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!”