Another Winter Jazzfest Whirlwind
For the fifth year running (and 9th year overall), NYC Winter Jazzfest let me spend an early January weekend crisscrossing downtown in search of aural pleasure, entering my fourth decade amid a glorious haze of bodega beers and Mamoun’s falafel. While New York City presents a daunting plethora of live jazz options just about daily, jazz club covers and drink minimums prevent the type of musical exploration that a proper festival offers.
Things kicked off once again in the subterranean confines of Le Poisson Rouge, itself situated on the grounds of the old Village Gate, a longstanding downtown jazz stomping ground. Delicately plinked piano melodies danced across a loung bass line befitting the early hour, with a horn section joining in for breathy outbursts at opportune junctures.
But the night was young and the festival had staked out some pristine spaces eastward. Bobby Previte guided his Bari Trio through an intricate set in the basement of Bowery Electric. Before a rapt crowd perched on every level of the little box, Mike Gamble wove electric melodies over Previte’s precise syncopation, as import Fabian Rucker spurted syncopated baritone sax.
Over at the spacious Culture Project Theater, the first pleasant surprise of the evening awaited. The ethereal vibraphonics of Bryan & The Aardvarks brought to mind the less spacey instrumental segues of Phish. Back at Bowery Electric, Eric Deutsch was guiding his quartet through a swinging set to a swelling audience.
At the center of the action, a prime time audience imbibed the dub jazz of Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express whose express route ran from Queen to Axel Foley. Soon, friends converged, crowds swelled and the familiar breakneck pace of festival folly commenced.
Sullivan Hall was an even tighter squeeze for Revive Big Band’s hip hop swing. A lengthy line proved worth the wait for the deceptively complex guitar conversation between veteran Nels Cline and nubile Julian Lage at Bitter End. The Gil Scott-Heron re-envisioning, loftily entitled Evolutionary Minded!, felt cobbled together and rarely gelled despite the herculean efforts of Mike Clark, a legend whose presence seemed an afterthought.
Crowds evaporated earlier than usual and the inviting red velvet interior of Zinc Bar beckoned for the lilting late night fusion of Felix Pastorius and company. The energetic E=MC² serenaded the midnight marauders back at Bitter End. In a final revelation, Seabrook Power Plant took it home, closing the Culture Project Theater slate with the kind of metallic fusion played by a hockey fan in a cape. And that was just Friday.
Saturday picked up back at Sullivan Hall for the reverential classic jazz styling of the Ari Hoenig Group led by one of the better drummers in contemporary jazz. Over at Bowery Electric, 40Twenty altered between jaunty numbers and gently whispered compositions to a polite audience. A packed house at Bitter End stood slack-jawed as indie rock sax-for-hire Colin Stetson blared off-kilter staccatos through multiple horns.
At the Culture Project Theater, which would be nearly shut down by the capacity crowds later in the night, Tony Malaby’s Tuba Trio led unexpected instrumentation towards the freer side of jazz. The familiar prime time masses were in full effect at Red Baraat with all ages and colors waving hands in the air at a carefree Indian brass dance party.
Back across town, Hazmat Modine gypsified the blues and Rafiq Bhatia inflected straightforward guitar harmonics with electronic samples. Finally Bugge n’ Friends took it home with a loose friendly jam session apropos of a genial, exhilarating festival.