The 15th annual Winter Jazzfest in New York opened on Friday, Jan. 4 at Le Poisson Rouge with “Thing Called Life: Prince Reimagined,” a concert by the festival’s artist-in-residence Meshell Ndegeocello. It was a risky move, for it recalled the bad old days when the Kool Jazz Festival toured the nation with such headliners as Gladys Knight, War, and Roberta Flack—fine artists but not true jazz acts. Much like George Gershwin and Frank Sinatra, Prince and Ndegeocello aren’t true jazz acts either, but they have real connections to our music—both as absorbers and influencers—and this kickoff show successfully opened a window on the back-and-forth borrowing between the two spheres.
Ndegeocello was a smart choice to illustrate this dynamic. The Washington-raised, Brooklyn-based R&B singer is a virtuoso bassist and an open-minded arranger willing to accommodate improvisation and substitute chords—much like Prince, whose 1978 debut album inspired her to become a musician. And her opening-night concert (despite equipment problems, under-rehearsed numbers, and overly long dance mixes) illustrated a crucial aspect of the porous boundary between pop music and jazz: It’s not enough to embrace a non-jazz genre; you have to embrace the right artists within that genre.
If you’re a jazz musician exploring R&B, it makes a big difference whether you’re borrowing from Prince rather than, say, Cameo. Or, in rock music, Radiohead rather than Rush. Or, in country music, Rodney Crowell rather than Garth Brooks. When Ndegeocello sang, “They won’t say that you’re naive if you play what you believe,” on Prince’s “All the Critics Love U in New York,” her band’s fast, hard attack, bristling with keyboards and guitars flying off in tangents, made it clear that jazz musicians can glean a lot more from a maverick (in any genre) than they ever could from an upholder of the stylistic status quo.
Winter Jazzfest keeps growing. As recently as 2017, it was a six-day affair, but last year and this year it expanded to nine days. The event’s centerpiece, the “marathon” for which a wristband gets you access to hourly shows in multiple venues, expanded this year from two nights to three: the usual two-night marathon plus a smaller one-night “half-marathon.” The single-ticket concerts grew from seven to eight.
One of those non-marathon events, on Monday the 7th at Le Poisson Rouge, showcased three of today’s top fusion bands: Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, Terence Blanchard & the E-Collective, and the Bad Plus. The first two bands owe an obvious debt to Prince, but they’ve reinvested that loan to yield tremendous dividends in terms of inventive writing and soloing. Each band boasted an electric guitarist and an electric keyboardist (Carrington’s Matthew Stevens and Aaron Parks, Blanchard’s Charles Altura and Fabian Almazan) who knew how to translate the high-wattage textures of progressive R&B into true jazz solos.
The new version of the Bad Plus substitutes the R&B-savvy Orrin Evans for the classical/jazz-anchored Ethan Iverson on keyboard. It’s possible to admire both versions of the band, as this writer does, while acknowledging the differences. The tension between Iverson and the former prog-rock rhythm section of Reid Anderson and Dave King created a delicious frisson; Evans is more sympathetic to the pop borrowings, but he adds some gospel funk to the mix and nudges his bandmates away from Rush and toward Radiohead.
Another fusion keyboard trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood, headlined the only festival show to take place outside Manhattan. On Wednesday night at Brooklyn Steel, the threesome teamed up with the avant-classical ensemble Alarm Will Sound. The two groups played separately and together, and the latter, reprising the collaborations from their recent album Omnisphere, proved exhilarating. Unlike most art musicians crossing into jazz, the five reeds, five strings, three brass, three percussionists, and one pianist of AWS sound comfortable improvising and making harsh sounds. And MMW, rooted as they are in Booker T. & the M.G.’s, know how to use pop hooks, rock riffs, and blues vamps as building blocks in extended jazz/art-music pieces.
Ndegeocello was also the public face of the festival’s greater commitment to gender parity. This yielded musical as well as social benefits. Perhaps the highlight of the entire week were the two sets by drummer Allison Miller and pianist Carmen Staaf at Subculture on the second Saturday. The duo performed as half of Jenny Scheinman & Allison Miller’s Parlour Game with ex-Crowell violinist Scheinman and bassist Tony Scherr, then came back later as two-fifths of Allison Miller & Carmen Staaf’s Science Fair with trumpeter Jason Palmer, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Matt Penman.
Miller’s tendency to choke up on her sticks allows her to focus her sound by substituting rim and cowbell shots for splashy cymbals and quickly darting combinations for repeating thumps. Staaf was a revelation with her muscular bass-clef parts and attractive treble-clef phrases. Sometimes her hands roamed independently and sometimes they came together to create chords that sounded like majestic 10-fingered voicings moving across the keys. Together, the two women proved both propulsive and highly personal.
Like Staaf, Melissa Aldana—who played the half-marathon on the festival’s first Saturday at Subculture—demonstrated a knack for shaping a solo so it was more than a sprint through the changes. Leaning forward on the balls of her black-stockinged feet, the Chilean tenor saxophonist strung notes together like words in a sentence, expressing something more than mere athleticism, more than mere cleverness, more confiding and consoling.
Ndegeocello led four different bands with four different themes on four different nights at the fest. If the Prince evening and the show devoted to new songs inspired by James Baldwin proved a mix of thrilling highs and patience-trying lows, Ndegeocello was at her jazziest on the second Friday’s “Music from Brooklyn” event at the Bowery Ballroom. Supplementing her own band with cornetist Graham Haynes and guitarist Jeff Parker, she performed jazz rearrangements of songs by such Brooklynites as OBD, Barbra Streisand, and Neil Diamond that were liberated by an elastic sense of time and inspired solos.
Best of all, though, was Thursday’s show at Nublu, where Ndegeocello boiled her band down to a quartet and explored her past recordings. This was her least jazzy, most vocal-dominated outing, but it confirmed what a brilliant singer and songwriter she is. Jazz artists would be smart to borrow from her catalogue as much as they do from Prince or Stevie Wonder.
Roy Hargrove Remembered
On the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 8, Roberta Gambarini stood on the Rose Theatre stage in Jazz at Lincoln Center, backed by a “Young Lion” combo led by pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and applied her huge soprano to Benny Golson’s “I Remember Clifford,” with a significant lyric change. “I know he’ll never be forgotten,” she sang. “He was a king uncrowned. I know I’ll always remember … Hargrove.”
It was just one highlight of a nearly five-hour tribute concert, “Celebrating the Life and Work of Roy Hargrove,” the trumpeter who died much too young two months earlier at age 49. Unlike most such memorials for musicians, this one was short on talk and long on music. After a New Orleans second-line funeral parade snaked through the audience, emcee Christian McBride gave a short eulogy for his late friend. From then on, it was one band after another, most of them playing three or four songs associated with the Houston trumpeter.
There were bandmates like McBride, Jon Batiste, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Marc Cary, Antonio Hart, and Gerald Clayton. There were mentors such as Jon Faddis, Wynton Marsalis, and Gary Bartz. There was Dallas high-school classmate Norah Jones. There was the Roy Hargrove Big Band, the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and the Grammy-winning Afro-Cuban band Crisol. There were seven different acoustic combos, as well as the electrified RH Factor.
Not strictly a Winter Jazzfest event (though the festival suspended all Tuesday-night activities in its honor), the concert took place immediately after the second annual Jazz Congress, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center on Monday and Tuesday, Jan. 7-8. With daytime panel discussions, a trade show, an amazing Art Blakey oral-history session commemorating his 100th birthday (see video on the JazzTimes Facebook page) and evening concerts, this parliamentary session—co-sponsored by this magazine and Jazz at Lincoln Center—was far more successful than its stalemated counterpart in Washington.
Another highlight of the Hargrove tribute was the evening’s final acoustic quintet. Filling the trumpet role was Jeremy Pelt, who displayed not just the honoree’s imposing technique but also his own soulful feeling on a brief rendition of the old Nat “King” Cole ballad “Nature Boy,” which then led into pianist Larry Willis’ “To Wisdom the Prize.” Over Willie Jones III’s circular brushwork and Willis’ economical piano phrases, Pelt patiently built his solo from wistful murmurings to plangent yearning. It was a perfect reflection of the capacity crowd’s desire to hear Hargrove’s music played live one more time.