Any single critic’s attempt to review Winter Jazzfest NYC comprehensively is predestined to fail, for reasons perhaps best explained by the title of an old Firesign Theatre album: How can you be in two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all? With 125 performances at 12 Manhattan venues—109 of them occurring over only two nights—the festival’s 2018 edition was, in this respect, no different from the previous 13. Best then to forget about being definitive and instead focus on a few common themes that recurred throughout the event. I noticed three in particular.
1) Jazz is not jazz. Those four words, attributed to guitarist Charlie Hunter, appeared on the video screens at every venue as part of a between-sets slideshow. They sparked a vigorous exchange between two people seated behind me at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium just before this year’s Artist-in-Residence, Nicole Mitchell, presented a challenging set of music inspired by the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. The couple’s female half noted that Hunter’s quote referred to a regular occupation in the jazz world: getting bent out of shape about what jazz is and isn’t. Her male counterpart said that wasn’t unique; the legitimacy question is just as common in most other genres. “Yes,” she replied, “but in jazz they talk about it with so much more … vitriol!”
Much of what I saw during the two-night Winter Jazzfest marathon would make some folks vitriolic for sure, if only because it wasn’t “normal”—whatever that means. In the early going of Donny McCaslin’s performance at Le Poisson Rouge on Friday, January 12, keyboardist Jason Lindner barely played a note in the traditional sense but stole the show anyway with his crafty manipulation of sample-based textures. On Saturday the 13th, during Wayne Horvitz’s set on the fifth-floor theater of the New School’s Jazz Building, the standout soloist was a bassoon player, Sara Schoenbeck. (The abundance of women on this year’s talent roster was both notable and welcome; special kudos to Mitchell’s drummer Shirazette Tinnin, whose technique was dazzling.)
Three floors down and 22 hours prior, Peter Apfelbaum’s latest group Sparkler, assisted by bassist/producer Bill Laswell, seemed to owe more to the ’70s prog rock of Soft Machine and Gong than any jazz artist. That certainly didn’t bother me; I was far more disappointed to learn that there’s no recording available of their magnum opus, the multi-sectioned, whiz-bang “Lucky Number.” The dearth of obvious jazz references didn’t bother Sparkler’s six members—two of them female—either, and why should it? Earth to the traditionalists: The people who make jazz are way past caring what you call it.
2) The world has gone bananas. Between Trump, Brexit, and at least a dozen other causes for alarm, it’s no surprise that jazz musicians are getting upset. How they choose to express that varies, of course. Back at the Tishman on Friday, Marc Ribot jumped right into the protest fray with his Songs of Resistance project, which started off ragged (or, to be more blunt, like an amateurish ’60s-coffeehouse nightmare) but ended up right (with real musical momentum and witty anti-Trump lyrics delivered by Ribot and co-vocalist/flutist Domenica Fossati). The next night at Subculture, Fred Hersch and his Pocket Orchestra took a subtler tack, as “Out Someplace (Blues for Matthew Shepard)” conveyed a quiet sense of dread over hate crimes past and present. Later at the same club, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and his monster-funk band Brotherzone brought Last Poet Abiodun Oyewole to the stage to recite “Rain of Terror,” whose key line—“America is a terrorist”—was invested with harsh new meaning.
If your definition of resistance includes partying for your right to fight, British saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings’ band Sons of Kemet can provide a perfect soundtrack. At Le Poisson Rouge on Friday, the quartet—rounded out by two drummers, Eddie Hick and Tom Skinner, and a tuba player, Theon Cross, whose super-low opening notes caused the audience to whoop with joy—played for 45 minutes without stopping. One tune slipped or crashed into another, as cascading grooves met insistent melodies that often repeated a few pitches over and over, gradually ratcheting up the intensity. When they finally paused for breath, Hutchings explained that the band’s new material was about “questioning the myth of heredity.” That’s a myth well worth questioning, both in his country and ours, and all the better if you can dance while doing so.
3) Everybody misses Geri Allen. Her death last summer at age 60 has clearly shaken the jazz community to its core, judging by the number of times her name was mentioned and her compositions were played during Winter Jazzfest. During a late-Friday duo set at Zinc Bar with pianist Aruán Ortiz, Don Byron gave her “Dolphy’s Dance” a treatment that expertly balanced abstraction and lyricism, then rubbed his eyes and said what every participant in the festival was feeling: “I still can’t believe she’s gone.”
Allen’s life and work was gloriously spotlighted on Monday the 15th at Tishman in an all-star, three-hour tribute show to benefit her three children. The eldest of those children, trumpeter Wallace Roney, Jr., soon to graduate from Oberlin, took center stage for a touching rendition of “Your Pure Self (Mother to Son).” Other highlights: Lizz Wright’s honeyed take on “Timeless Portraits and Dreams”; tapdancer Maurice Chestnut and drummer Kassa Overall dueling on a lightning-fast version of Charlie Parker’s “Ah-Leu-Cha”; and two crowd-igniting trio performances by Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington, and Nicholas Payton (on trumpet and piano). Given the number of outstanding pianists on this gig—Vijay Iyer, Craig Taborn, Kris Davis, Helen Sung—it came as something of a shock that Payton was the one who sounded the most in tune with Allen’s style, beautifully capturing the vital sense of urgency that characterized her best playing. But then again, jazz, or whatever you want to call it, is nothing if not full of surprises.