Three Nights of Jazzfest
The city never sleeps: cliché, but true. Lately neither do I. Following a New Year’s run of Biscuits, Phish, New Deal with some beer hall brass band ball drop action in the mix, and a late-onset midweek bout of wook flu, I was ready to get right back on the train, destination downtown, where Winter Jazzfest is a venerable tradition. From its humble beginnings 7 years ago as a multi-floor, single night event at the Knitting Factory’s most recent Manhattan outpost in Tribeca, the festival has grown to include five Village venues over two weekend nights, with an additional opening event Thursday night featuring merely four bands at a single venue. The line-up mixes bigger names– including a few from NYC’s 1990s downtown jazz scene– with relative up-and-comers from across the vast post-millennial jazz spectrum.
Arriving a bit later than intended, I was pleasantly surprised to catch Marc Ribot’s Young Philadelphians midway through their primetime set. Having logged session time with luminaries from Tom Waits to Elvis Costello, Ribot is equally adept at straight rock (or any other genre really) and avant grade freak outs, the latter of which can be a bit of an acquired taste. I’m told the first half of the show leaned towards freer jazz excursions, but thankfully the tempo had picked up by the time I got in. The Young Philadelphians, anchored by the phenomenal rhythm section of G. Calvin Weston and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, delivered a funky backbone to Ribot’s masterful shredding, highlighted by a stellar rendition of The Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoster, a personal favorite of mine since the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ version on the Beavis & Butthead Do America soundtrack.
Next up was the Indian big brass band Red Baraat, featuring bandleader Sunny Jain on the tabla-esque dhol drum alongside a brass section anchored by a sousaphone– a wholly unique take on bhangra that might confound a few Punjabi parents. Yet the crowd shook instinctively to the New Orleans-infused take on traditional Indian wedding music. And the band provided dance lessons for the less rhythmically inclined. Moves like throwing the football and driving the car translated well to the inebriated among us.
The headliners went on well after midnight, and the crowd had thinned out a bit, but those who stayed were treated to a master class in jazzy jam funk by three of the best in the game – John Medeski on organ, Adam Deitch on drums and the mononymous Skerik on saxophone and assorted electronics. The set leaned heavily towards the Medeski Martin and Wood brand of dance music, but Deitch took over late in the show for an unexpected take on Pharoahe Monch’s hip hop classic Simon Says. Skerik was his usual weird self, playing his sax both clean and through an array of effects pedals, messing with a mini sampler and taking to the mic for a strange vocal excursion Summer Santa. And that was night one.
Night two (night one for most) started the same way the first ended, with John Medeski at Le Poisson Rouge, albeit sans band. Playing primarily muted numbers on a baby grand piano, Medeski nonetheless managed to insert bits of experimentalism that separate his main band from other organ trios. He plucked strings inside the piano, while simultaneously playing an accordion-like squeezebox and a melodica. At one point, he soloed on a wooden flute (akin to the one David Carradine plays in Kill Bill 2), waving it around, skewing notes via Doppler Effect.
After Medeski’s relatively early set, I had some time to wander around the various venues in search of those random bands that add a sense of musical discovery to any worthwhile festival. I caught the tail end of Julian Lage Group at Sullivan Hall. Their sunny blend of flamenco-tinged acoustic jazz captivated me in the span of a few songs. Moving on to Kenny’s Castaways (a personal favorite due to its appearance in Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get The Blues and hosting of Phish’s first NYC gig), Pete Robbins, Simon Jermyn, Oscar Noriega, John Hollenbeck and Ches Smith did less to impress me in a similar span with their technically proficient generic background jazz.
Swinging back to LPR, I found the Nels Cline Singers anchored by the melodic squelch of the Wilco guitar slinger. Jazz is a purely American concoction and there are few things more American than expertly distorted guitar regardless of idiom. Extended instrumental excursions gave way to yet another venue change – back to the jammy enclave of Sullivan Hall née Lion’s Den.
My affinity for all things gypsy led me to the NY Gypsy All Stars, who did not disappoint with their Balkan bacchanal. But the real allure of the spot was a solo set by Marco Benevento on his usual array of keyboards and circuit bent toys. Though Joe Russo, his partner in The Duo is currently on drumming duty for Furthur, Marco has not frittered away his time. He maintains a constant tour schedule and has released a steady output of releases that straddle the line between jazz and indie rock. This set featured the irresistibly catchy The Real Morning Party as well as Marco syncing his tempo to the electronic dance music leaking up from Sullivan Room, his exuberance infectious.
And then it was back to LPR for Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra, seemingly named for their animated leader’s millennia-straddling prominence in the downtown jazz scene. Here the supremely funky group was joined by the omnipresesnt John Medeski and a slew of guest vocalists as they tackled Sly Stone’s deep catalogue. The big band funk took a turn towards the psychedelic at The Bitter End with Burnt Sugar the Arkestra Chamber delivering a spacey confluence of sound that drew equally from James Brown, Parliament Funkadelic, Miles Davis and Sun Ra.
Every venue at Jazzfest is fairly well suited to the throngs that overwhelm them annually, but perhaps the best aesthetically is the Zinc Bar, which seems to exist for jazz at an elemental level. Its red velvet walls and cozy booths conjure images of the smoky jazz haunts of New York’s yesteryear, which is perhaps why there is always a lengthy line for entry at primetime. However, come midnight the crowds start to dissipate and the late night revelers can enter without the queue. Despite the close quarters of the subterranean confines, Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures packed in an 8-piece band for his African percussive excursions, an excellent backdrop for wee hour riffing. Later, JD Walter’s incredibly tight backing trio sat and watched agape with us for his looped a capella cover of Weezer’s Say It Ain’t So.
Finally, I ran (literally, narrowly defeating my newfound French acquaintance) back to Sullivan Hall for the bouncy brass of New Orleans revivalists Big Sam’s Funky Nation. Their lively onslaught wrung the last bits of vivre from a weary crowd, energetically sending us back out into the night to rest up for another round on the morrow. In terms of pure raw force, this was the indisputable high point of the fest. And we happily danced the night away.
The second night of the festival proper started much as the first had, with one of my favorite organ grinders, in this case Bernie Worrell of P-Funk fame. For the most part, the band kept within the common parameters of familiar funk, only occasionally venturing into the type of dirty skronky that Worrell brought to such jammier outfits as Colonel Claypool’s Bucket of Bernie Brains and Bill Laswell’s Praxis. But even just a taste of the nasty is worth the relatively early 8pm start.
Speaking of Laswell, he was slotted to go on next, but had to be replaced at the last minute, which is a shame because he trades in the kind of nasty dub bass bombs I crave. Luckily his replacement, jazz scion Ravi Coltrane, who though trading in a more conventional jazz vernacular (in a post-fusion era anyways) is no slouch either. His capable trio was held down by the versatile virtuosic Nikki Glaspie on skins, who can more often be found backing Beyoncé on tour.
As with any festival, it was impossible to catch everything I desired. The night prior I had missed the progressive metal jazz rock of the recommended Jerseyband and tonight I missed all but the very end of Mostly Other People Do The Killing. On the bright side, I procured a prime locale for the next act – a couch in the balcony with unencumbered sightlines. This is how all music should ideally be seen. New friends shared French fries and old friends finagled their way in. The next band though left much to be desired. Shahzad Ismaily, Ches Smith, and Mat Maneri brought little of the edge their Secret Chief 3 roots would suggest, veering closer to pretension than intrigue.
Women in jazz, vocalists notwithstanding, are certainly increasingly prevalent compare to previous eras, but still woefully underrepresented for the most part, which this festival aimed to remedy. Allison Miller’s BOOM TIC BOOM featured not only the vintage drum style of the leader, but Jenny Scheinman on violin and Myra Melford on piano with Brad Jones providing the sole Y chromosome on bass. Their genial interplay was well worth the longest wait of the weekend at the Bitter End. Back at Kenny’s, Sifter’s Mary Halvorson displayed the technical skill and on-the-fly innovation that make her the most interesting young guitarist in weird jazz today. At LPR, Cindy Blackman-Santana commanded both her band and kit with aplomb, dexterity and authority. (Yes, she is Carlos’ proverbial Black Magic Woman.) A great night for the ladies (and the kids – Blackman’s band featured Jaco’s, Felix Pastorius).
As DJ Spinna spun funk and R&B classics, we ambled out of LPR to conclude the evening and the festival at Sullivan where Jesse Fischer & Soul Cycle were wrapping up, the inimitably coifed Casey Benjamin blowing saxophone swirls into the unseasonably warm night. Marc Cary’s Cosmic Indigenous provided the penultimate set, African dancers and piles of percussion punctuating a primer in contemporary popular jazz. A successful festival does many things. It should provide musical entertainment and education, but also foster the uplifting camaraderie that harkens the festive. By all measures, this year’s Winter Jazzfest triumphed. You would be wise to add it to your New Year’s agenda next year.