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Words by Hank Williams
 
This week, the Winter Jazz Fest is blowing back into town. The 13th edition of the ever-expanding annual showcase follows a familiar format: two marathon nights of music in venues scattered around the heart of Greenwich Village, with a few standalone opening and closing events – some of which are already sold out — and we’re told that tickets for even the marathon nights are going fast.

As we’ve done for the past few years, we’ll go through a shows with a viewers’ guide to some of our preferred picks, with an admitted lean toward former guests on the Suga in My Bowl radio show. Speaking of our show (shameless self-promotion time): you can catch our coverage featuring talks with pianist David Virelles and WJF promoter Brice Rosenbloom or drummer/percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett and trombonist Craig Harris.

I’ll point you toward the full schedule and artist lineup, but hopefully this will help wade through the myriad choices available each night. Obviously, there are several ways to experience the festival. You can either pick and choose key acts, take a more eclectic approach and see what you find, or some combination of the two. It’s all good.

FESTIVAL THEME AND FOCUS

This year’s theme is social justice and support of the broader discussion around Black Lives Matter, a theme that festival organizer Brice Rosenbloom notes came from the artists themselves: so many of them submitted proposals along those lines that it made sense to simply make the official festival theme reflect their work.
 
Andrew Cyrille 2017 WJF Resident Artist Andrew Cyrille | Photo credit: Joyce Jones
 
Other festival highlights are programming around groundbreaking pianist Thelonious Monk as 2017 marks the centennial of his birth and the selection of drummer/percussionist Andrew Cyrille as this year’s artist in residence. In addition to playing at the festival, Cyrille will be in conversation about his career and jazz on Saturday the 8th at 1 PM at The New School where he teaches. There are several other talks as well and you can browse the entire schedule to see what’s on offer.

If you (understandably) don’t want to wade through the wall of words here, you can jump directly to Thursday’s concert, picks for the first marathon day on Friday, second day on Saturday, or the Sunday-Tuesday sets.

TICKETS AND ADMISSION

WJF has several options available for the standalone shows, marathon nights (either one or both) or full festival passes for the hardcore enthusiasts. The one constant is that we strongly recommend getting tickets in advance, since even with the expanded venues at the New School, it’s possible to get closed out of nights. The “marathon” nights on Friday the 6th and Saturday the 7th are sold for the entire night only: not for individual shows. They’re still a pretty good deal for how much music you get if you see more than a single show, and there’s likely something to suit almost everyone’s taste. 2-day passes and full festival passes get entrance to the marathon days as well. Separate tickets are necessary for the opening and closing events, with the exception of events that sell out, such as Pharaoh Sanders’ show on Thursday the 5th.

LOCATIONS AND LOGISTICS

The WJF’s heart is still in the center of the Village: with venerable institutions Zinc Bar, The Bitter End, and Le Poisson Rouge returning. Gone is the historic Judson Memorial Church, which has served as a check-in location and performance venue for the past two years. The New School continues as a festival sponsor and provides several spaces for the festival in its campus clustered around 13th Street off Fifth Avenue, including some much needed larger venues. All of these are close enough to comfortably (though maybe briskly) walk between for sets. Zinc Bar is small and popular, so be warned that seeing an act scheduled there means getting there very early, and possibly skipping something else in the process.

On the western frontier of the Village and Tribeca are SOB’s and the Django at the Roxy Hotel.

Nublu, the East Village mainstay, serves up their new satellite location at 151 Avenue C, between 9-10 Streets. It’s a brisk walk or quick bus or L train ride away from the action clustered near the center.

Bowery Electric, Subculture, and Bowery Ballroom are clustered together on the Lower East Side and round out this year’s venues.

Obviously, figuring out what one wants to see also means taking into account the logistics of who’s playing where and getting between venues.

wjf_2017_map

Photo credit: Winter Jazz Fest (screenshot)
 

THURSDAY JANUARY 5

The festival kicks off with the returning Jazz Legends for Disability Pride benefit concert at the Quaker Friends Meeting Hall. It’s the brainchild of pianist/organist Mike LeDonne, whose made it his mission. There’s a solid lineup on offer, including veteran pianist Harold Mabern.
 
Pharaoh Sanders | Joyce Jones Photo
Pharaoh Sanders | Joyce Jones Photo
 
Our pick for the night, however is the concert with saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, with Shabaka and the Ancestors as opening act. Unfortunately, tickets are sold out, but it’s worth following the event’s Facebook page for possible last minute ticket releases or a wait list.

If you have tickets (or are willing to go the standby route), there’s the possibility of an extremely inspired and definitely memorable show by a jazz legend who’s earned his stripes and still plays with incredible intensity at times considering his age and the demands of his instrument.

Sanders is known for his early career work with Sun Ra, his appearances on John Coltrane’s later albums, followed by work with Alice Coltrane and his own solo career work. His signature style seemed to pick up where Coltrane left off with avant garde pieces of an epic scale and unrestrained playing that saw him push the limits of the instrument.

Sanders’s current playing has mellowed somewhat, but still shows the sings of his virtuosity and incredible command of the saxophone

Sanders’s current playing has mellowed somewhat, but still shows the sings of his virtuosity and incredible command of the saxophone, whether he’s going through his own work or covers of other artists. Not surprisingly, Coltrane covers appear regularly on his set list, but you might hear anything from the Blues (BB King’s “Every Day I Sing the Blues”) to versions of his own work, including “You’ve Got To Have Freedom” and crowd favorite “The Creator Has a Master Plan”. Last year, his performance at the Red Bull Music Academy’s “Night of Spiritual Jazz” seemed to inspire Sanders to pull out all the stops, including a searing version of Coltrane’s “Olé”, which matched anything he’s done recently. For a deeper dive see our show with him.

FRIDAY JANUARY 6

Pianist/vocalist Amina Claudine Myers takes the stage at 6:40 PM at New School’s 12th Street Auditorium. Myers is comfortable playing both highly improvised music as well as more straight ahead jazz. With a solo performance scheduled, we’d expect a lyrical, melodic set from Myers. For a deeper dive into her work see our show and interview with her.

Meanwhile, trombonist Craig Harris takes the stage at 7 PM around the corner in the appropriately expansive New School Tishman Auditorium for an epic work he titled “Breathe” in a clear nod to the late Eric Garner, who was choked to death by the NYPD. Harris put out a call last fall for musicians to collaborate with him on the work and the response was overwhelming and resulted in an electrifying performance that you can catch a version of. The 23-person ensemble includes Dick Griffin and Joe Daley (trombones).

In Tribeca at SOB’s at 7 PM, Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Coltrane Tribute is worth a look. Coltrane began looking toward the East–both spiritually and musically—and BRM looks at ‘Trane from the opposite direction, with an Indian-inflected look at Coltrane’s work with a heavy does of improvisation that’s the basis for both musical traditions. Pianist/keyboardist Marc Cary and harpist Brandee Younger join the collective this time for what should be a particularly raucous set of music.

Back at New School’s Tishman Auditorium at 8:20 PM, drummer Andrew Cyrille and saxophonist Bill McHenry take the stage. The two collaborated on the 2016 Proximity (Sunnyside) release, which should be a good guide for their set. The interplay between the two creates a very intimate space that lets them go between far-out avant garde playing, and more introspective, contemplative work.

Following that set, Songs of Freedom takes the Tishman Auditorium stage at 9:40 PM with vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater offering her take on the festival theme. One could do worse than simply camping out in that venue for the evening.
 
David Murray
David Murray at the 2016 WJF | Photo credit: Hank Williams
 
Around the corner, saxophonist David Murray leads his Class Struggle ensemble at New School’s 12th Street Auditorium at 10:40 PM. Murray was a featured performer at last year’s WJF, where he was workshopping some new material along with existing pieces. Expect a hard-hitting set from the ensemble here from the versatile Murray, who is as comfortable playing “out” as he is swinging hard. Here he is at the Vision Fest a few years ago.


 
There’s a tough call for the late set, so I’ll present both possibilities. At 12:20 AM at SOB’s, guitarist Vernon Reid’s Zig Zag Trio with drummer/percussionist Will Calhoun and bassist Melvin Gibbs promises a memorable set for fans of fusion or rock, which is to be expected from a trio with members drawn from Living Colour and Harriet Tubman. However, they’re equally influenced by the work of the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson and the electric blues as well. I’ll point you to my write-ups from their winter and summer shows last year at Iridium for more details, but it’s a show not to be missed. There are plans for a recording session this spring, but until then, you’ll have to settle for catching them live. Here they are in a live show last year.


 
Closer to the center of the action, a quartet anchored by the incredibly prolific bassist William Parker, who leads one of the many permutations of his In Order to Survive ensemble with frequent collaorator drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake, go onstage at New School’s 12th Street Auditorium in the slightly earlier midnight slot. Expect a highly avant garde, improvised set from the quartet, who are all vets of Arts for Art’s Vision Fest. You can go to our show with Drake for a deeper look at his work or see the video of them raising the roof at the 2012 Vision Fest.

SATURDAY JANUARY 7

Drummer Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence kicks off the evening set at SOB’s. Their 2016 Worksongs (Motéma) release was a stunning example of Jazz, hip hop, Blues, and pop done right. The release mixed classic prison worksongs with sampled/ looped sounds and the improvisation of Brown’s ensemble laid on top of it all. This set is one that should appeal to listeners who lean more toward the pop and hip hop end of the spectrum, while possibly drawing in a few who can appreciate thoughtful contemporary reworkings of the classics. What they do is easy to mess up and difficult to do right. Transcendence nailed the balance with this one.


 
If your tastes swing more to the avant garde and electric end of the scale, then consider guitarist Mary Halvorson Octet’s 7 PM set at The New School’s 5th Floor Theater. Halvorson’s been gigging around New York City for a while now and is starting to emerge as a leader in her own right. (A recent profile by NPR’s Joel Rose should help her cause too.) The group features an ensemble of emerging young players who work together on various projects. Halvorson’s enticing electric guitar combined with Susan Alcorn’s steel pedal guitar should yield yet another highly experimental, innovative set. It’s one of WJF’s smaller spaces, so the hot tip is to get there early.

Saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings and the Ancestors are at Le Poisson Rouge at 7:40 PM. If you didn’t get a ticket for Thursday’s show, then you have another shot to catch them.

At 8:40 PM, there are two groups going head to head that you might consider. Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Virelles team up for a duo at New School’s Tishman Auditorium. Expect a melodic set from the duo with contemplative passages and occasional bursts of fire.

Also on tap in the 8:40 PM slot is percussionist Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures who are at Subculture. The ensemble includes incredibly versatile drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake and Graham Haynes on cornet.

In a different direction, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington leads Social Science at SOB’s in the 9:20 PM set. Carrington’s no stranger to the WJF, having previously performed with David Murray and Geri Allen. This time, Carrington’s teamed up with keyboards, vocals, and a DJ, so we expect a set that’ll lean in the pop direction.

Later on in the evening, Zinc Bar hosts two sets featuring current and former members of the Sun Ra Arkestra at 10:20 and 11:40 PM under the “OUT OF RA” banner. George Burton’s Quintet has the earlier set, while drummer/percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett’s AfroHORN Superband has the later set. An expanded AfroHORN features poet Abiodun Oyewole whose probably best known for his work with The Last Poets and fellow Arkestra alum Ahmed Abdullah on trumpet. Look for extremely improvisational free-form sets with both groups using the concepts of the Arkestra as springboards for their own work. The issue with both of them will likely be getting into Zinc, since it’s one of the smallest WJF spaces and known for lines. Seeing either of these groups might mean sacrificing an earlier set or a dinner break to line up.


 
If the above doesn’t work out, then a solid backup plan for the 10:20 PM set is another performance by WJF artist-in-residence Andrew Cyrille, this time with Haitian Fascination at the spacious New School 12th Street Auditorium.

Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians: It’s an idea that seems too crazy to work, but work indeed it does

Yet another pick (and probably where I’ll end up) is the 10:40 PM set at SOB’s with guitarist Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians. The group—one of many different combinations Ribot is involved with—reworks classic 1970s hits from the disco era into improvisational masterpieces with a dual electric guitar attack by Ribot and Mary Halvorson with backing by bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston and a string section. It’s an idea that seems too crazy to work, but work indeed it does. Weston and Tacuma are alums of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time ensembles, so there’s a healthy does of harmolodics as well. They brought the house down the last two times they appeared at WJF with their high energy level is high and infectiously good grooves.


 

If you can manage to stay up late again, harpist Brandee Younger leads a trio at Nublu that’s worth a look. Last year, Younger’s WJF set was dedicated to the late Jazz harp pioneer Dorothy Ashby, whose work had a large influence on her. This year, you’ll probably still hear some Ashby, but some Alice Coltrane and some of her own compositions are likely on tap as well.

SUNDAY-TUESDAY SETS

If all that weren’t enough already, the WJF has standalone sets on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday with separate admission for each. Sunday, the show goes on the road to Littlefield in Brooklyn and is all about Monk, with 12 different musicians interpreting his Solo Monk album. Marc Ribot, Andrew Cyrille, David Virelles, and Hamid Drake are some of the ones tasked with interpreting Monk’s angular stylings.

Monday and Tuesday finds WJF back in the Village at Le Poission Rouge. Andrew Cyrille has a solo set on Monday.

On Tuesday, WJF goes out swinging hard with the Liberation Music Orchestra, led this time by pianist Geri Allen. The LMO was a project of the late bassist Charlie Haden and took an explicitly political tone in its work. Like the Sun Ra Arkestra, it’s being kept alive by its members (and is usually helmed by pianist Carla Bley). Expect a rousing set to close out the festival.

We’ll be wrapping up our radio coverage of this year’s event on Sunday January 8 at 11 PM on WBAI Radio (99.5 FM or streaming online) with a preview of the Liberation Music Orchestra’s performance and an interview with Joe Daley.

Are you planning to go? Who are you looking forward to seeing? Let us know in the comments.
 
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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.

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