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Winter Jazzfest 2020 in 30 Snapshots

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

Candice Hoyes and Val Jeanty
Candice Hoyes (left) and Val Jeanty of Nite Bjuti at the Moxy Hotel, Jan. 10, 2020 (photo: Jonathan Chimene)

Manhattan Marathon Night 1

Nite Bjuti featuring Val Jeanty, Candice Hoyes, and Mimi Jones at Moxy Hotel/Bowers & Wilkins Sound Lounge

As I stood in line at the Moxy Hotel to pick up my Winter Jazzfest Marathon press pass, three female musicians set up in a corner across from the baked-good stands captured my attention. I couldn’t leave that spot for a full hour as the trio, Nite Bjuti, slung low bass cadences through Kansas City and New Orleans, visited Africa via electronic percussion and blasted beats, and traveled spaceward with vocals sampled, woven, spun, and finally ejected free to engage the cosmos. Percussionist/beat maker Val Jeanty, vocalist/sampler controller Candice Hoyes, and double bassist Mimi Jones were the biggest revelation of WJF (so far), creating dense sound vistas and pure improvisations. Jones’ heavy, funky bass slaps buffeted Jeanty’s turbulent rhythms and Hoyes’ unique vocals, the trio’s spiritual hookup immediate and profound.

Mark Guiliana Quartet with Gretchen Parlato at Le Poisson Rouge

For his second WJF set—joined by tenor saxophonist Jason Rigby, bassist Chris Morrissey, pianist Shai Maestro, and wife Parlato—Guiliana offered music built of grace and control, every movement seemingly mapped out as if programmed. Not that the group didn’t improvise; quite the opposite. Opening with the group sans vocals, the quartet blew hard and fast figures as they navigated their leader’s blinding swing-meets-electronic ultra-jazz. Traditional and swinging at his core, Guiliana drove them with a jacked-in approach: hands blowing across the small drum set, feet leaving their pedals, drum figures so rapid they seemed to levitate the hunched drummer into hyperspace. Parlato sang her now-classic “Butterfly,” reimagining the Herbie Hancock tune and making it her own.

Ted Poor with Cuong Vu and Kris Davis at Zürcher Gallery

Located at the other end of Bleecker Street from Le Poisson Rouge, near the old location of CBGB, Zürcher Gallery also hosted a different crowd. Visitors to LPR came to boogie and blow; at Zürcher, it’s about seeking a balm to the senses, seated if possible. While some in the audience seemed close to senility, Ted Poor—an incredibly animated, physical, and creative musician—wasn’t having it. Performing Poor’s compositions, some of which will appear on his forthcoming Impulse! Records release, trumpeter Vu and pianist Davis held fast as the drummer made his kit sing multi-rhythms, colors, and harmonies. The set opened with two tunes from the Vu/Poor duo; the musicians traced atmospheric circles, Vu playing long, electronically delayed notes and Poor rolling, popping, crashing a tribal drum chant. Davis joined for a number dedicated to Sun Ra, during which Poor extracted clamoring bell tones from his cymbals like blast-furnace explosions, his bass drum tracing another tribal/folk pulse. Vu blew in as if on a breeze, Davis rolled and cajoled, and a frenetic, gleeful matchup of three inspired musicians rambled heavenward. —KM

Cuong Vu and Ted Poor
Cuong Vu (left) and Ted Poor at Zürcher Gallery, Jan. 10, 2020 (photo: Jonathan Chimene)

Godwin Louis, MAE.SUN, and Jaimie Branch at the Dance

Modern jazz festival rule one: If you walk into the club and Joel Ross is on stage, you know it’s going to be interesting. So it was with alto saxophonist Godwin Louis’ band, a powerful rhythmic engine just itching to hit it ever harder. Louis’ latest album, 2019’s Global, reveals a deep familiarity with the complexities of the many diverse global rhythms that have sprung from the African diaspora, and all five of his colleagues at the Dance on Lafayette Street spoke his language fluently—but especially Ross and fearless drummer Obed Calvaire.

Hailey Niswanger, leader of the West Coast sextet MAE.SUN, believes in the power of processing. Her soprano sax, flute, and voice were coated with reverb, delay, and occasional distortion and octave-dividing effects throughout the group’s set. All the better to conjure up cool ’70s fusion vibes, and stoke excitement. Speaking of vibes, the vibraphone that Ross had played in the earlier set was now being handled by Nikara Warren, whose enthusiasm—apparent not just in her ace playing but also in her vocalizations and a variety of unusual facial expressions—was utterly winning.

Much, much later in the evening (and almost an hour later than scheduled), Jaimie Branch took the stage. She’s a compelling frontwoman with a furious trumpet style who’s taking on deeply resonant subject matter—namely, the serious shit America finds itself in right now—all of which, one might think, should add up to some kind of powerful catharsis. Maybe it did for others in the audience. I personally wasn’t buying. The music, though well-played, felt gimmicky. And truth be told, I can only take so much larynx-rending screaming, even when it’s being directed at worthy targets.

Steven Bernstein and Ben Allison
Steven Bernstein (left) and Ben Allison at Le Poisson Rouge, Jan. 10, 2020 (photo: Adrien H. Tillmann)

Steven Bernstein’s [email protected] with Catherine Russell at Le Poisson Rouge

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, Steven Bernstein’s 10-piece Millennial Territory Orchestra —featuring trombonist Curtis Fowlkes, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, bassist Ben Allison, and drummer Ben Perowsky, among others—consistently kept its neo-retro approach (think King Oliver meets Sun Ra) deep and lowdown. Catherine Russell’s vocals only furthered this. Ever the showman, Bernstein was good for many laughs as usual. The fact that one of the themes of WJF 2020 was wellness for jazz musicians—addressed in numerous panel discussions and fest paraphernalia—clearly tickled him. At set’s end, after thanking all the players on stage, he repeatedly yelled out, “Wellness! Wellness! WELLNESS!” until the microphone could take no more.

Connie Han at Subculture

When Connie Han announced that the last song of her Subculture set was dedicated to McCoy Tyner, I was a little surprised. Up until then I’d thought the whole set was dedicated to him; the stylistic resemblance between the two pianists is striking, to say the least. Perhaps a little too striking. That said, Han—playing with a capable rhythm section of Ivan Taylor and Bill Wysaske—knows how to bring the thunder, and did so repeatedly in convincing fashion. Her style of dress and manner of presentation, which frequently has a model-on-the-cover-of-a-hair-metal-album vibe, seems to be exposing a fissure of sorts between generations in the jazz community (the younger feminists think it’s fun and attention-getting, the older ones think it’s poorly considered and getting her the wrong kind of attention). This, however, is a topic that demands more analysis than can be given it here; for now it must suffice to say that as a musician, Han is promising but still finding her way.

Connie Han
Connie Han at Subculture, Jan. 10, 2020 (photo: Adrien H. Tillmann)

Christian Sands and the David Kikoski Trio at Zinc Bar

Urbane needn’t be a synonym for boring. Pianist Christian Sands’ set at Zinc, leading a quintet that also featured trumpeter Keyon Harrold, was a case in point. Their lengthy exploration of “All the Things You Are” seemed permanently suspended about three floors off the ground, engendering a sense of quiet awe. The band started without guitarist Marvin Sewell, who was delayed coming from another gig; not surprisingly, he was a bit tentative once he got there. But after a while, his hands at least demonstrated much more confidence. Too bad nobody turned up his amp.

The sophisticated mood continued as pianist David Kikoski’s trio took over. Backed by bassist Ed Howard and drummer Joe Farnsworth, Kikoski invested “I Thought About You” with multiple shades of melodic subtlety. Just a few blocks away, Jaimie Branch was shrieking “FUCK TRUMP!” at the top of her lungs. A wide emotional spectrum—that’s WJF for you. —MR