Field Notes: Winter Jazz Fest, Winter NAMM
In preview of March issue event coverage, JT’s editor reflects on Winter Jazz Fest and the Winter NAMM tradeshow
In going through notes for some upcoming print coverage of the recent Winter Jazz Fest, I found one scribbled word that stands out above the rest, a word I've thought about when trying to encapsulate past editions of the festival: “bodies.” Two sold-out nights (Jan. 6-7) in the West Village—4,000 heads over two nights—means hearing a lot of bands without seeing them, waiting on disheartening queues and getting used to the sense of personal space one is afforded in a rush-hour subway car.
But it also means vindication. Sure, a lot of the attention paid to the music at WJF is casual at best—the event has, for better or worse, become a hip night out—but there are many moments that indicate, thrillingly, how current jazz is not a tree falling in a vacant forest. I’m reminded of Julian Lage’s packed set at Sullivan Hall, where the guitarist seemed to have a gaggle of genuine fanboys hanging on his every virtuosic line. Or the David Murray Cuban Ensemble’s equally well attended performance at Le Poisson Rouge, where a diverse and youthful audience responded to unflagging Latin grooves and Murray’s beautifully manhandled solos with the sort of pointed enthusiasm most jam bands can only dream about.
If the crowds flaunted an excitability more indicative of pop than jazz, that could be because so much of what they were hearing sounded like instrumental rock. (Festival presenters wisely used the phrase “jazz and improvised music” to describe the scene they showcase.) In addition to music that sounded like freebop and early fusion, the Nels Cline Singers offered Byrds-y jangling and hooky sonic tumult a la Sonic Youth (on a song called, not incidentally, “Thurston County”). The Singers’ Cline and Trevor Dunn (bass) took part in Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief & Mayhem, where Jim Black, one of jazz drumming’s best free improvisers, played weighty backbeats. Scheinman played with guitarist Steve Cardenas in bassist Ben Allison’s trio, where memorable melodies evoked strong singer-songwriter fare as much as postbop. Herculaneum upheld the new Chicago tradition of worshipping at the altar of the inside-outside ’60s avant-garde, but added a layer of propulsive acoustic prog-rock. (They also worked into some gorgeous, Impulse-worthy world-jazz.) Gregory Tate’s Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber found the shared space between Funkadelic and Bitches Brew. Drummer Jamire Williams’ ERIMAJ, which generated some of the greatest buzz of the weekend, split among neosoul, whatever qualifies as modern jazz if you’re in New York and under 40, and a loose, swinging minimalism that recalled TNT-era Tortoise. Even acts much buzzed-about by the jazz cognoscenti—Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Samdhi, the outstanding Israeli guitarist Gilad Hekselman—offered a sort of futurism. Recognizable melodies were few. I heard Donald Harrison play “Afro Blue” with drummer Will Calhoun’s band, and it was the closest the festival came to sounding like the majority of jazz radio, other than Dominick Farinacci, an excellent, Clifford Brown-indebted trumpeter and flugelhornist who played Zinc before the crowds showed up.
The annual Winter NAMM show, which took place in Anaheim, Calif., two weekends following Winter Jazz, also required wading through an endless sea of music people. NAMM will be covered in full in the March issue Gearhead column, and while it’s probably the most interesting tradeshow you can attend, it’s still a tradeshow; the only reason it’s being mentioned alongside WJF in this post is because of timing. But there’s always plenty of music, and this year it was satisfying. On Wednesday, Vandoren held its annual VandoJam at a nearby bar and restaurant, where bari saxophonist Gary Smulyan and others killed for a capacity audience. Friday found Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell (who also appeared at WJF with his own orchestra) in characteristically funky collaboration. (Also indelibly grooving: pocket-masters Bernard Purdie and Dr. Lonnie Smith at the Hilton.) A jazz-dedicated venue on the patio of the Sheraton featured regionally based acts like guitarist Matthew Van Doran, who dutifully melded postbop and fusion, the latter of which still thrives in L.A.
Jazz-rock certainly flourished at Sabian Live!, probably the most dependably hip after-party at the show. (In years past, acts have included Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music with Tim Lefebvre, and Terry Bozzio with David Torn doing a free-improv set. At NAMM, that’s as close to the Village or the Lower East Side as you’re going to get.) Twenty-seven-year-old drummer Tony Royster Jr., who emerged as a child prodigy in the ’90s and will remind fusion heads of Dennis Chambers, played in a quartet featuring post-Jaco bassist (and former John McLaughlin sideman) Hadrien Feraud. The music looked to the grandiosity of ’70s and ’80s fusion, with contemporary flourishes, like the hip-hop-generation organ-trio vibe of a band like Soulive. What followed, drummer Virgil Donati with Allan Holdsworth, Jimmy Haslip and keyboardist Dennis Hamm, was even more quintessentially jazz-rocking: an endless barrage of legato lines, cut-up beats and time shifts, a sort of musical analogy for the cluttered byways at the show and the congested SoCal roadways that surround it.