were typical of D'Angelo's work, the horn hits were the familiar "bah-dat" kind of accent borne directly out of James Brown, and the deep bass grooves laid down by electric bassist Luke Bergman were colored with shades of early heavy metal and grunge. According to D'Angelo, this Kenny's Castaways show was the NYC debut of young drummer Evan Woodle, and his knowledge of rock music, coupled with the nimbleness and full situational awareness of being in an improvisational context made for a memorable first outing.

D'Angelo and trumpeter Cuong Vu made for a formidable horn front. Vu demonstrated a precision unrivaled by most trumpet players. He played with incredible warmth and logical, atonal accuracy on the free pieces. His extended techniques, which included creaking buzzes and cracks, were used only when he absolutely wanted them to happen. The word "agogic" refers to the type of accents used to denote duration, and this was a good use of vocabulary, given D'Angelo's musical concept. D'Angelo crafted a sound on the alto sax that, to use an extended metaphor, was best described as being like a bird of prey in flight. His deliberate, flowing melodies swooped up and down the registers, filling up the space around the saxophonist very quickly as he relished the intensity of his choices. He latched onto a groove and swiftly took it to new, treacherous territory; then, in the final, inevitable act, jumping in for the attack, snarling and screeching in an intense but violently beautiful display of musicianship.

The powerful quartet also showed its sincerity by paying tribute to a friend of D'Angelo's suffering from leukemia (D'Angelo spent the better part of a year battling a brain tumor). The piece, dedicated to a woman named Lisa, was a sad, but resilient tone poem marked by Bergman's peaceful bass harmonics and only brief moments of improvisation, before returning to its melody. The group proved that even the most "downtown" of downtown musicians have a sense of reverence.

James Carney Group

Quietness is an underrated concept in music in general; though not beholden to one dynamic level, the group led by pianist James Carney explored textures by playing as quietly and intricately as possible. Carney's band often produced an ambient sound, in that there was a lot of sound being produced, but the absence of a center.

Most of the acts at Kenny's Castaways were exercises in quartet mechanics, but Carney reminded concertgoers how much music a quintet was capable of making. The warm, whisper-quiet tones of trombonist Josh Roseman converged with Chris Lightcap's bass lines to create a thick undergrowth beneath the sound. Some of Carney's music moved in circular motion, starting with funky horns and piano clusters, moving out of time and far down in dynamics, only then bringing the level back up. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi, nimble as always, had a hand in bringing that intensity level back up with his quarter valving (and sometimes fluctuations barely touching the valves). Carney's music was at home with dissonance in an easy, effortless style; Carney breezing through thick, clustery chords organized in a soulful fashion. Alessi and Roseman proved themselves to be seasoned horn players, capable of truly complimenting one another with their melody lines, and Roseman's soul-by-way-of-avant-garde trombone playing blended beautifully with the group, especially with Lightcap. It was a shame, though, that Kenny's Castways was simply not the appropriate venue (given the football game going and subsequent bar conversation) for a group based mostly on nuance.

Nels Cline

Nels Cline's Stained Radiance

There are certain acts that defy any sort of precedent; sometimes coming with no expectations whatsoever, and still managing to defy predictability. Sometimes an act will radically change how the working process is viewed, and such was the case with guitarist Nels Cline and painter Norton Wisdom. An improvised duo between Cline's super-modified sounds and the earthy, graffiti and graphic novel inspired painting of Wisdom, Stained Radiance's show at Le Poisson Rouge was one of the most awe-inspiring and beautifully fascinating acts at Winter Jazz fest.

Stained Radiance explored art as a process and not a product. Cline's sonic arsenal—the magnetic sounding ringing, overdubbed sound layering, clarion vocal singing through the guitar pickups and frenetic clangs and echoes—were used to serve as a responsive sound environment for Wisdom's painting. In the same way that Cline would create a sound, elaborate on it, layer it, change it, push it towards the limit and then edit it and destroy the sound, so, too, would Wisdom respond on his canvas. Wisdom's paintings were expressions in quickly symbolic art; his ability to create representations of familiar images in a lightning quick period of time was not unlike a jazz musician's ability to speak volumes with one note. Wisdom would paint an image and, like Cline, add to it—painting next to, around and inevitably over his creations. His painting, like Cline's steadily rising and falling atmospheres, had linear, story-like logic, if somewhat abstract. The face of a lion would be edited unexpectedly to create a side view of a human face, which would then beget the portrait of a pagan god. A mermaid whose hair engulfed the area around the two figures created a portrait frame around the two faces, arms then drawn to create a heart between them, before the whole piece was erased and drawn over.

Stained Radiance was a rare example of visual art as performance and, even more so, visual art as an interactive process. When Wisdom's painting explored quiet textures, Cline would swoop down with him. When Cline's intensity rose, Wisdom would ascend with him, either creating altered textures to evoke a sense of madness or develop wild new subjects, as in one instance where a red Siddhartha figure appeared out of neutral colors in response to Cline. Like the freely improvised creations of jazz and creative music masters, the audio-visual explorations of Stained Radiance were erased and dissipated at the end, appearing gloriously for a moment and leaving as quickly as they came.

A musical surprise!

Just as Cline and Wisdom left the stage and the crowd was preparing for the next act, the stage was accosted by the ultra-progressive pep band Asphalt Orchestra. Armed with brass and marching percussion, the musical guerrilla tactic created a liberating party atmosphere, the fifteen or so members hammering out fully orchestrated themes, complete with field band-style choreography. The group finished up with a rowdy rendition of Frank Zappa's "Zomby Woof," complete with ferocious soloing by trombonists Alan Ferber and Jen Baker, before promptly leaving. As much as it might have been satisfying to hear more of the group, the merry prankster ethos made the highly intelligent group all that more intriguing.

Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman's personnel changes as consistently as his tutelage brings new disciples, but despite his shifting and sometimes unorthodox choices for band mates, he knew exactly what he wanted to sound like at Winter Jazzfest. Coleman crafted an architecture that was defined by the ways in which rhythm, harmony and counterpoint built indescribable landscapes of dynamic and danceable art music.

Jen Shyu, with Steve Coleman and Five Elements

Coleman proved an extremely democratic bandleader. Not only was he content with soloing only as much as his other musicians, the foundation of his music did not lend for anyone to be featured for more than a few moments. Structures for improvisation were built on the improvised and composed soundscapes of other musicians interacting. All the musicians contributed both rhythmically and harmonically, creating the horizontal sound of musicians moving in collaboration (as opposed to layering the sound vertically). Coleman's musicians were allowed to bring themselves to the musical convergence: vocalist Jen Shyu improvised to her fullest capability, employing wordless vocalisms and poetic koans; trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson preferred a spacious, laconic approach to Coleman's music; pianist David Virelles improvised with a spiky sensibility; and guitarist Miles Okazaki composed improvisations with intricate whirls of sound.

Coleman's music was based, first and foremost, around rhythm. In interviews he has stated that he feels there is a certain lack of understanding of rhythm in the context of Western art music. At the end of the day, this is what made Coleman's band so definitively enjoyable. A complicated piece written in 7/4 would be sewn together by Coleman's ability to make a danceable clave in an odd meter. Pieces like "Attila 02 (Dawning Ritual)" were layered with dense, almost spectral harmonies, but disseminated through the sound of everyone contributing their own rhythmic pulse. Coleman did what so many academics in the music world have failed to do: he made high art serve a populist function without losing its vast integrity.

The Robert Glasper Experiment

Robert Glasper was part of many hip-hop based jazz acts at Sullivan Hall during Winterfest, and he was clearly committed to establishing himself and his band as unique voices in the somewhat played out (by way of overenthusiastic jazz critics) subgenre of jazz/improvised music. Accompanied by drummer Chris Dave, electric bassist Derrick Hodge, and the vocoder/keytar/saxophone/saxophone-via-vocoder stylings of Casey Benjamin, Glasper forged a unique take on hip-hop/R&B influences in live jazz music. By knowing, bit by bit, what goes into creating jazz's complimentary collaboration with hip-hop, The Robert Glasper Experiment delivered an authentic representation of how these musics can converge.

The influence of the jazz greats was evident within the first minute of the set. Benjamin's robotic vocoder vocals hummed out a mantra to John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) but, not content with just paying lip service to the late saxophonist's immortal jazz epic, Glasper's band reacted in the spirit of Coltrane's searching spirit, Glasper's arpeggiated, robust and freely harmonic playing channeling McCoy Tyner by way of Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis. Dave's hip-hop influenced "clacks" and rhythmically intricate relation-to-time feel counteracted Hodge's steady, extraordinarily funky pulse. Benjamin's buzzing alto sax tone has shades of Kenny Garrett, both in sound organization and rhythmic feel.

What defined the success of this band, overall,l was how it went about achieving clarity and honesty in the hip-hop/jazz genre. The band imitated the sound of sampling musicians, such as the late producer and major Glasper influence, J Dillam by working within the musical styling of the artists those producers sample. Glasper's band achieved success and innovation by having its foot in three places in music history: the acoustic era before hip-hop, hip-hop itself and the era beyond.

Photo Credit
Dave Kaufman

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