Transcendence in Common: The Year in Gigs

Wynton_Spaces

Dancers Lil Buck (left) and Jared Grimes explore "Spaces" with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra (photo by Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center)

Maybe it was the sight of Cecil Taylor, resplendent in shiny fabrics, at one end of a cavernous gallery at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Maybe it was the pointed whimsy of another pianist, Jason Moran, as he led his trio in a sculptural reconstruction of the old Three Deuces stage. Or maybe it was the worldly parade of talent—from Chucho Valdés to Hugh Masekela to Wayne Shorter to Dianne Reeves—that graced a tent on the White House lawn.

Whatever it was that tipped my thinking, I look back on this Year in Gigs as a bonanza of standout jazz moments made possible by special circumstances. Much of this had to do with institutional buy-in, or the favor of commissioning bodies. But it was also often a function of artists simply willing themselves outside the standard protocols.

Along with the glowing examples above, I’d cite pianist Vijay Iyer’s month-long residency at the Met Breuer, involving dozens of collaborators; a poignant concert by trumpeter Terence Blanchard in a park on Staten Island, not far from where Eric Garner died at the hands of police; and “Josephine Baker: A Personal Portrait,” a haunting song cycle by Tyshawn Sorey, featuring the soprano Julia Bullock, at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse.

Some of these could rank among my standout performances of 2016—Taylor’s improvisation at the Whitney, in dialogue with the Japanese dancer Min Tanaka and the English percussionist Tony Oxley, certainly would—but for the purposes of this exercise I’ve decided to set them apart as exceptional, deserving of their own separate accolades. Any one of them could be the subject of a column this length, and in most cases I’ve already ventured those appraisals.

So what follows here is a more conventional rundown, which isn’t to suggest that it’s a compromise. These are simply 10 fantastic performances that stayed with me throughout the year, for an assortment of reasons. What they have in common is transcendence, something easier said than done. For the most part they transpired under normal working conditions, but each one left a sharp and life-filling impression. Nothing run-of-the-mill about that.

Miles Okazaki’s Trickster,
The Jazz Gallery, Jan. 13

Formal convolution is a trademark for guitarist Miles Okazaki, who puts a lot of effort into making it look easy. The slanted funk and chamber intricacies he unveiled here—with Craig Taborn on piano, Anthony Tidd on electric bass and Sean Rickman on drums, all in ninja mode—will soon find an outlet in Trickster, his next release and an early frontrunner for your best-album lists in 2017.

Donny McCaslin Quartet,
Village Vanguard, Jan. 24

The death of David Bowie on Jan. 10, 2016, was perhaps the earliest gut-punch in a year tragically full of them. McCaslin and his rugged band, the combustion engine on Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, paid him tribute in this emotional last night of a weeklong run, with original material as well as a cover of his ballad “Warszawa.”

Dave Holland Trio,
Village Vanguard, Feb. 16

There were just four songs in this transfixing, expeditionary set, presented without a pause. Kevin Eubanks led the search on guitar, balancing classical fluency against a fusioneer’s panache, while Holland made his basslines a fulcrum, nailing every groove to the floor.

Miguel Zenón Quartet,
The Falcon, March 11

At one point during this deft, dynamic performance by alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and his working quartet—an early taste of their new album, pico—I posted a photo to social media. “About as good a band as any you’ve got” was my comment. I’m standing by it.

Jim Black Trio,
Le Poisson Rouge, March 14

One of the great, oft-overlooked acoustic piano trios of our time is a transatlantic unit led by the spryly unpredictable drummer Jim Black. This showcase, which foreshadowed a fine album, The Constant, found him in a state of deep collective intrigue with his partners, Elias Stemeseder on piano and Thomas Morgan on bass.

Spaces by Wynton Marsalis,
Rose Theater, April 1

The main attraction in Spaces was kinetic, an animalistic evocation by two brilliant young dancers, Lil Buck and Jared Grimes. But their movements had an equally inspired musical basis thanks to Marsalis’ imaginative score, played with precision and flair by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Avishai Cohen Quartet,
Jazz Standard, April 27

Cohen, the Israeli trumpeter, reached beyond the hushed ministrations of his elegant recent ECM album, Into the Silence, during this mesmerizing performance. His playing slashed as well as simmered, with agile support from a rhythm section led by pianist Jason Lindner.

Chicago Underground Duo,
Peterborough Unitarian Church, June 10

This long-running experimental partnership—Rob Mazurek on cornet and electronics, Chad Taylor on drums—sounded glorious up near the altar of a sanctuary in small-town New Hampshire. They were there courtesy of the Thing in the Spring, an indie festival with an outsiderish agenda, and their performance, full of tangential epiphanies, perfectly fit the bill.

Chick Corea & Marcus Gilmore,
Blue Note Beijing, Sept. 13

For the official opening of a handsome new club in the shadow of Tiananmen Square, Corea sat at a grand piano and delivered a magnificent hour-long set. His only accompaniment came from Gilmore, whose work at the drums was both collaborative and compositional, a marvel of hair-trigger insight.

John Zorn/Christian McBride/Milford Graves,
Village Vanguard, Nov. 13

My first real outing after Election Day was this rare Sunday matinee, a free-jazz summit spearheaded by John Zorn. He brought his alto saxophone and an eager fire, his urgency met both by Graves, a visionary drummer and veteran collaborator, and McBride, a bassist more accustomed to laying down a groove. The resulting squall, born of real-time discovery and exuberant respect, was a salve—and a reminder of the good that can come out of bridging a perceived divide.