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NYC Winter Jazzfest 2016: Comprehensive Coverage

"Jazz is not dead, but back with a vengeance"

Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Michael Formanek, New York City Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Jason Kao Hwang, Rova's Electric Ascension, Le Poisson Rouge, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Zeena Parkins, Rova's Electric Ascension, Le Poisson Rouge, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Don Byron, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Oliver Lake, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Joe Fonda, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Barry Altschul, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Graham Haynes, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Monty Alexander and the Harlem Kingston Express, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
David Torn, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Roy Hargrove, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Craig Taborn, Mat Maneri and Ches Smith, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Vijay Iyer, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Marcus Gilmore, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
David Virelles, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Avishai Cohen, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Sex Mob, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
The Bad Plus, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Rova Saxophone Quartet (with Nate Wooley on trumpet at right), NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016
Mike LeDonne, Disability Pride Concert, NYC January 2016
Wynton Marsalis (with Christian McBride on bass), Disability Pride Concert, NYC, January 2016
James "Blood" Ulmer, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016

Over five nights, in a dozen downtown venues, hundreds of jazz musicians participated in the New York City Winter Jazzfest. JazzTimes editor Evan Haga and contributor Aidan Levy braved the crowds and the cold to report on the annual event that is now an entrenched NYC jazz tradition.

Wednesday, January 13: Opening Night

Winter Jazzfest, New York City’s sprawling annual improvised-music blowout, kicked off on Jan. 13 with a terrific three-act bill headlined by a post-punk band, the Ex. The long-running, long-evolving Dutch group has plenty of experience connecting the jazz fringes to its outré rock, including lengthy improvised work and fruitful collaborations with Ken Vandermark, but he wasn’t at Le Poisson Rouge on this night. This set was more or less the meat and potatoes of what the Ex does now: noise and rhythm delivered with rehearsed precision; interdependent parts-guitar and bass riffs, drum figures, punches or stretches of atonal grind-that can be studied like the inner workings of a clock; a brief history of the art-school tendencies that made their way into punk after its initial flash.

That kind of striking cooperation didn’t find its way into a middle spot featuring saxophonist Colin Stetson and bassist Bill Laswell, where each player, especially Stetson, focused on personalized trademarks in technique and strategy. For the former, that meant blowing a sort of minimalism made possible by virtuosic circular breathing, with occasional growled overtones of satisfying melody (think of a gospel singer belting it out underwater). Laswell, whose chorus-sheened, sometimes burbling tone is one of the most recognizable sounds in electric bass, worked around and between Stetson’s sonic and rhythmic through line, playing meter-less lyrical runs, and fuzz lines that acted as major landmarks among the set’s topography. He also attempted, bravely, to pull Stetson toward grooving, near-dub patterns.

Opening the evening was a rare New York set by the Minneapolis-based trio Happy Apple, featuring saxophonist Mike Lewis, electric bassist Erik Fratzke and Bad Plus drummer Dave King. For most intents and purposes, this trio might embody the spirit of Winter Jazzfest as effectively as any band: the bittersweet-pop bent of the composing; Fratzke’s genteel, harmonically savvy accompaniment, which can have more in common with Jobim or Bill Evans than with the electric bass tradition; and excellent drumming by King, with his understanding of how dynamics convey power more than volume does. For a sturdier connection to jazz tradition there was Lewis, playing rope-a-dope with the microphone and betraying the influence of Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz and similar midcentury tenormen. There was talk of getting around to a new release, as well as performances of fine new music. One such piece, “Vermillion Nocturne,” featured heartstring-tugging melodic contours like those of some rescued American Songbook obscurity.

So what does a bill like this mean in the context of a jazz festival? Don’t think too hard on it. Rather than a ticket-moving ploy or a sign of the apocalypse, it seemed to signify, and satisfy, a specific but common sensibility. Of course fans of politically brazen punk would be curious about free improvisation like the Stetson/Laswell duo, and the indie-jazz of Happy Apple. If you’ve ever read WIRE or visited a high-minded independent record store, you already know this.

Thursday, January 14: Jazz Legends for Disability Pride

Jazz has long been central to promoting social justice and a culture of inclusion, but broadening awareness and acceptance of disability has largely been given short shrift. Now in its second year, the Jazz Legends for Disability Pride not-for-profit, founded by pianist Mike LeDonne, held its fundraising concert at the Quaker Friends Meeting Hall in New York on January 14, with all proceeds going toward the second annual New York City Disability Pride Parade in July. Part of Winter Jazzfest, the concert imports a similar model of sensory overload-more than 20 living legends in a span of three hours. With Wynton Marsalis, George Coleman, Roberta Gambarini and Joe Lovano all making appearances, the concert provided the rare opportunity to see some of the most lauded artists of the past 50 years in an intimate, low-key setting and, in contradistinction to the rest of WJF, playing standards.

LeDonne began the night with an uptempo rendition of “On Green Dolphin Street,” showcasing his masterful technique and lush voicings, alongside bassist John Webber and drummer Joe Farnsworth. This was followed by Marsalis, who gave a master class in voice leading and double-time playing on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” with Christian McBride beginning his similarly explosive solo in the lower register and vaulting upward.

At 86, Jimmy Cobb still hasn’t missed a beat, with Peter Bernstein, Webber and Harold Mabern comprising the rest of the rhythm section. Cobb’s insouciant swagger on the ride cymbal propelled “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” Next came pianist Monty Alexander, who enlivened the material with his signature blend of jazz harmony and Jamaican riddims, opposite bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Carl Allen.

Benny Golson, who was unable to make it, sent an eloquent letter of support that was read aloud. There are few saxophonists who could stand in for Golson, but Joe Lovano was up to the task. With trumpeter Eddie Henderson, bassist Buster Williams, Allen and LeDonne, the all-star group performed Golson’s “Along Came Betty” and “Stablemates.”

Gambarini performed “Body and Soul” and Johnny Griffin’s “The JAMFs are coming” (an acronym that begins with “jive”), in which she proved her scat bona fides. Next, 78-year-old drummer Louis Hayes played with pianist Renee Rosnes, alto saxophonist Vincent Herring and Webber. Finally, the night ended on a literal high note with 80-year-old tenor saxophonist Coleman, who dazzled on “Oleo,” then did the same transposed a half-step up.

Friday, January 15: Winter Jazzfest Marathon, Night 1

As NYC Winter Jazzfest 2016 comes to a close, it seems beyond dispute that jazz is, once again, not dead, but back with a vengeance, even though jazz itself as an aesthetic category felt less cohesive than ever. With 7,000 people in total attending the 12th annual West Village free-for-all, it was a powerful start to a year hard on the heels of a jazz resurgence in 2015. This year’s festival included an ECM showcase, WJF artist-in-residence drummer Dave King, stalwart hip-hop crossover purveyors Revive Music Group and so much more-the traditional, the forward-looking and the plain unfamiliar sounds that elude any single genre descriptor, omnivorously curated jazz at its most visceral, edgy and ambitious.

The festival unabashedly represents artistic density and audience engagement beyond the charts. In an evolving industry whose vicissitudes are increasingly determined by tastemaking algorithms, WJF is a glorious disruption to the streaming economy. Navigating a 10-block radius, attendees are their own programmers and excess rules. With 120 acts, 600 performers and 12 venues all condensed into the two-night marathon, providing any normative critical judgment is effectively impossible. But this is precisely the point. The festival, with its plurality of voices and subgenres, actively resists codifying a jazz monoculture. Fostering diffuse tastes but bucking the trend of major festivals programming headliners that are at best jazz-adjacent, all the performers at WJF (with few exceptions) identify primarily as jazz artists. So any festival itinerary made a clear case for the art form as a conceptually slippery medium, one uniquely capable of adapting to the diverse, hybridized jazz climate that extends to a broad diaspora-amid the disparate offerings, the only commonality was improvisation.

On the first night of the marathon, at the ECM stage at New School’s 812-seat Tishman Auditorium, an added venue this year that was consistently at or near capacity, guitarist David Torn entranced the crowd with ethereally textured, synth-heavy solo improvisations. The Mark Turner Quartet, with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, straddled inside funk grooves and outré explorations, in anticipation of a forthcoming album. On the more chamber-classical front, drummer Ches Smith, pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Mat Maneri improvised elliptical ostinatos that resembled a Xenakis game piece.

At SubCulture, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts celebrated what would have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s 87th birthday with an impassioned solo set that mixed piercing minor modal motifs with call-and-response polemical asides. “This is for Laquan McDonald…and Eric Garner…and Sandra Bland…and Trayvon Martin…and every name I can’t remember because there are too many,” she said.

Meanwhile, at Zinc Bar, percussionist Cyro Baptista accompanied himself on berimbau as he sang “You Got to Move,” imbuing the spiritual with a Brazilian flair. Joined by the rest of his Banquet of the Spirits, they then segued into a spirited, clave-oriented rendering of Collin Walcott’s “Mumakata.” At Le Poisson Rouge, Sex Mob-slide trumpeter Steven Bernstein, alto saxophonist Briggan Krauss, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen-celebrated 20 years of defining a certain downtown milieu with kitschy covers and acid jazz, highlighted by a sultry rendition of Nino Rota’s theme from Federico Fellini’s Amarcord.

Vocalist Charenée Wade’s Gil Scott-Heron tribute pulsated with the energy and urgency of the hip-hop forefather. Covers of “Song of the Wind” and “Essex” demonstrated Wade’s astonishing dynamic range, with strong turns from alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and vibraphonist Nikara Warren. At the New School’s Glass Box Theater, the Dave King Trucking Company, with saxophonists Chris Speed and Brandon Wozniak, guitarist Erik Fratzke and bassist Chris Morrissey, blended pastoral harmonies and vertiginous improvisation, hewing closer to indie rock complicated by odd meters.

Later in the evening, pianist Vijay Iyer and his longtime trio held court at the ECM stage, with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore epitomizing group cohesion. Their opening salvo extended for 30 minutes of sustained intentionality, gradually developing a theme as unpredictable as it was inevitable.

Iyer overlapped with the Bad Plus, performing at Judson Church at a previously unannounced midnight show. It was the embodiment of everything the festival stands for: the same instrumentation, but a completely different sound-the simultaneous coexistence of two equally valid and virtuosic interpretations of all that jazz can be. AIDAN LEVY

Saturday, January 16: Winter Jazzfest Marathon, Night 2

The Winter Jazzfest marathon continued on its second night as a tale of two festivals: one hovering just below 14th Street, at a series of venues owned by the New School; and another that should have been more familiar to veteran festivalgoers (though certainly not unchanged), farther downtown in and around the West Village. The event is an institution at this point, but it doesn’t necessarily evolve like one. Institutions tend to transform with subtlety, in increments; once you’ve spent a couple days at Newport or Monterey, you’ve mastered its layout and culture for the next decade.

WJF offers a learning curve with each edition, and this year, with the New School’s involvement, that contour was steeper. The fresh venues offered excellent sound, and provided a home for the festival’s new crown jewel, the ECM Records stage at the New School’s 800-capacity Tishman Auditorium. Not surprisingly, the focus and civility that define the label’s aesthetic extended to its home base here. This was as close as Winter Jazzfest has gotten to the close-listening atmosphere you can encounter at particular European festivals. Even with 10 other venues tempting them, folks were, for the most part, patient enough to wait until tunes had ended to file in and out.

The programming on the ECM stage was certainly worthy of the added attention. On Saturday a main event came early, at 6 o’clock, with bassist Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus, featuring a who’s who of explorative New York musicians playing from the large ensemble’s forthcoming release, The Distance. This was an hour-plus of startlingly good music-startling not so much for its avant-garde qualities, but rather for how it could evoke jazz’s progressive past. I couldn’t stop thinking of Stan Kenton and Pete Rugolo at their most shadowy, or of what Otto Preminger projections could have complemented the program. Along the way were tiny ingenious subversions that exacerbated those associations, like the pitch-shifted, warping effects that crept into guitarist Mary Halvorson’s version of comping, which gave the sensation of missing that last step or two at the bottom of a staircase. A series of soloists, given ample room, reminded you that you were listening to an all-star band of sorts, among them saxophonists Loren Stillman and Chris Speed (flowing and lyrical) and trombonist Ben Gerstein (brilliantly textural and idiomatic).

Elsewhere, at New School’s 12th Street auditorium, the quartet of saxophonist Oliver Lake, cornetist Graham Haynes, bassist Joe Fonda and drummer Barry Altschul flew a flag for the ’60s-indebted avant-garde, throwing fury and humanity into the shell of bebop. The Greenwich House Music School’s sound-friendly recital hall provided a packed home for New York’s snowballing hot-jazz scene. The Sun Ra Arkestra, with 91-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen at the helm, thrust toward the astral plane but got lost in the echo-chamber acoustics of the Judson Church. Drummer Jim Black, in a trio with bassist Thomas Morgan and Teddy Klausner, whose subtle piano preparations were an asset instead of a distraction, played beautiful, dynamic trio music that, especially given Black’s constant, nearly finicky attack, couldn’t help but bring to mind a similar group that signed with Columbia around 14 years ago. The association brought up very interesting questions of influence: Is this sound/strategy a generational thing? Was that famous trio a one-off or the culmination of a specific shared moment in time? Did more bands play like them?

Another piano trio, the buzzed-about, robust-sounding British group GoGo Penguin, certainly couldn’t exist without that band (OK, out with it: the Bad Plus). But unlike Black’s group, who seemed related to it in parallel, GoGo Penguin has latched onto its outsize characteristics and used them to concoct willfully melodramatic instrumental dance-rock. (The criticisms leveled at TBP early on, especially related to volume, seem doubly unfair after five minutes with GoGo Penguin.) The trio, featuring Chris Illingworth on piano, Nick Blacka on bass and Rob Turner on drums, represent an evolution of the postmodern piano trio in the same way that Blue Cheer and Black Sabbath interpreted the language of its more artful and nimble forebears in blues-rock. Not surprisingly, the kids are into it. I’d like to hear more.

Sunday, January 17: Channeling Coltrane: Rova’s Electric Ascension

Winter Jazzfest 2016 came to a fitting conclusion on Sunday, January 17, at Le Poisson Rouge with the Rova Saxophone Quartet’s Electric Ascension and an opening solo set by guitarist Julian Lage. The former was a combustible flash of the spirit, the latter a measured but soulful series of more conventional harmonic progressions; Rova and their co-conspirators were out of time, while Lage never lost sight of it. They were diametrically opposed on the surface, but not so distant at their core.

Though John Coltrane never performed Ascension live, Rova-soprano saxophonist Bruce Ackley, alto saxophonist Steve Adams, tenor saxophonist Larry Ochs and baritone saxophonist Jon Raskin-has been experimenting with the piece, Coltrane’s final work, since its 30th anniversary in 1995. An album, Electric Ascension, was released in 2005, with an expanded DVD documentary by John Rogers and live performance footage at the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival released this year. The documentary refers to Rova’s interpretation as a “reincarnation” of the Coltrane original, which was orchestrated for 11 parts; the LPR show featured nine in addition to the quartet: drummer Gerald Cleaver, guitarist Nels Cline, violinists Charles Burnham and Jason Kao Hwang, bassist Trevor Dunn, electric harpist Zeena Parkins, trumpeter Nate Wooley, Ikue Mori on electronics, and sound engineer Marc Urselli. Cline’s relationship with Lage, his duo partner on the stirring Room, may explain the double bill.

Lage’s set, culled from World’s Fair, was a mix of rootsy originals and standards, handled with pristine fingerstyle and almost too cleanly delivered for the campfire. The 28-year-old virtuoso was part Segovia, part Gene Bertoncini as he seamlessly transitioned between the twangy folk hooks of “Day and Age” and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” a tribute to Jim Hall.

From the opening minor motive, Rova had clearly spent time contemplating approaches to the controlled chaos and mysticism of Coltrane’s polarizing composition, a fiery free jazz meditation that is perhaps the summation of his oeuvre. Gerald Cleaver was a tour de force, anchoring the rhythm section in a feverish homage to Elvin Jones, who plays on the original. Cline provided the aesthetic foundation that electrified Electric Ascension; interpolating pedal effects runs the risk of cheapening Coltrane’s clarity of vision, but Cline coalesced within the broader sheets of sound. After five nights of frenetic experimentation of all colors-the vertigo, awe, euphoria, afterglow and, finally, exhaustion-there was something cleansing about plunging headlong into the abyss.

Originally Published