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Winter Jazzfest 2020 in 30 Snapshots

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

Mark Guiliana
Mark Guiliana at Le Poisson Rouge, Jan. 10, 2020 (photo: Jonathan Chimene)

Manhattan Marathon Night 2

Unholy Cow at the Dance

Mssrs. Mark Guiliana (drums), Jason Lindner (keys), and Tim Lefebvre (bass) famously worked on David Bowie’s final album Blackstar, which brought them to the attention of the world. But this trio worked tiny NYC dungeons and dive bars for years before that. At the Dance, they replicated the good old days, sort of. Unlike those heady jams of yesteryear, where the term “jazz” could loosely be applied, this was full-on, hard-on electronica for dance urchins. A holy racket not unlike Guiliana’s most recent Beat Music! Beat Music! Beat Music! but sans the silly yellow sweatsuits, Unholy Cow simulated air-raid sirens at a secret Antarctic location, created robotic love songs to Rachael in Blade Runner, and generally sampled, triggered, and stretched waveforms to the limit. And most importantly, they grooved.

Kassa Overall at the Mercury Lounge

Last year’s Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz showed drummer/rapper/composer Kassa Overall to be a unique voice in the growing jazz/hip-hop equation. A veteran of the late Geri Allen’s trio, Overall brought jazz cred and hip-hop hilarity to WJF. His septet, including two backup singers (Melanie Charles, J Hoard), a bassist (Morgan Guerin), and two keyboard players (Paul Wilson, Mike King), opened with an odd-metered version of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” featuring a blistering synth solo. The group teeter-tottered between straight-ahead jazz and zany hip-hop throughout, working material from Overall’s upcoming release, I Think I’m Good. Among the highlights: an unusual reworking of Johnny Cash’s “This Train Is Bound for Glory” and Kassa’s brother and tenor saxophonist Carlos duetting with the leader on a free-ish romp that included a prerecorded spoken word piece recalling their childhood watching cartoons on Saturday mornings while enjoying eggs covered in honey.

Plume featuring Kush Abadey at the Bitter End

Alto saxophonist Plume, pianist Léonardo Montana, bassist Géraud Portal, and guest drummer Kush Abadey proved post-hard bop is alive and thriving in a kinetic Bitter End set. Performing Plume’s sinewy compositions, the dynamic quartet covered a wide range of moods. The three principals shared a unique telepathy; Abadey, though reading charts from start to finish, made the music burn, glide, and explode as if he’d composed it himself. Each member took challenging solos, and the music danced and thrummed. There was a lot of non-swinging music to be heard at WJF this year; nonetheless, as this incendiary performance attested, swing survives. —KM

Harriet Tubman and James Blood Ulmer at the Sultan Room

At the charming Sultan Room, a three-in-one theater/restaurant/takeout joint in Brooklyn, Harriet Tubman—whose latest release, The Terror End of Beauty, has become in retrospect one of my favorite albums of 2018—set off a righteous power-trio blast. Guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis all engaged in heroics aplenty, and Ross’ vocals carried an urgent gospel edge. The words “Hendrixian sky church” come to mind. (Not an original coinage on my part, sadly; for what it’s worth, I believe jazz critic Chip Stern first put those particular words together in a Musician magazine review of Julius Hemphill’s wonderful 1988 Big Band album.)

Next up was guitarist/singer James Blood Ulmer, looking as vibrant as always at 80 (though he did remain seated throughout the show). Flanking him were violinist Charles Burnham and drummer Warren Benbow—the original trio that recorded the classic 1983 album Odyssey. Much like they had on that disc, Ulmer and company produced a very ancient, very back-country sound, often delightfully ramshackle yet tight in its looseness. Like a blues hoedown somewhere in Mali. With wah-wah pedals. And obligatory quotes from “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

Theo Croker
Theo Croker at Le Poisson Rouge, Jan. 12, 2020 (photo: Jonathan Chimene)

Theo Croker’s Star People Nation at the Mercury Lounge

What a gorgeous tone Theo Croker has: so warm, soft, pure—and essentially solitary. While his band (keyboardist Mike King, bassist Eric Wheeler, drummer Michael Ode) churned away virtuosically like vintage Weather Report or Return to Forever, his trumpet floated above it, occupying a connected but separate dimension of wise melancholy. Striking as Croker’s Star People Nation album is, this music was something else: positively transcendent, and a festival highlight. —MR


“From Detroit to the World: Celebrating the Jazz Legacy of Detroit and Honoring Marcus Belgrave” at Le Poisson Rouge

This three-set evening served at least three purposes: paying tribute to the late great Marcus Belgrave, celebrating the jazz scene of his home city, and promoting Mark Stryker’s Jazz from Detroit, which JazzTimes’ critics have voted the best jazz book of 2019. Stryker himself was on stage at the start, moderating an entertaining panel discussion about Belgrave with several Detroit ringers. One of them, bassist Robert Hurst, told an especially memorable story. While running through Charlie Parker’s “Quasimodo” at a long-ago gig, Belgrave found Hurst’s bass playing disappointing—so much so that he grabbed Hurst’s bass and played it for the rest of the tune, giving the bassist nothing to do but watch. “I couldn’t even leave the stage,” Hurst said, “because there was no way to get through the people. It was fun … but not at the time.”

In contrast, the music on this night was fun right in the moment. It even got multi-genre, as Dwight Adams, Greg Glassman, and Theo Croker (again) formed a killer trumpet trio over electronics specialist Carl Craig’s whooshes and beeps on “Space Odyssey,” a nugget from Belgrave’s 1974 nonet date Gemini II. Joan Belgrave sang a hair-raising “You’re My Everything,” along with her late husband’s favorite Ray Charles song, “You Don’t Know Me.” (She said she was going to try not to get emotional on stage; that attempt failed—lucky for us.) Later in the evening, such luminaries as Ron Carter, Louis Hayes, and the high priestess of bop, Sheila Jordan, joined in too.

One more thing I’d be remiss not to note: the presence of the Belgraves’ son Kasan on alto saxophone. Not surprisingly, the kid’s got chops, and smarts. —MR

Harish Raghavan
Left to right: Taylor Eigsti, Joel Ross, Harish Raghavan, Morgan Guerin, Justin Brown, and Logan Richardson at the Sultan Room, Jan. 12, 2020 (photo: Adrien H. Tillmann)

Harish Raghavan and Kris Davis’ Diatom Ribbons at the Sultan Room

For his set at the Sultan, double bassist Harish Raghavan brought complex music and powerful players. With Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Morgan Guerin, EWI; Taylor Eigsti, piano; Justin Brown, drums; and Joel Ross, vibraphone, Raghavan tackled material from his recent release Calls for Action. For those unfamiliar with the new tunes, the gig could have been a guessing game, so fast and furious did the music fly. Best to hold tight and ride the waves. Introducing many songs with an acoustic bass solo, Raghavan then pushed his group forward over esoteric terrain. The musicians soared through the intricate arrangements and intertwined melodies over the dizzying, ballistic grooves of Raghavan and Brown. Even in the most maddeningly knotty material, tight melodies surfaced as hard-won kernels, which were further expanded in solo sections. Raghavan, Ross, Guerin, and Brown were especially affecting, making cogent statements, then retreating into Raghavan’s multifaceted web works.

Employing the lineup from her celebrated Diatom Ribbons album—Terri Lyne Carrington, drums; Val Jeanty, turntables; Tony Malaby, tenor saxophone; Trevor Dunn, bass; and Esperanza Spalding on vocals—pianist/composer Kris Davis played a diverse set with hands in myriad musical camps, befitting her pedigree. The ensemble reprised material from Diatom Ribbons with note-perfect accuracy, abetted by various improvisations; Malaby and Jeanty were in particularly gargantuan form throughout. The ensemble’s performance was somehow thicker, more viscous and darker overall than the record, as if they were zeroing in harder from all perspectives. The title track included the Cecil Taylor samples from the album, then rushed forward via Carrington’s hard linear drumming, Malaby’s flowing enunciations, and Davis’ equally elegant phrasing. “Golgi Complex (The Sequel)” followed suit, without Nels Cline’s acidic guitar yet given girth by Jeanty’s turntablism—including her manipulation of the oft-used (by Coldcut, for one) “This is a journey into sound” sample (from 1958’s A Journey into Stereo Sound [London]). A dexterous improv party. —KM


The Eubanks Evans Experience and Artemis at Le Poisson Rouge

Eubanks is Kevin. Evans is Orrin. Their guitar/piano duo ranged from bluesy to ballady, rambunctious to lyrical. And their interplay is brotherly (must be a Philly thing). One of Eubanks’ notable traits as a player is his frequent use of a volume pedal; early in the set, as his notes faded in and out beautifully over Evans’ full-range accompaniment, the effect was almost like having a wordless singer in the room. Over time, though, all the up and down became tiresome, conjuring thoughts of a guitarist incessantly fiddling with a new toy at Christmas. Make no mistake, I’m a confirmed fan of the big swell, and I find sacred truth in the argument that electric guitar + volume pedal = new instrument. But by half an hour in, I longed to hear more pick attack.

Artemis is Renee Rosnes, Anat Cohen, Ingrid Jensen, Melissa Aldana, Noriko Ueda, and Allison Miller. At least usually; on this particular evening, Nicole Glover subbed (I presume?) for Aldana. All women, yes, but far more to the point, all monster players. Skilled composers, too, though the set really came into focus with a smart take on Monk’s “Brilliant Corners.”

Over an hour’s worth of brilliantly multifaceted music, Cohen’s infectious exuberance on clarinet, Glover’s ear-catching playing on some kind of Asian reed instrument (a hulusi, perhaps?), and the zany edge of Miller’s drumming were special standouts. One of my four favorite sets at WJF (Christian Sands, Harriet Tubman, and Theo Croker being the others), and all the more reason to look forward to Artemis’ Blue Note debut later this year. —MR