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NYC Winter Jazzfest 2015

Tradition and innovation collide at the 11th edition of this annual marathon fest

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.

There were other, similarly backward-looking sets that interpreted the jazz totems with stylistic updating to bridge the historical gap. Rudresh Mahanthappa culled music from his forthcoming Charlie Parker-inspired album, Bird Calls, with precocious 20-year-old trumpeter Adam O’Farrill occupying the Miles Davis role comfortably. Trumpeter Russ Johnson’s “Still Out to Lunch” riffed on Eric Dolphy, with saxophonist Roy Nathanson emulating Dolphy at his most frenetic, while multireedist Oran Etkin reimagined Benny Goodman, 75 years after the 1938 Carnegie Hall concert. Pianist and Blackbyrds co-founder Kevin Toney paid tribute to Donald Byrd’s acoustic output and mid-’70s fusion, with a frontline consisting of trumpeter Duane Eubanks and Donald Harrison. The electric set included the Blackbyrds hit “Walking in Rhythm” and Byrd’s “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes,” tunes that could have been a nostalgia trip in previous years but were uncannily reflective of contemporary pop’s funk turn.

The tenor of not-so-rosy retrospection was established on Thursday, with the Jazz Legends for Disability Pride concert at the Quaker Friends Meeting Hall. Pianist Mike LeDonne, who spearheaded the event, began the evening with a trio interpretation of “My Funny Valentine.” Each act performed two tunes, not deviating from standard repertoire, but it was invigorating to hear well-worn fare, especially if they wrote it. Ron Carter performed in a drummer-less trio with Russell Malone and Renee Rosnes, while the voluble raconteur Benny Golson led a group with Jimmy Cobb, Buster Williams, Eddie Henderson and LeDonne. Cobb, who turns 86 this month, was joined by the band from his 2014 release, The Original Mob, with Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein and bassist John Webber, followed by Bill Charlap, who flaunted masterful precision on a lithe rendering of “I’ll Remember April.” The concert closed with George Coleman, a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, who figuratively passed the torch to tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander on “On Green Dolphin Street.” The living jazz history lesson was contrasted by “Blue Note Now” at Le Poisson Rouge, a follow-up to last year’s Blue Note 75th anniversary concert, featuring the reunited Robert Glasper Trio with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Damion Reid; singer José James, paying tribute to Billie Holiday; Derrick Hodge; and Kendrick Scott.


This aesthetic juxtaposition framed the conversation for the marathon, a delicate balancing act of the liminal sphere between a respect for jazz forebears and a penchant for experimentation and hybridization. Organizers estimated the all-inclusive attendance figure at 6,500, with periodic long lines at the Bitter End, SubCulture and the intimate but overcrowded Zinc Bar. New venues mostly aided crowd control and contributed to festival diversity; the Greenwich House Music School hosted trad acts, while the Players Theatre hewed more toward the avant-garde. Standout programming took place at the Minetta Lane Theatre, a 400-seat black box with a balcony, which was sometimes too small to accommodate demand, and the expansive Judson Church, which was introduced into the venue lineup last year. With its high-ceilinged Renaissance architecture and stained-glass windows, it was the ideal setting for the Campbell Brothers’ gospel-tinged pedal-steel recasting of A Love Supreme.

Minetta Lane’s lineup included Nicholas Payton; Marc Ribot, performing a kind of postmodern soul revue with, among others, second guitarist Mary Halvorson and bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma, an alumnus of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time; as well as sets from the reconstituted Lounge Lizards, the Cookers and AACM stalwart Amina Claudine Myers, whose organ-driven rendering of “Angel Eyes” recalled her bluesier side. But the revelation came with David Murray, the galvanizing force at this year’s festival, who performed three sets. Murray opened his series with “Clarinet Summit,” enlisting Don Byron, David Krakauer and World Saxophone Quartet bandmate Hamiet Bluiett, an homage to Murray’s erstwhile clarinet group of the same name. Murray next led a trio with Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington, effortlessly expanding and contracting over 20-minute modal improvisations, navigating from a simple riff to the most otherworldly dissonances and altissimo harmonics, then wending his way back to the tonic without ever relying on reflexive facility.

Murray’s WJF run reached a climax with his Infinity Quartet, featuring longtime bassist Jaribu Shahid, pianist Orrin Evans and drummer Nasheet Waits alongside Saul Williams at Le Poisson Rouge. Murray first met Williams at Amiri Baraka’s funeral in early 2014, where the firebrand poet premiered his jazz-inflected elegy, “Rottweiler Choir,” and they began collaborating. Evocative of both Gil Scott-Heron’s Pieces of a Manand Baraka’s work with the New York Art Quartet, the set was a combustible riposte to the recent wave of political turmoil, as Murray parried Williams’ verbal rallying cry. “I’m a candle! Chop my neck a million times, I still burn bright and stand, yo!” Williams shouted insistently, adapting a line from a Rumi poem. The set stood as a vindication of the late Newark griot’s radical screed against jazz appropriation, “Swing-From Verb to Noun,” part of Baraka’s seminal history, Blues People. Embodying Baraka’s iconoclastic spirit, Murray and Williams worked to reverse jazz exploitation, as did WJF as a whole; this was jazz, from noun to verb, actively engaging with the music’s history and politics-what has changed and what needs to change, and what promises to never be played the same way twice.

Originally Published

Aidan Levy

In addition to JazzTimes, Aidan Levy’s work has appeared in The New York Times, the Village Voice, and the Nation. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he specializes in jazz studies. He has played baritone saxophone with the Stan Rubin Orchestra, Cotton Club All-Stars, and various other groups. His biography of Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus, was published by Hachette in 2022.