Jazz festivals have long been dominated by late-career legends presented in an idyllic context that can seem stale, celebrating their innovations but overlooking the grittiness and immediacy of their origins. Over its first decade, Winter Jazzfest challenged that tradition, documenting a burgeoning avant-garde subculture of young, mostly Brooklyn-based players and composers who have strayed as far as possible from genre conventions. In its 11th year, WJF continued to chart a paradigm shift, with prestigious acts and a bold marketing push that ranged from a print campaign to a stylish YouTube promotional video. Yet as WJF has gone from minor to major and gradually been embraced by the cultural establishment, the festival has maintained its progressive roots.
Meandering through its marathon on Jan. 9 and 10, what ostensibly looked like time-capsule jazz felt startlingly prescient. A throwback to the legacy of jazz education taking place in the wee hours at the club, headlining veterans shared the stage with up-and-coming protégés in a way that was mutually beneficial; the elder statesmen raised the level of the young lions, as the next generation proved just how relevant the past still is to the future of the music. Of the 100-plus scheduled acts, Oliver Lake explored the harmonic palette of Larry Young with organist Jared Gold and trumpeter Josh Evans; Arturo O’Farrill’s Boss Level Septet was a family affair with his sons, drummer Zack and trumpeter Adam. Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 injected some much-needed New Orleans heat, with pianist Henry Butler leading a multi-generational group sans co-leader/slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein; their spirited take on “The Saints” was dedicated to Bernstein’s son, Rex, who died on Jan. 10.