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Attending Winter Jazzfest is akin to stumbling into an alternate universe. It’s a world where masses of enthusiastic youths drop money to see live jazz, as if it were still topping the charts. Five clubs in NYC’s West Village were overflowing with people eager to see the 60+ bands spread out over two nights. Presented alongside the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) conference, the festival is a showcase for musicians to earn future bookings, but also acts as a righteous post-New Year’s bender, a beer-soaked affair where the vibrancy of the music is matched by the enthusiasm of the crowds. Where these enthusiasts hibernate the rest of the year is unclear, but for two nights, it feels like the music matters more than ever. If it’s all an alcohol-induced illusion, at least it’s a mightily entertaining one.
The most intimate sets of the festival are always inconveniently early or stumblingly late, before and after the crushing crowds change the vibe into every-man-for-himself savagery. The first set I caught was an expanded version of Curtis Hasselbring’s New Mellow Edwards, a brightly grooving septet that unspooled rollicking melodies reminiscent of spy-thriller soundtracks. Hasselbring’s suite of compositions, entitled “Number Stations”, were inspired by shortwave radio transmissions, the past’s technology of the future. Ches Smith’s propulsive drum clattering and Mary Halvorson’s jaggedly spacey guitar fills would be the perfect soundtrack for a deconstructed version of Moonraker.
A recent labor agreement with the musician’s union mandated longer sets (45 min.), along with more downtime in-between, which allowed for more club-hopping between the five venues hosting the festival. After seeing Hasselbring, I nabbed a stage-lip seat for The Joel Harrison String Choir, which continued their own engagement with the past, this time with the music of drummer Paul Motian, who died in November at the age of 80. This is not a new tribute project, but one that Harrison has been cultivating for a decade, and the set was a tightly hypnotic set of Motian originals (and one Thelonious Monk tune). This drummerless sextet is made up of two guitars, two violins, a viola and a cello, perfect for investigating the mysterious, shifting undertows of Motian’s repertoire. “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago” was plangent and gorgeous, anchored by a rumbling solo from cellist Dave Eggar. Then the playful dissonances of Monk’s “Misterioso” were elucidated by Liberty Ellman’s chimingly precise guitar runs and a dazzling violin duologue between Christian Howes and Sam Bardfeld. The whole set was equally rapturous, from the swirling “Owl of Cranston” to the high-lonesome beauty of “Etude.”
Nels Cline offered a different kind of string music with his Nels Cline Singers, an experimental noise rock quartet that rides waves of sound, creating different atmospheres until they break through with a few crushing riffs. While seeming to get lost in their aural fog at times, Cline still elicited a ferocious sound out of his guitar, speaking an entirely different language than Halvorson’s juddering deconstructions and Ellman’s bell-like lucidity. Cline is also a member of Jenny Scheinman’s Mischief and Mayhem, who played immediately after the Singers. Plucked from his leading role and slotted into a more balanced set of players, including the maniacal Jim Black on drums and Trevor Dunn on bass, and working within Scheinman’s spring-loaded compositions, his shredding took on shape and texture, bouncing off the walls.
Saturday night continued the profusion of strings with Stephan Crump’s Rosetta Trio, which is made up of Crump on bass, Liberty Ellman on acoustic guitar and Jamie Fox on electric guitar. Their set was a gentle, lyrical suite of pastoral tunes anchored by Crump’s warm tone. Completing the familial atmosphere was “He Runs Circles,” a loping melody based on the way Crump’s son shows affection, which his band-mates reciprocated in kind. Intimacy gave way to grandiosity with Fabian Almazan, who (of course!) brought strings along (including Scheinman on violin). When I wandered in, he was starting a Shostakovich composition, which kept layering levels of sound until it peaked in glissandos of shimmering beauty.
Mostly Other People Do the Killing are not after beauty, but humor. The snot-nosed brats of the current jazz scene, this ferociously talented band speeds through swing, bop and free playing in frenetic, helter-skelter compositions. Trumpeter Peter Evans can seemingly play anything, from emotive plaints to guttural squawks (I highly recommend Ghosts, the album with his own quartet), while Kevin Shea attacks his kit with loose-limbed abandon. Their jokey approach to the music is divisive, as it can easily be interpreted as condescending to the jazz tradition, but it provided a spike of adrenaline when my night needed it most, so I choose to interpret their tunes as lovingly parodic rather than shallowly ironic.
No such charges can be brought against Vijay Iyer, whose Trio played in advance of the release of their new album, Accelerando, due out in March. Playing to an air-tight crowd at the Le Poisson Rouge, Iyer, Crump, and drummer Marcus Gilmore played a groove-heavy set that built up waves of sound. The trio was tight, but the set was spinning in place for me until the thunderous ballad “Optimism” and the herky-jerky ode to electronic music pioneer Robert Hood (entitled “Hood”). The David Murray Cuban Ensemble is also a tribute of sorts, to the two Spanish-language albums Nat King Cole made in 1958 and 1962. Murray created new arrangements for many of these tunes (which can be heard on his album Plays Nat King Cole—En Español), adapting that cool swing to his bracingly dissonant soloing. This is a productive tension that made for a thrilling show—Cuban dance music broken up by Murray’s impassioned squalls, which only seems to spur the band on to swing even harder.
After that piece of consummate showmanship, my Jazzfest wound down with the spiky trade-offs of the Steve Lehman Trio, a group of elemental power and no wasted motions. Their attacking interpretation of John Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice” encapsulated their set—focused, raw and to the point. Lehman said they would be releasing an album later this year, which is now my most anticipated title of 2012. It was a bracing and brilliant end to the evening, and the perfect way to shock me out of Jazzfest-verse hypnosis and back into bitter reality—where no one knows who the hell Paul Motian is.
—R. Emmet Sweeney