CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Winter Jazzfest 2020 in 30 Snapshots

A necessarily limited report on the 16th annual NYC mega-festival

Artemis
Artemis (left to right: Renee Rosnes, Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen, Noriko Ueda, Nicole Glover, and Allison Miller) at Le Poisson Rouge, Jan. 13, 2020 (photo: Adrien H. Tillmann)

There’s no way to cover Winter Jazzfest in its entirety—11 days of performances, talks, and other events at 21 venues in two New York City boroughs—without a huge crew of correspondents. Such things being beyond JazzTimes’ budget, we made no attempt to cover it all; we just did the best we could. JT editor Mac Randall and regular contributor Ken Micallef, identified by their respective initials in the paragraphs below, crisscrossed the Apple and caught 30 separate sets over five days. Though only a fraction of what was on offer, it was more than enough to confirm the continuing vibrancy of both jazz and the New York music scene, despite the range of hostile forces arrayed against them (from creeping gentrification to music-industry shrinkage). Meanwhile, Alan Nahigian took hundreds of photographs, some of which you can see in the companion gallery to this piece.

Without further ado, here are 30 verbal snapshots from this annual highlight of the jazz aficionado’s calendar.

JANUARY 9
U.K. Night at Le Poisson Rouge

The second official night of WJF (the first night having consisted solely of the opening party at Nublu in Alphabet City) blew up with a funky bang at Le Poisson Rouge, with a cavalcade of British talent bringing their new jazz wave to U.S. shores. Presented by PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing, and hosted by Brownswood Recordings’ Gilles Peterson, it was a chance to hear some British jazz musicians who’ve received massive press, though most of said artists’ recordings aren’t currently available in the States.

U.S.-born, London-raised drummer and bandleader Sarathy Korwar led his six-piece group—all wearing orange-striped “Fly Emirates” T-shirts—through a heated set built on Afro-Cuban and Indian rhythms, Brötzmann-like tenor saxophone soloing, Qawwali singing, and spoken-word mumbling. The groove was deep and burning, Korwar riding his drums like a steamroller operator in constant go motion. His music, drawn from the 2019 release More Arriving, simmered and slashed, relying on wild dynamic swings and gritty, fusion-fueled drumming. More than any other act of the night, Korwar connected with the crowd on a visceral plane. Always the groove, the great leveler and communicator, which he yielded like a careful cudgel, whether playing complex patterns around his set, triggering hand-drum and timbale sounds, or banging unison Afro-Cuban accents with a second drummer manning a marching tom-tom. His final words to the audience were “You can’t stop people from moving.”

Cited by former President Obama as one of his favorite artists of 2018, 23-year-old soul singer Poppy Ajudha brought style, skill, and soaring pipes to WJF’s male-dominated Le Poisson Rouge stage. A petite performer who fits more accurately into the nu-soul variant than true jazz, Ajudha won the crowd over instantly. Backed by a seam-tight quartet, she worked material from her 2018 release When You Watch Me. In addition to well-crafted, catchy songs, what Ajudha possesses in spades is a glorious instrument. Her voice has a silky undertow, framed by a sharpness that cuts through everything. Her phrasing is pure old school, more behind-the-beat Anita Baker and Sarah Vaughan than any current radio flavor. It’s that graceful swing in her voice, that gentle tug, that rough surface rolled smooth, that pulls you in. And when she thanked the crowd after each song, her smile and sincerity were infectious. 

Poppy Ajudha
Poppy Ajudha at Le Poisson Rouge, Jan. 9, 2020 (photo: Jonathan Chimene)

Pianist Ashley Henry, whose debut record, Beautiful Vinyl Hunter, was touted by Gilles Peterson as his favorite of 2019, is that rare bird—to U.S. jazz audiences, at least. Stateside, we expect pianists to pay homage to Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, and Herbie Hancock, with a nod to Cedar Walton and maybe Oscar Peterson. But in the U.K., where jazz always draws from and flirts with pop music, the jazz piano trio is a far more malleable format. Henry can play; the two U.S. draftee accompanists who were seemingly new to his music did not change the fact that the man is gifted. But as the trio blew through funk/jazz/swing episodes fitted with plenty of solo space, the “pop” element was never far away. Paying tribute to Ahmad Jamal didn’t stop Henry’s ever-spiraling fingers and blazing tempos—the trio only bore down harder. Every move was melody-driven, and flowed from the pianist’s fingers like honey. Le Poisson Rouge welcomed Henry with open arms; success was sure.

Following Henry’s intense good vibes was no easy feat. But using the drums once again as communicator and primal power center proved key. The headlining Moses Boyd Exodus (led by drummer/producer Boyd) brought ’70s-style fusion grooves to music of drum ’n’ bass-like seamlessness and profundity. Referencing his forthcoming album Dark Matter, Boyd’s bass-less quartet performed like a band that’s lived together for years. This was an experience. Grooves grew into epics, solos scaled heights, the audience pushing the soloists on. Boyd’s music has extravaganza written all over it, his pummeling yet smooth rhythms driving the musicians to Fela-worthy agitations and symphonic climaxes. Hard to believe it’s all coming from such a baby-faced musician. Boyd doesn’t dominate; his ego is in check, his id at the service of the music. —KM

Mark Guiliana Beat Music, Taylor McFerrin and yMusic at the Bowery Ballroom

This reporter kicked off Winter Jazzfest by seeing alternative chamber group yMusic tear up a cover of Sufjan Stevens’ “Year of the Boar.” String trio frenzy, bent notes from a piccolo, trumpet as a percussion instrument—there sure are worse ways to start. And a dazzling guest appearance by singer Emily King just made it that much better. Taylor McFerrin’s set of space-soul was distinguished by gloriously distorted Rhodes electric piano, swooping portamento synth, and a cool cameo from sister (and vocalist) Madison. But it was his wicked beatbox duel with drummer Marcus Gilmore that lingered longest in the memory.

Grammy-nominated drummer/composer Mark Guiliana was this year’s WJF artist-in-residence, and his first of seven sets during the festival was with the machine heads in Beat Music, featuring bassist Chris Morrissey and keyboardists BigYuki and Nicholas Semrad. On tap: Ultra-tight electronica-style grooves; analog synth overload; twisted bits of dub, funk, Bach, and steel band; and matching hoodies, of course. —MR