Now in its 12th year, New York’s Winter Jazzfest has become one of the preeminent jazz events in the country. Spreading the fest’s events out over a dozen venues, organizers Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz have carved out four nights in January to show off a large cross-section of the NYC scene with space for acts hailing from further afield. And this year the mercifully temperate long weekend coincided with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters annual conference. For a jazz fan, especially one based in a city with a less robust scene than New York or Chicago, it’s a pilgrimage that’s enriching, intoxicating, and sometimes maddening in a way that borders on the spiritual.
In the years since I’d last made it to the city for this kaleidoscopic celebration of the diversity and vitality of improvised music, the organizers wisely branched out into venues a little further afield from the original Bleecker Street heart of the marathon. They also gave a wider deference to specific scenes and outside gatekeepers, including venerable European label ECM, who celebrated their renewed commitment to NYC-based musicians in the expansive space and gorgeous acoustics of the New School’s Tishman Auditorium, and the popular New York Hot Jazz Festival, who showcased once out of favor styles in the cozy Greenwich House Music School. Additionally, Revive Music Group’s curation of much of the music at the Bitter End showed the fest’s renewed commitment to funky mainstream sounds. Every time I stopped in any of these rooms, they were packed with a mix of curious drop-ins and different breeds of the faithful.
Explosive large ensembles revealed the benefits of working with a wide canvas throughout the marathon. Under the conducting baton and guitar of Greg Tate, Burnt Sugar splinter-cell Quarktet Burnt reaped the whirlwind with expansive, sanctified tributes to Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter, and Sun Ra at Judson Church Friday. A volcanic rhythm section (thickened with layered wordless vocals from a three-person section) set off hurricanes of sparks and questing solos. The same night, venerable B-3 player Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Evolution used two drummers, guitar, tenor sax (the astonishing Dayna Stephens who seemed to be all over the festival), and trumpet to erect mercurial, glowing landscapes out of originals and standards like “My Favorite Things.” On Saturday, Amir El-Saffar’s fiery Two Rivers sextet expanded on pieces from his terrific 2015 record Crisis, bringing El-Saffar’s voice and santour playing onto an even field with his trumpet and creating rich tapestries that filled the room with particularly fine playing from oud player Zafer Tawil and the rhythm section of Francois Moutin on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums.
Smaller ensembles ranged across the spectrum of tonal color and rhythmic intensity. In a vein growing out of hard bop, the set by the Ibrahim Maalouf Quintet (pictured top) Saturday night might have been my favorite of the weekend, with the leader’s gorgeous trumpet melodies showing the lyrical side of his and tenor saxophonist Mark Turner’s playing, which was kicked into gear by Clarence Penn’s hard swinging drum work. Friday, Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven’s quintet had the Bitter End quaking and bulging at the seams, with more fans crowded around outside. Similarly the same night, Dave King of the Bad Plus (this year’s artist-in-residence, whose main band played a secret show at the Judson Church) brought a loose-limbed, gnarled garage-rock intensity to a set with his band Trucking Company, including a bouncy tribute to Peter Hook, featuring acidic solos from Chris Speed and Chris Morrissey. The chamber music side of small combos was highlighted by great duos like Ethan Iverson and Mark Turner and suites of brand new compositions from the Chris Potter Quartet (pictured above) and Jim Black Trio (also featuring Speed) on Saturday.
There was a strong undercurrent of groove, a reminder that intellectual content doesn’t have to preclude use as a social, sexy dance music. Definitive downtown avant party rockers Sexmob shook the rafters at Le Poisson Rouge Friday in celebration of their 20th anniversary. They tore into with their signature mix of leader Steven Bernstein’s acerbic, catchy originals and inside-out pop covers including The Gorillaz’s “Clint Eastwood.” Amped up by Bernstein’s showmanship, which included goading bandmates with the slide of his trumpet, Sexmob took that victory lap with nothing to prove. Friday, in my only venture to the New York Hot Jazz Festival stage, New Orleans’ Evan Christopher and his Clarinet Road trio led a clinic on the history of jazz clarinet through classics like “What Is This Thing Called Love,” “Moonray,” and “You’re Lucky to Me” and originals like “Old Sober March.” Christopher’s deceptively easy chemistry with Brian Seeger’s nimble guitar and Jacob Bell’s thick bass was aided by the perfect X-factor on a selection of songs: the sumptuous singing of Hilary Gardner.
Among many great things about the Winter Jazzfest is the wide-tent approach, which means even though I saw more than 20 sets, there were jazz fans with which I never interacted. And it wasn’t just those with different tastes, but people with similar interests who went the other way on a really hard call to make. There was never enough time to catch everything you wanted to see and hear, and that’s a very, very good thing.