TRIO 3 at Minetta Lane

TRIO 3 at Minetta Lane

After the 2015 Winter Jazz Fest wrapped up Saturday night I was left with 2 thoughts: damn am I tired and I can’t wait until next year.

The WJF, now in its 11th year has settled into a groove of being a welcome outpost of music in an otherwise dark month. The shows are an insanely good deal for the amount of top-notch music to be had and it offers a jazz overload over the course of their two main “marathon” days on Saturday and Sunday nights: January 9th and 10th.

I covered some festival logistics in a First Look and a guide to a few highlights in a Cheat Sheet and more or less stuck to the plan. The cheat sheet has an outline of some key acts to look forward to – including some I knew I wouldn’t catch and aren’t reviewed here. The plan was to see a few key groups and minimize venue changes.

I suggested earlier that the WJF is a victim of its own success. It now has to balance support for clubs that feature jazz year-round with the need for larger venues for the more popular acts. Gaining the historic Judson Memorial Church–back this year and home of event registration—as a venue has helped immensely. It’s one of the larger spaces and an excellent event space. Indeed, Arts for Art’s annual Vision Festival moves to Judson this July as well.

Gone was the Groove Lounge, which was almost comically small for saxophonist Gary Bartz’s set last year, and added to the mix were a few new spaces, including Subculture, the Players Theater, and the Minetta Lane Theater. Zinc Bar is still on the program and was still pretty much a no-go unless you got there before daily events started and stayed there. Minetta provided a much-needed larger space, in addition to Judson and Le Poisson Rouge, which returned as a cornerstone venue.

WJF_15_Crowd_screenshot_cropThe WJF boosted the number of venues this year to 10 on both Friday and Saturday nights, which points to the event’s robust appeal. It wasn’t enough and tickets still sold out on Saturday. Festival organizers put the total headcount at 6,500 total over the 3 festival days (there were 2 standalone concerts on Thursday) with the bulk—5,500—split between Friday and Saturday nights. Also new this year was a very handy webapp that let you do a quick online check of crowds and space in a venue. Very cool! Unfortunately, it was sometimes the bearer of bad news and you often got the message you see below. Still, it’s a huge step forward and could be the deciding factor for someone trying to decide whether or not to leave and see an act in a different location.

Event registration/check-in still had its woes. Lines snaked down the block and around the corner to enter Judson’s basement where it was housed, but volunteers were cheerful and efficient once one got inside.

If there’s one lesson to be learned, that’s that you have to stay up (relatively) late to catch some of the good stuff.

If there’s one lesson to be learned, that’s that you have to stay up (relatively) late to catch some of the good stuff. That was my experience last year and I expected the same this year and was not disappointed.

Friday Highlights

I made the decision early on to focus on the acts at Minetta Lane: to get a close look at a few specific artists and catch all of David Murray’s shows, as our Suga’ in My Bowl radio show did a show on him. It’s one of the wonderful (and sometimes frustrating) decisions to be made: who do I see? Of course it is a dilemma because there are often overlapping shows that are appealing, which is the type of problem a lot of festivals would dream of having.

Saxophonist David Murray was all over the festival this year and anchored back-to-back sets at Minetta Lane, first with his Clarinet Summit and then what they dubbed the “Geri, David, and Terri” show with drummer Teri Lyne Carrington and pianist Geri Allen.

Murray’s Clarinet Summit featured Murray himself and Don Byron on sax and clarinet, veteran sax player Hamiet Bluiett on baritone, David Krakauer on clarinet, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Waits and Shahid would also join Murray the next day as part of his Infinity Quartet.

Murray dedicated a new composition titled ” The Long March to Freedom” to the late Amiri Baraka

Murray dedicated a new composition titled ” The Long March to Freedom” to the late Amiri Baraka, who he described as “a great leader of our people”, noting the one year anniversary of Baraka’s death and that it’s also the title of Nelson Mandela’s book, which Murray said he “read 3 times until it fell apart”.

Baraka’s absence will still be felt in a lot of spaces on the avant-garde New York jazz scene this year. Murray and Baraka collaborated on the New Music-New Poetry (1982, India) release as well as Baraka’s play Primitive World. More to the point, Baraka, in addition to being a writer and critic of the music, could often be seen at performances even if he wasn’t scheduled to read himself, hanging out in the background and digging the music.

The Clarinet Summit also performed a song composed by the late Butch Morris (another figure whose absence is notable), punctuated by Krakauer hitting–and holding–an impossibility high note for an incredibly long time. Nasheet Waits ably held down the rhythm section with a smoking performance on the drums.

Murray’s second set of the evening was a trio with Allen and Carrington. Allen and Carrington have collaborated a fair amount and some of the most satisfying parts of the set came from their interplay, which often developed into long improvisational grooves with Allen starting a theme and Carrington responding on the drums or vice-versa. Allen’s delicate touch on the piano perfectly complemented Carrington’s drumming.

Displaying the confidence that comes from experience, Murray was content to watch the magic unfold as he listened, waiting for the right space to add his voice to the mixture.

Murray displayed another side of his personality and ability as a leader. Displaying the confidence that comes from experience, Murray was content to watch the magic unfold as he listened, waiting for the right space to add his voice to the mixture.

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Saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and bassist Reggie Workman have been performing together as TRIO 3 for 2 decades now. The amazing thing is that they manage to return to the format with the numerous other projects that they all have going on. Nevertheless, they do and that’s a good thing.

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Vijay Iyer joined the veteran trio on piano for the set, reprising his guest role on their 2014 Wiring release. Iyer was in the odd spot of being the junior member of an ensemble. It’s a role he easily slipped into, however, adding color with his staccato and slightly angular style, which complemented the work of the main trio well. It was also an interesting counterpoint to Geri Allen–who has also held the TRIO 3 guest spot—but has a much different style on the piano.

Friday evening’s highlight of was arguably guitarist Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians with strings. Ribot’s a familiar face on the NYC jazz scene and on the WJF stage: indeed, his collaboration with guitarist Mary Halvorson a memorable moment at last year’s festival. The Young Philadelphians ensemble also played the WJF in 2012 with a slightly different line-up: a performance that can be seen on YouTube.

This time they were back in a set in a main venue to cap off the evening. The 400-seat Minetta Lane Theater, which had largely emptied after the David Murray and TRIO 3 sets, had again filled and was taken on a quick tour of 1970s soul, funk, and even—gasp—disco by the blistering set.

Ribot, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma, and drummer G. Calvin Weston, and frequent Ribot co-conspirator guitarist Mary Halvorson were joined by a string section of Christina Courtin on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Dana Lyn on violin.

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While they don’t have any official releases, they’ve been touring and performing for a few years now in slightly different lineups. The group describes itself as melding “[t]he mind-blowing harmolodic punk-funk of Ornette Coleman’s first Prime Time band and the sweet, optimistic pulse of 1970s Philly Soul”. The task is helped along by PrimeTime alumni Tacuma and Weston, both steeped in the groundbreaking saxophonist’s harmolodic tradition – one Ribot is a serious fan of himself, as witnessed by his recent City Winery show with fellow Harmolodic guitar disciple and Coleman alum, James Blood Ulmer.

The Young Philadelphians dug deep into the 1970s funk, soul, and disco crates with covers of People’s Choice’s “Do it Any Way You Wanna”, Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly”, Gamble and Huff’s “TSOP” (better known as the theme to Soul Train), Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”, and Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”.

The songs would start with slow intros, then build into a frenzy as the melody kicked in and Ribot and Halvorson spit fire from their instruments, shredding whatever fatigue might’ve been in your body. Tacuma’s bass held the center, allowing Ribot and Halvorson to go on their various excursions. The strings generally mirrored the string lines in the original songs while Weston’s drumming anchored the entire affair.

The original lyrics were similarly disembodied and re-assembled – themselves stripped down to the bare essentials and brilliantly re-imagined as chants inside the Philadelphians’ postmodern reconstruction.

If you were a Ribot fan, you might have left wondering if there is anything the guy can’t do on the guitar

If you were a Ribot fan, you might have left wondering if there is anything the guy can’t do on the guitar, especially with the collaborators his keen ear draws toward his orbit. If you somehow entered expecting traditional jazz—whatever that might mean—you might be sorely disappointed unless you just surrendered to the Young Philadelphians’ commands: “Let’s get it on / it’s time to get down!”

Toward the end of the set, a small breeze came from somewhere. Inside what was a comfortably warm theater before the set—and on the coldest night of the year outside–it felt good.

Saturday Night Highlights

Saturday’s strategy was a similarly targeted one: to see a few specific artists. On the list was the sets of Oliver Lake’s Organ Quartet, David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, and Harriet Tubman.

Lake’s Organ Quartet took the stage at around 6:15 at The Bitter End, returning again as a WJF venue. The venerable spot is still a great place to catch music and, while space in front is at a premium, one can usually squeeze in in the back of the club.

For this date, Lake was joined by Jared Gold on the organ, Josh Evans on the trumpet and Gene Lake on the drums. The quartet had no problem keeping the attention of the near-capacity crowd engaged.

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As with Murray, the different ensemble offered a more expansive view of Oliver Lake’s talent and creative process. While his approach to the instrument itself doesn’t change much, the interplay with other members is obviously different, especially as Lake is the leader and senior member of the group. It also allows him to play off of Gold’s contributions on organ and the brightness of the trumpet adds to the different sound. Lake’s voice is also much more prominent in the compositions.

Lake, whose restlessly creative mind extends beyond different ensembles to visual art and poetry, again did not disappoint.

Later on the evening, David Murray got on stage for his final performance of the festival, this time with the Infinity Quartet, which featured spoken word artist and actor Saul Williams (no relation to this writer) along with bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Nasheet Waits, and pianist Orrin Evans.

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Murray mentioned at the beginning of the set that the material the ensemble presented is still in somewhat of a workshop mode. They had premiered it on a European tour and were still fine-tuning the concept.

Williams is well known for his spoken word prowess in the poetry Slam world, appearance on the Broadway run of Def Poetry Jam, and leading role in the recently closed Broadway musical loosely based on Tupac Shakur Holler if You Hear Me. As mentioned earlier, Murray has some experience adding spoken word to his pieces thanks to his Baraka collaborations.

Williams’s strength is richly complex wordplay, delivered in a smooth, nearly effortless flow and timed to a staccato beat. While there was still some tinkering going on, Murray comfortably slipped in and out of the flow with his angular playing punctuating Williams’s words in key places or driving the pace of pieces with his solos while Williams stood on the side.

Harriet Tubman took the stage on Saturday evening at Subculture, a new WJF venue. Tubman consists of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis. They got a little extra exposure last year with a set in Prospect Park’s “Celebrate Brooklyn” Festival and at the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival, the latter done with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, whom Tubman has been collaborating with recently.

Tubman’s set started out blazing. Ross took the duties of group intro usually handled by Gibbs, playfully warning anyone “in need of a defibrillator to please call out” for assistance. It wasn’t far from the truth and the audience was hit with the full force of Tubman’s assault from the beginning song, “Wayne’s Worldwide”, dedicated to Wayne Shorter.

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Tubman’s set and sound is far from chaos, though: it’s a supremely well-oiled machine, with members intensely listening to each other and responding with the type of give and take that only a band truly comfortable with itself can achieve. With a trio consisting of a lead electric guitar and bass and players unafraid to push the limits of their instruments and add just a little distortion to the mix, the machine operates at high volume. The group, which pulls from influences as diverse as blues, free jazz, fusion, and heavy metal exemplifies the type of experimental, expansive, and indeed fearless definition of jazz that the festival fosters.

Tubman’s set and sound is far from chaos, though: it’s a supremely well-oiled machine, with members intensely listening to each other and responding with the type of give and take that only a band truly comfortable with itself can achieve.

Tubman’s name functions as a metaphor for how they approach music, as they dip deep into the recesses of the jazz and blues tradition for their ideas which are given a modern spin and unique sound.

The Gibbs-composed “Wadmala”, for example, takes its name from a South Carolina island in the area famous for the Gullah language and Black cultural traditions.

The bluesy “Can’t Tarry”–the only composition performed with vocals (by Ross)—was appropriately dedicated to the late blues legend R.L. Burnside and began with a long Gibbs bass solo setting the tone for the piece.

The set ended—all too soon for this listener—with “Where We Stand”, dedicated to the late Alice Coltrane.

Through it all, drummer J.T. Lewis is very much the center of things, providing the propulsive heartbeat of the group and visibly listening intently, ready to react (even if subtly) to any change in the dynamic or new musical idea introduced by other members of the band.

In the middle of the set, Gibbs approached the mic during a pause to get a few things straight for the audience. The name Harriet Tubman, he pointed out, was “even more resonant than it was” when they founded the group. Indeed his point seems relevant in the wake of continuing protests over police killings of unarmed Black people.

Gibbs expanded the point, however, and tied it back to the music and the dual nature of free jazz, which has generally functioned not just as freedom of musical form but also had secondary meanings of general freedom. “If Duke Ellington were alive today”, Gibbs suggested, “he’d be using electronics and synthesizers” too, pointedly making the connection between the roots of the music and looking toward the future.

Lewis said via email that the WJF “was enjoyable [and] we were happy to present our music to a new crowd”, adding “we love the look on peoples faces when they hear what we’re doing”. Tubman has a (still untitled) new recording that they’re putting the finishing touches on for a spring 2015 Sunnyside Records release with Wadada Leo Smith as guest artist.

I opted to skip the after-hours sets (the festival’s last scheduled set was a bleary-eyed 2 AM performance at Zinc Bar), confident that even though there was still good music to be had, I’d ended the festival on a high note.

Although predictions of jazz’s demise still abound, the festival proves that there is indeed still a strong creative impulse and no shortage of people woodshedding and willing to both explore the traditions and push the boundaries.

While the finances of promoting jazz are always an exercise in dexterity, audience participation and enthusiasm clearly remains strong for the right mix of artists presented in an appealing setting. Another encouraging trend (although admittedly an anecdotal one) is that the festival seems to succeed at attracting younger audiences, even for the less party-oriented acts.

There was quite a lot of risk-taking and jazz that didn’t sound like jazz—or maybe just not the jazz we’re used to—over the weekend. That’s a good thing.

Harriet Tubman’s set and their Shorter reference, however, seemed well timed. In a round of interviews for his 2013 Without a Net release, Shorter embraced an expansive definition of the music called jazz, telling National Public Radio that it “shouldn’t have any mandates”, and “is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz.” In an frequently referenced quote, Shorter argued that for him “the word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you’”. And there was quite a lot of risk-taking and jazz that didn’t sound like jazz—or maybe just not the jazz we’re used to—over the weekend. That’s a good thing. With the diversity of ages in the audience and on the bandstand, the WJF proves that it’s definitely an exciting time in the music.

With a brisk walk to the subway in the chilly night air ahead, it was a warming and comforting thought.

Text and all photos by Hank Williams. Embedded videos courtesy of BBB Sound and Vision via YouTube. Photos are Creative Commmons Licensed, Non-commercial, some rights reserved.

Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York. Follow/find him on Twitter: @streetgriot