This year’s Winter Jazz Fest celebrates its 12th birthday by expanding to 12 different stages in and around Greenwich Village. It’s grown into a mainstay of the New York music scene, providing a welcome respite from the unpredictable depths of winter, joining the longtime summer mainstays the Charlie Parker Jazz Fest and Vision Fest (who are running a parallel festival throughout January this year) along with the newer Blue Note Jazz Festival.

The fest kicked off Wednesday January 13, with a preview show at Le Poisson Rouge and featured an event spearheaded by Mike LeDonne to support the Disability Pride Parade (held for the first time last year) on Thursday. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington, who headlined last October’s BRIC Arts Jazz Fest and whose appropriately titled 3-CD debut The Epic has gotten a lot of great press, broke his ankle and had to have his performance postponed until February 24 at Le Poisson Rouge Webster Hall. I’ve already got it saved on my calendar.

Friday and Saturday the 15th and 16th are again the big days. The Jazz Fest bills them as two “marathon” nights of music and they’re not wrong: this is where the majority of the action will take place. It’s a huge, wonderful spectacle with lots of choices and sets starting as early as 6 PM and as late as 1 AM at some venues for the diehards. As I did last year, I’m going to highlight a few of the acts I’ll be keeping an eye on, with an admitted bias toward musicians featured on our Suga’ in My Bowl radio show since we like to keep long-term tabs on the people we profile. Hopefully that’ll give you a head start as well if you don’t already have favorites you want to catch.

I’ll focus on Friday for this post and Saturday/Sunday in the next post.

Festival Logistics

The festival has several new stages this year, thanks to a new partnership with New School University, which gives some badly needed extra space, although they’re further from the main venues slightly further south in the Village.

To compensate for that, the WJF is adding extra check-in tables at different venues (PDF), which should shorten some of the long lines from previous years, but it’s still best to plan to arrive really early for the sets you want to catch.

In addition to the main check-in areas in the basement of Judson Memorial Church (Thomson St side entrance) and New School University Center (63 5th Ave, bet 13-14 Sts.), there are secondary check-ins at Subculture (45 Bleecker St, off Lafayette) and at WNYC Studios’ Greene Space (43 Charlton St.).

There are several options for tickets, depending what you want to catch. I’d recommend full passes for Friday and Saturday nights as the best bets and an insanely good deal for how much music there is, but you can do either day separately. There’s also a shorter closing event on Sunday that I’d recommend as well — and will cover it in part 2 of our cheat sheet.

Friday Highlights

Quarktet Burnt Plays Ornette, Sunny, and Wayne: Judson Memorial Church 6 PM

Greg Tate’s large ensemble and one of the many permutations of The Burnt Sugar Arkestra earns a leadoff spot at the main stage this year. Expect a lot of excitement, energy, and electronics as they work their way through the catalogs of Ornette Coleman, Sunny Murray, and Wayne Shorter. As a bonus, you’ll also get to Mikel Banks play the freak-a-phone! I have no idea what it is, but it’s gotta be cool. See the embedded YouTube clip (audio only) of their interpretation of Shorter’s “Footprints” will give a little taste of what to expect.

James “Blood” Ulmer: New School Auditorium @ 66 W 12th St. 9 PM

Ulmer’s a solo act here and his set promises to pull deep from the dual wells of the blues and Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics, which Ulmer absorbed during his stint with the late saxophone innovator in the 1970s. Ulmer’s done a lot since then and approaches shows with the wisdom of a veteran who can call up ideas from a widely diverse background. Ulmer lit up the 2014 Vision Fest with his Music Revelation Ensemble and had equally spirited performances in 2015 at The Stone and a rare duo with fellow guitarist Marc Ribot at City Winery. Suga’ in My Bowl profiled Ulmer on January 10 and he promised to be playing the Blues. You listen to the full show on our website and for a quicker take, check out his solo performance at the 2015 Skopje Jazz Festival.

Dr. Lonnie Smith’s Evolution: Judson Memorial Church 9:20 PM

You’ll have an inside track for Hammond B3 organ master Dr. Lonnie Smith’s forthcoming Evolution release if you catch his set. Smith is a veteran of the fabled Blue Note record label in the 1960s and made his name as a sideman on influential albums like Lou Donaldson’s Alligator Boogaloo before striking out on his own illustrious career. While the WJF highlights new and upcoming acts, the ability to see someone like Smith whose still at the top of his game is a definite highlight of the festival. Smith, appropriately, gets a coveted slot on the Judson main stage in prime time. For a much deeper dive, see our show on Dr. Lonnie, or see them in action at the 2015 BRIC Arts Jazz Fest in the embedded video.

Charenee Wade Group: The Music of Gil Scott Heron and Brian Jackson: New School Jazz Building 5th Floor Theater @ 55 W 13th St. 9:40 PM

Vocalist Charenee Wade’s deservedly gotten a lot of positive press for her latest Motéma Records Offering release, a tribute to the music of Gil Scott-Heron and longtime Heron collaborator pianist/keyboardist Brian Jackson. It’s not easy to do covers of well-known work — and they’re often poorly done or add little understanding to the originals. That’s not the case with Wade’s effort. Her turn on Scott-Heron’s question “did you ever turn your sick soul inside out so the world can watch you die?” gives the work a haunting quality and fresh new spin that’s balanced by Stefon Harris’s vibes on the CD. Nikara Warren will be handling vibraphone duties for this set, but bassist Lonnie Plaxico, pianist Brandon McCune, guitarist Dave Stryker, and saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin (who we’ve previously profiled) will be part of the combo and appear on the release. Drummer Darrell Green rounds out the sextet. The preview video of Offering will give you a quick take of what to expect.

René Marie: Zinc Bar 10:20 PM

If you manage to get into Zinc Bar, then you might as well stay around, especially if your tastes run toward vocalists working with the traditional jazz songbook. René Marie’s last effort was a tribute to the iconic Eartha Kitt, whose stage presence had Marie so enamored with Kitt’s work that she broke a promise she had made to resist doing a release of song covers. Marie handled the material just fine and her soulful, soothing vocals might be just the antidote you need on a hectic Friday night. We interviewed her back in 2013 and you can see her in action in the following clip.

Christian McBride: New School Auditorium @ 66 W 12th St. 10:20 PM

If you’re already at the New School for the aforementioned James “Blood” Ulmer show, there’s a strong case for sticking around to see bassist Christian McBride in action. He’s joined here by drummer Nasheet Waits, trumpeter Josh Evans, and saxophonist Marcus Strickland. McBride’s seemingly all over the place these days, either hosting National Public Radio’s “Jazz Night in Ameica” or appearing in various combos. He’s a versatile bassist who’s earned his stripes and, especially with the combo at the WJF, is always someone to look out for. We profiled him in 2011 and had so much fun that we brought him back into the studio to talk about Jazz Fusion. See him in a live session for NPR in the embedded video.

Vijay Iyer Trio: New School Tishman Auditorium 11:20 PM

Pianist Vijay Iyer returns to this year’s festival with his usual trio of bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore. Their last release Break Stuff was deservedly well-reviewed and saw the group pulling their inspiration from hip hop sampling and toying with the idea of “the break” as a theme. We wrote up a short blurb around the video preview (which is fantastic, BTW) and did a full show on Iyer back in 2015. See the band perform “Hood” live at the Portland Jazz Festival.

Nublu Orchestra “We play for you, Butch Morris”: New School Auditorium @ 66 W 12th St. 1 AM

The WJF is sticking to its proud history of keeping the idea of the after hours session alive and sweetening the pot by scheduling a few fiery acts late at night. So it is with the Nublu Orchestra, which takes its name from an unlikely East Village spot that happens to host some seriously experimental jazz acts – the biggest name among them being the Sun Ra Arkestra (who lands @ the WJF on Saturday), harking back to their days at the long lost Five Spot Café. While I haven’t seen them in person, the Nublu Orchestra–with a nod to the late conductor Butch Morris, who casts a wide shadow over avant garde jazz—looks to be an ensemble that’ll push the boundaries of the form itself in the spirit of the Arkestra. With a long subway trip back to The Bronx awaiting me, I’m not sure I can stay up that late, but after watching the following live video of a Butch Morris memorial, I may have to re-evaluate that plan.

Lastly, I’ll point you to the full performance schedule. They also have a handy guide to full group line-ups, which you can check to see if a favorite musician is on the list somewhere. Finally, there’s a map of the various venues, but you will get all that at the check-in sites (PDF).

So that’s it. That’s a lot of acts! But they’re all really good. Find who’s to your liking and take some time to see someone you haven’t—you might become a fan of a new group. Check out part 2 of our cheat sheet for Saturday/Sunday in the next post and I’ll check back in with a full review after it’s all over.

Shameless self-promotion time: if you’re not already a listener, check out our show that airs alternate Sunday nights from 11 PM – 1 AM on WBAI Radio and streams online. As part of our coverage, we talked to festival director Brice Rosenbloom and two musicians performing — guitarists Julian Lage and James “Blood” Ulmer — to get a variety of perspectives.

Are you going? Anyone in particular you’re looking forward to seeing? Let me know in the comments.

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. Find him on Twitter: @streetgriot