The seventh annual Winter Jazzfest blew through New York’s West Village last weekend, leaving listeners bulldozed in its wake, stunned by the tunes and the crushing crowds. Presented in conjunction with the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) convention, Winter Jazzfest is a showcase for musicians to help them seduce bookers nationwide, as well as an invaluable snapshot, for critics and fans, of where the new and experimental music grouped under “jazz” is headed.
The first set of the two-day event was an hour’s worth of squirrely funk, courtesy of Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys at the chipped wood majesty of dive bar Kenny’s Castaways. An endearingly musty joint with a cramped stage and irresistible drink specials, it was booked for the weekend by Adam Schatz of Search and Restore, the scrappy concert promoters who recently raised $75,000 on Kickstarter and earned a profile in the New York Times. Pride is a drummer of muscular force, as can be heard on his hard-charging duo with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, I Don’t Hear Nothin’ But the Blues. [Ed. Note: There’s a profile of Irabagon in Burning Ambulance #3. Buy; read.] With his new band, though, he lays farther back in the groove, setting a steady pulse as his bandmates go wild. Darius Jones’ throaty alto went toe-to-toe with Alexis Marcelo’s delirious Fender Rhodes runs, churning through the bouncing rhythm of “Surcharge” and peaking with a wailing take on “12 Lines for Build,” off their album Betweenwhile.
In the swankier environs of Le Poisson Rouge, Butch Morris conducted saxophonist JD Allen’s VISIONFUGITIVE, an 11-piece big band. Allen’s usual trio of bassist Gregg August and drummer Rudy Royston was folded into a polyphonic display of Morris’s “conduction” process, which he’s been workshopping for over 20 years. He has developed a gestural system that indicates spaces for improvisation, repetition and development in the midst of a composition. Morris flamboyantly instructed the audience in his method, even tossing out postcards with the definition, in a devious bit of self-promotion. All the showmanship paid off, though, in a careening set of fractured, jostling melodies that were nailed down by the closing, soaringly magisterial solo by Allen himself.
It was after this contact high that things got tight. LPR, the largest venue, closed at 10 PM, and soon vast swaths of humanity were diverted into Kenny’s and another small venue, Zinc Bar. Sightlines tightened and bodies shoved together until the vast jazz diaspora was smelling each other’s bath soap. I plopped into an obstructed-view stool on the balcony at Kenny’s and rode out the storm—which the Charles Gayle Trio was adept at guiding me through. It was a thunderous set of bluesy free jazz; Gayle wept and moaned through his sax, filigreed with Albert Ayler-esque folk forms, as Christopher Dean Sullivan on bass and Michael TA Thompson on drums offered steady comfort.
Next up were the lush melodies of Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth, mining the tunes of their excellent album, Deluxe. Jeff Lederer stepped right up on tenor sax with a glittering solo that set the tone for their beautifully pensive set. I couldn’t see a thing beyond the designer turtlenecks in front of me, but what I heard of Lightcap’s intricate dance of horns-sax-keys carried me away.
Saturday night found me right back at Kenny’s, for the Kirk Knuffke Quartet’s spiky post-bop miniatures. Knuffke plays cornet with a fluttery grace, which Mark Helias anchored with furiously plucked bass-lines and Brian Drye punctured with jittery trombone squawks. But they were just as liable to lock in on a fugitive melody and prove they could also play nice.
Shooting over to Zinc Bar, I caught the Jacky Terrasson Trio’s shimmering, plangently lyrical set. The rhythm section of drummer Jamire and bassist Ben Williams (no relation to each other) was deep in the pocket, a frighteningly synced duo that held it down for Terrasson’s flights of fancy. His glissando runs transformed Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” into a somber reflection, into which he interpolated some “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
Then came one of the major highlights, the Orrin Evans-led Captain Black Big Band. In front of a packed Sullivan Hall, the Philadelphia-based pianist pushed his hard-swinging Count Basie-ites to blisteringly bluesy heights. And with the gospel-tinged closer, “Easy Now,” dedicated to his late father, Evans went higher, having his band sing a descending chorus that brought down the house.
Afterward, I was planning on catching guitarist Nels Cline’s set at Le Poisson Rouge, but the line was winding around the block, so I decided to maintain my perch at Kenny’s and catch guitarist Miles Okazaki’s new trio, since I had admired his delicate duo with drummer Dan Weiss at last year’s Jazzfest. His new group pairs him with French sax player Guillaume Perret and drummer Damion Reid. They killed. Okazaki is a lucid, contemplative player, and here he’s balanced by the wild electronic experiments of Perret, who processes his saxophone through a series of effects pedals—he can make it sound like a squalling bagpipe or a wobbly theremin. There’s a serious punk and noise rock influence here, with hints of Sonic Youth and the Velvet Underground folded in with the Ayler jags. It’s a bracing and rollicking group, and I can’t wait to see more of them.
The provocations kept coming with trumpeter Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers group at The Bitter End, in which he adapts traditional Iraqi maqam music to a jazz setting, trading lines with Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax as well as Zafer Tawil on oud and percussion. After a much needed falafel break, I sprinted back to Kenny’s to see Aethereal Base, theoretically a two-drums-and-sax lineup where Nasheet Waits and Eric McPherson gang up on Abraham Burton. McPherson couldn’t make it, though, so it became a bristling duologue of roiling uncertainty.
A little woozy, I stumbled back to The Bitter End to catch the Noah Preminger Group, a stellar quartet with a new album, Before the Rain, coming out on the 18th. It was Frank Kimbrough on a clangingly out-of-tune piano, Matt Wilson on drums, John Hebert on bass, and Preminger on saxophone. It was a 1:45AM set, with a scattered crowd and a loose vibe, and their bittersweet, expertly weary tone was ideal to wind down the night. They started by covering Ornette Coleman’s brightly colored “Toy Dance,” ending with a patented Matt Wilson guffaw, but soon downshifted into “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” a tune popularized by Billie Holiday. It was the first time I’ve heard Preminger, and he gets a rich, syrupy tone out of his instrument, devastating on a masochistic love song like this one. Pillowed by the twinkling adumbrations of Kimbrough, the delicate brushes of Wilson and the ringing out of Hebert’s rock solid bass lines, Preminger’s plaints settle and expand into understatements of purpose.
It was a gorgeous set to close out my experience of the festival, and rendered complaints about overcrowding moot. With the soul-stirring music of players like Preminger, Orrin Evans and JD Allen on display, an obstructed view is nothing—as long as you keep your ears open.
—R. Emmet Sweeney