Revisiting Winter Jazzfest's 10th Anniversary
Jazz till you drop
Jazz festivals booking pop acts to stay solvent has been a cold, hard fact for a long time—so long that complaining about it in 2014 is trite and amateurish. Winter Jazzfest, the New York institution that celebrated its 10th anniversary in January with five nights of programming, points up a different turning of the tides, one that is more important to the actual art than marketing trends. Often, WJF 2014 suggested how far away from “jazz” young jazz-trained musicians are willing to go. Wending through its marathon on Jan. 10 and 11, the modernity and diversity were striking. Certainly, epiphanies were waiting for the sort of fans who pledge allegiance to mainstream jazz radio. To name two out of the 90-plus scheduled acts: Monk competition winner Melissa Aldana, sounding lithe yet strong in a strolling trio, and Gretchen Parlato, who proved herself once more as jazz’s most musicianly young singer burrowed into a powerhouse band. But the fest often carried on like an intellectual pop or general avant-garde event, with Berklee credits to back up the ideas instead of sheer hipness. Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music applied prodigious improvisation to dub. Tillery, with Parlato, Rebecca Martin and Becca Stevens, represented jazz only in the way that Joni Mitchell’s sophisticated folk does. Eyebone, with Nels Cline, Jim Black and Teddy Klausner, improvised freely using abrasive, idiomatic texture. Big Yuki played clever, hooky, cinematic instrumental rock struck through with electronic glitches. Abraxas tackled John Zorn’s klezmer charts with high-volume prog-rock zeal.
Despite its definitive-sounding name and its long-running function as a showcase for the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, Winter Jazzfest is not to be contrasted with Newport or Monterey. (And it has, in many ways, eclipsed its APAP associations.) With relatively modest resources and unapologetically forward-looking programming, it largely documents a scene—progressive jazz-trained players based in New York, unfettered by genre rules—and that scene’s forebears. It has its lodestars—for instance, Marc Ribot, heard this year in a gloriously loud and raucous set with his working band Ceramic Dog plus special guest guitarist Mary Halvorson; or Elliott Sharp, conducting his Orchestra Carbon through harmonic underbrush and blowing on his second ax, the tenor saxophone. It has its workhorses—Ribot’s drummer Ches Smith, for one, who always seemed to be onstage somewhere. And in its jazz-till-you-drop, two-night marathon component in the West Village, it has its own culture and strategies to be charted over the years.
For 2014, the big cultural shift was the expansion to five days, with three evenings of programming anticipating the two-night blowout. At the Jan. 7 kickoff at Le Poisson Rouge, drummer-composer Bobby Previte’s Terminals, featuring guitarist Cline, keyboardist John Medeski and the So Percussion quartet, covered a lot of ground: thoroughly composed score, game-like pieces relying on cues, a section in which Previte, Cline and Medeski evoked the Tony Williams Lifetime, even performance art of sorts. (A brilliant stick-dropping gag by So that you’d need to see to understand.) The following night, the Town Hall hosted a 75th anniversary concert for Blue Note Records, with a lopsided two-part program. In the first, better half, Jason Moran and Robert Glasper faced each other behind grand pianos to invoke the first Blue Note recording, a duel between Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis. Moran, with his progressive affinity for jazz history, paid more attention to period underpinnings while Glasper relaxed into his neo-soul trademarks soon enough. Throughout the duo program, which also included a hammy, hilarious quote-off, introspective original tributes to the men’s mothers and Moran’s recasting of Andrew Hill’s “Smoke Stack,” empathy and good humor outshined competition. The second half, which added saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Eric Harland, singer Bilal and electric piano, was loose and fun, with choice repertory (Ornette’s “Toy Dance”), but it was anticlimactic given the setting and the grand anniversary theme. Less prestigious but more momentous was Thursday at Le Poisson Rouge, where trumpeter Wallace Roney and David Weiss, arranging and conducting, recreated lost Wayne Shorter music that pushed Gil Evans against seminal fusion. Headlining was the Revive Big Band, which gave credence to the decades-long conversation about how and why jazz and urban pop music should combine.
In past years, WJF has meant primarily the marathon and its unyielding feeling of crowdedness. Attendance didn’t appear to be a problem in 2014, either—organizers’ all-inclusive figure is 7,500—and a couple spaces, like Zinc Bar, a perennial mob scene, and Groove, a divey addition to the venue roster, had down-the-block lines during the prime hours. But two other new rooms were dependably manageable: Judson Memorial Church, with its picturesque high ceilings and hot-and-cold sonics, and a large parlor in the NYU Law building. Ping-ponging between these venues allowed for maximum musical intake without a lot of fuss.
Judson’s schedule included genuine stalwarts of the avant-garde. Multireedist Peter Brötzmann sounded inspired in a trio with vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and drummer Hamid Drake. Atop Drake’s steady virtuosic rumble, Brötzmann and Adasiewicz formed an axis that was mutually beneficial—the brazen saxophonist became more lyrical and Adasiewicz brought free-jazz fury to his four-mallet chording. Henry Threadgill’s “Ensemble Double-Up,” performing the same program in two sets, paid tribute to the late Butch Morris. A kind of main event of the weekend, Threadgill’s music delivered its patented merging of otherworldliness with jazz’s more familiar joys. Not playing, and conducting as if through osmosis, Threadgill led an unorthodox septet including tuba, cello and two of jazz’s best pianists, Moran and David Virelles. Tense, headlong momentum carried much of this extended piece, as did fiery soloing and the savvy deconstruction of the band into smaller units. A jubilant, consonant close made the challenge worthwhile—catharsis defined.
NYU Law saw its share of outness as well, like trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain, which imagined an underwater apocalypse, and Mostly Other People Do the Killing, mining its recent foray into zany, tongue-in-cheek avant-hot-jazz. But the room also hosted edgy jazz that required neither irony nor an overabundance of patience. Saxophonist Ben Wendel’s quartet with pianist Gerald Cleaver, bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Henry Cole flaunted a surgeon-like expertise in stretching harmony and rhythm. Bassist Chris Morrissey, with his quartet, made his case as a composer with a superior gift for melody. And bassist Chris Lightcap & Bigmouth, with a white-hot frontline of saxophonists Chris Cheek and Tony Malaby, did the inside-outside thing to a tee. Their set’s final number, a majestic take on the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” hit the spot for this festival. It was jazz, it was bohemian pop and it was New York City to the bone.
Originally published in March 2014