DSC_0136Words by Hank Williams. Photos by Joyce Jones/SugaBowl Photography. | MAIN PHOTO: Jamaladeen Tacuma of the Young Philadelphians. Used with Permission. Some Rights Reserved. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.

The 13th edition of the annual Winter Jazz Fest officially wrapped up Tuesday night, bringing to an end a six-day extravaganza of music with a performance by the Liberation Music Orchestra closing the year’s festivities.

The festival clustered, as usual, around several different venues scattered throughout Greenwich Village. The historic center has been near Le Poisson Rouge and Zinc Bar on Bleecker Street. For the second year in a row, The New School provided several performance spaces, which are a welcome addition to the ever-expanding event. Smaller clusters of venues in both the East and West Village rounded out the list and had festival goers crawling between the different spots, adding somewhat of a logistical challenge to festival goers intent on seeing multiple acts.

The 2017 edition ran from January 5-10, with most the performances scheduled on the “marathon nights” Friday and Saturday the 7th and 8th.

This year also saw the addition of a festival theme: social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to festival organizer Brice Rosenbloom, inspiration for the theme came from the musicians themselves since so many sent proposals for performances that addressed the topic in one way or another. A festival-related Tumblr feed collected artists’ statements on contemporary political issues and an official festival statement explicitly staked out the political turf in the program guide, affirming that it “explicitly supports social and racial justice by presenting socially engaged artists who have urgent and beautiful messages to share.” In a nod to history, the statement also noted that “[p]rotest and resistance are central to jazz’s existence from its beginnings as the music of marginalized black Americans.”

Other touchstones were the celebration of pianist Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday, which was officially acknowledged with an event on Sunday the 9th, with a dozen musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot, pianist David Virelles, and drummers Hamid Drake and Andrew Cyrille interpreting Monk’s Solo Monk album in a variety of combos.

Lastly, Andrew Cyrille was this year’s artist in residence and the subject of an interview by a former student of his: fellow drummer Jonathan Blake. Cyrille also had several performances, including leading Haitian Fascination; a duo with saxophonist Bill McHenry; and a solo performance.

The official festival kickoff on Thursday evening started with two events in different venues. For the third year in a row, the festival hosted a Disability Pride benefit concert featuring several musicians raising funds to support the organization that works to instill a sense of pride in disabled people and create wider awareness for the issues they face. The brainchild of pianist Mike LeDonne, the organization’s key event is a summertime parade.

Shabaka and the Ancestors

Thursday night also featured a concert at Le Poisson Rouge linking two generations of saxophonists: London-based Shabaka Hutchings, who opened the evening with his new group Shabaka and the Ancestors; followed by the legendary Pharaoh Sanders. The concert sold out early and left potential attendees scrambling for tickets; a sign that it should have been held in one of the festival’s larger venues, which is something that the organizers need to consider in the future since space concerns have dogged the festival as its popularity has risen.

The show was Hutchings’s first US appearance and the first of two performances, as they had a repeat appearance on Saturday night in the same space.

Hutchings’s Saturday performance was a fiery one before a crowd that again filled the space. Buoyed by Siyabonga Mthembu’s ethereal poetic vocals and Ariel Zomonsky’s frenetic, expressive bass, the group got the audience dancing—at least those who had enough space to do so. At the end of the set, Hutchings expressed gratitude for their embrace by the US audience. Hopefully we won’t need to wait long for their return.

Pharaoh Sanders

In Sanders’s set, he again showed why he’s rightfully earned a solid place in jazz history and is still worth seeing, as he’s capable of playing with an astonishing combination of finesse and sheer, room-clearing power when he sees fit. Sanders’s current shows can involve a wide range of material and vary according to his mood and who accompanies him. A 2016 appearance at Dizzy’s saw a somewhat subdued, contemplative Sanders, while a spring set at the Red Bull Music Academy’s “Night of Spiritual Jazz” featuring the impressive lineup of Sanders, the Sun Ra Arkestra, and Kamasi Washington (another show that, frustratingly, sold out quickly, though was simulcast online) brought a Sanders who seemed inspired by the occasion and performed a stunning cover of John Coltrane’s “Olé”. Which one would appear at the festival?

It was the latter Sanders who took the stage. Sanders, buoyed by longtime pianist William Henderson, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummer Jonathan Blake, had the backup he needed for an inspiring set and he delivered. Vocalist Tony Hewitt came onstage for a pleasantly mellow take of “The Creator Has a Master Plan”, though one without some of the edge and soul of the Leon Thomas original.

Ravi Coltrane (left) and Pharaoh Sanders

The highlight of the set, however, was the performance of “Olé”, which had the touching addition of Ravi Coltrane, who Sanders spotted in the audience and called to the stage. Coltrane, prepared with soprano saxophone brilliantly played off Sanders’s sax while Henderson and Douglas’s rhythm section dutifully kept things in check as the dueling saxes explored. It was indeed a performance for the ages and a fittingly symbolic closing of the circle as they expertly worked through a composition of one of Sanders’s key mentors with the addition of Coltrane’s son, now a leader in his own right who’s also found his own voice as a player. It was the aural equivalent of seeing three generations of sax masters.

Craig Harris

On Saturday night, trombonist Craig Harris found himself at the front of the stage and armed with sheet music and conducting duties instead of his instrument. His role was melding a cohesive sound from a collection of the roughly 3 dozen musicians and artists who answered his call last fall to “make[e] a sonic statement in response to current injustices inflicted on African American people”.

Craig Harris’ Breathe fills the stage

“Breathe” had its premiere in October, 2015 and is a stunning multidisciplinary work of art. An expansive big band was accompanied by performance poet and multi-instrumentalist Ngoma Hill and a slide show by Bill Toles projected on a screen above the stage.

Saxophonist Ras Moshe (left) and Ngoma Hill.

Hill read excerpts from his works “Blacktastik Funk Suite,” “Keep Calm,” “Cerebral Calisthenics,” and “I Need a Poem.” The words, images, and swirling sounds created an immersive experience that the audience into the interconnected suite.

Later, in the New School’s 12th Street auditorium, saxophonist David Murray’s set directly engaged the festival theme. Leading a version of his Class Struggle ensemble, Murray’s expressive sax playing was outstanding. Murray closed the set with a nod to the late Amiri Baraka, who he collaborated with on album releases and plays. “Class Struggle in Music” titled after one of Baraka’s famous poems, began with riffs of “Amazing Grace,” a fitting homage to the longtime activist writer.

Zig Zag Trio.

Over in the West Village, the Zig Zag Trio of electric guitarist Vernon Reid, electric bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer Will Calhoun closed out the evening at SOB’s and provided one of the festival’s highlights. With two members drawn from the rock group Living Colour (Reid and Calhoun) and their common background in the Brooklyn based Black Rock Coalition, an electrifying set was a foregone conclusion.

According to Gibbs, Zig Zag resuscitates a combination that hadn’t played together since the 1990s and grew out of Reid’s curation of a series at the Iridium club. Reid thought it would be good for the three friends to play together again, thus the birth of the current trio roughly two years ago.

The vibe was similar to what it’s been in the previous shows: more like a jam session than an actual set. But with musicians like these who have been playing together for so long, the communication between them makes the process seem fluid and organic.

While the obvious connection is their rock heritage, ties to various musical forms are just as deep, which is reflected in their playing and the song selection. The late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson is a major influence, as is the Blues, and the late avant garde jazz guitar mad scientist Sonny Sharrock. Reid and Gibbs are both alumni of Jackson’s band. Reid explained from the stage that they “always play a couple of Jackson’s pieces because Ronald changed our lives.”

The set started with a cover of bluesman Junior Kimbrough’s “I Love Ya’ Baby”.

That was followed one of the hardest rocking covers of Pharaoh Sanders’ “Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt” ever done. The infectious melody of the original soon fell away to Reid’s virtuosic improvisations on guitar, backed by Calhoun’s wide-open hard-hitting drumming. Gibbs, meanwhile was somehow able to resist the allure of going totally out with his band mates in the mayhem and kept a steady bass line that formed the heart of the piece. The trio created space for one of Calhoun’s stage-rattling drum solos near the end before the final statement of the theme.

There was a deeper meaning behind nearly every song in the set and that was true of “Upper Egypt.” It was one of the songs in Sonny Sharrock’s setlist and Gibbs played it several times with Sharrock’s band before he had deeply listened to the original. The song’s choice was both a tribute to Sharrock and a nod to Sanders, whose set opened the festival.

The trio gave a nod to Monk’s centennial with a cover of “Epistrophy” which was subjected to a similar treatment after a slight false start.

Gibbs was tasked with starting off the next piece: a cover of “King Tut Strut” that was the contribution of Will Calhoun. Again, his steadying rhythm at the center held things together for Reid to explore. Halfway through, the roles switched and Gibbs’s steady hand was rewarded with time to explore on his own while Reid temporarily assumed the rhythm duties. When Calhoun’s turn to solo came, the master drummer showed why his latest release as a leader is a tribute to the late drum great Elvin Jones. Like Jones, Calhoun plays with volume — but also impeccable finesse — and has the uncanny ability to create solos with narratives that can go on seemingly forever and still sound fresh.

Elements of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and West African traditions all comfortably fit—and peacefully coexist—within the framework of the Zig Zag Trio.

The set was easily one of the hardest rocking ones of the festival, yet, if one looks closer, underscores the range of the players and the Black musical tradition that they draw from. Elements of the blues, jazz, rock, rhythm and blues, and West African traditions all comfortably fit—and peacefully coexist—within the framework of the Zig Zag Trio. It’s the type of project that could only succeed with players this proficient and with the level of comfort and trust they have in each other, which is clear on stage.

A live recording session is planned sometime for the spring at Woodstock Studios, though has to be shoehorned between Reid and Calhoun’s busy Living Colour tour schedule and Calhoun’s own dates as a leader for his Elvin Jones tribute. Additional live dates are probably on hold until fall 2017, but they’re well worth looking out for.

Saturday night tested the stamina of festival goers with persistent snowfall extending halfway through the evening. While it didn’t pile up too much, it was enough to make things slippery, walking slow going, and shuttling between locations a bit of a slog.

Jaimeo Brown and Transcendence

Fortunately, Jaimeo Brown and Transcendence braved the weather and took the stage at SOB’s for their early set with a stunning multimedia collage.

Brown’s released two thematically similar CDs: Transcendence and Work Songs.

Work Songs is an audio collage combining actual sampled work songs that was a very successful release and critically acclaimed. While the samples form the base of the audio collage, they function as a vehicle for Brown and his collaborators to improvise around, not a crutch as they might elsewhere.

Live, the content was even more powerful than expected. Brown and company presented a multimedia spectacle, with video and some of the sampled sounds from both releases accompanied by Jaleel Shaw’s sax solos, Brown’s drumming, and Chris Sholar’s electric guitar work.

“Be So Glad” from Work Songs started the set. Shaw’s soaring sax solos that melted into the audio collage and seemed to float at times with the addition of a touch of reverb while a continuously shifting photo stream played in the background.

D.C. Focus and Transcendence

The addition of D.C. Focus’s dancing halfway through the set complemented the larger narrative in Transcendence of the African American experience as a complex journey of grit, struggle, pain and joy: sometimes juxtaposed or simultaneous. While popping, locking, and even crawling as a counterpoint to the music in front of the band, Focus seemed to amplify the intensity of the performance.

Musically, Brown’s work defies simple categorization (as if those were even simple to begin with) between hip hop, blues, work songs, electric blues, and jazz as they all blurred together. The result though was–as promised—a set that felt truly transcendental.

The Young Philadelphians

Saturday night also marked the return of Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians to the festival. 2017 was their third appearance and showed how far the ensemble has come, as this time they came to the stage with a world tour under their belts and a CD release culled from live shows in Tokyo.

The Young Philadelphians could only be the brainchild of someone like Ribot. The group reworks classic 1970s disco and soul tunes through the lens of electric guitar leads Ribot and Mary Halvorson with backing from two alums of late saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time bands: electric bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston. The entire cast of characters is then melded with a string section—Joanna Mattley (viola), Amy Bateman (violin), and Jeremy Harmon (cello)—in this case. As I said in my preview, it’s an idea that seems too crazy to work, but indeed it does.

Ribot, Tacuma, and Weston are steeped in Coleman’s signature Harmolodic musical approach while Halvorson adds coloring touches and density and the strings replicate their role in the original songs while their lushness acts in counterpoint to the sharpness of the guitars.

The Philly soul classic “TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia)”–known to many as the theme song from the TV show Soul Train –exemplifies the Young Philadelphians’ approach. The song began with a long introduction before the statement of the familiar melody. A signal from Ribot marked the spot for a Weston drum solo followed by a string section solo before the mayhem resumed.

Ribot strips the lyrics to their bare essence, delivering them like chants. “Let’s get it on! It’s time to get down” takes on a different meaning in the current climate and given the festival theme. Instead of the joyous invitation to party, they seem more like marching orders for the audience.

The Ohio Players’ high octane “Love Rollercoaster” followed immediately and provided ample space for a string solo in the middle followed by a Tacuma bass solo and a call-response section between bass and drums.

The disco hit “Fly Robin Fly” from the unlikely German group Silver Convention was next. Like most tunes in their repertoire, it took a sweet, innocuous pop song exploded it, then re-assembled into a full tapestry. The chant-like lyrics “Fly, robin, fly/ Way up to the sky!” were treated as a call and response by the band members and the sparse lyrics of the original are the perfect platform the Young Philadelphians’ treatment. Halfway though, the song broke down into a free-for-all with strings and guitars all improvising before re-assembling for the end.

“Love TKO” began as an antidote to the above, and remains a ballad with funked – up bass lines, though eventually that even succumbed at the end of the song to Ribot and Halvorson’s excursions.

An extended, melodious intro to “Do the Hustle” emphasized the lushness of the strings before Ribot’s angular interpretation of the theme, reliably set off, as usual, by Halvorson’s looping improvisation. The song ended with a majestic-sounding restatement of the intro theme, closing with a final cymbal clash by Weston.

“Love Epidemic” read as yet another command for the times. If there was ever a time it was needed the time is right now. Almost deliberately, the song preserved more of the original lyrics than others: “There won’t be no need for medication /There won’t be no discrimination/ All we need is your participation / Then we’ll be united as a nation!” sent out a corresponding call to “It’s time to get down”: if indeed it’s time to fight, then the love epidemic might be what we want to fight for.

Much of the Young Philadelphians’ appeal comes from their successful reworking of bygone hits, but with a sense of the larger than life, nearly epic scope of the 1970s soul era

If you were old enough to remember the original songs, they had one meaning that reached back to the memory bank. If not, it didn’t matter to the nearly packed crowd of various ages because they rock hard enough to move the crowd. Much of the Young Philadelphians’ appeal comes from their successful reworking of bygone hits, but with a sense of the larger than life, nearly epic scope of the 1970s soul era; one that’s best captured by live instrumentation and embrace of the outrageous, sometimes over-the-top performance style of the originals. Here, that’s transformed into avant garde improvisation.

The one disappointment of the festival was missing the performance of the AfroHORN Superband, led by drummer/ percussionist Francisco Mora Catlett. While a press pass got me into Zinc Bar ahead of a few others on line, I gave up and walked out. Packed to the gills, Zinc made an inhospitable place to hear the music: assuming you could even get close enough to the back room to do so. Actually seeing the performance was out of the question, as was taking any sort of notes.

Quite frankly, the festival needs to drop Zinc as a venue and has needed to for several years since lines outside the small space are routine. One can understand the possible reluctance: after all, Zinc presents jazz several nights a week throughout the year, not just when the big crowds are out, which is an ongoing commitment to the music. Unfortunately, Winter Jazz has simply gotten too big for it, and it’s time to move on.

The 2017 Winter Jazz Fest still must be looked at as a resounding success. The quality and variety of acts it attracts is top notch, the audience support is enthusiastic, as evidenced by the sold-out events and solid crowds even on the second marathon night with sketchy weather, and organization has improved every year.

How deeply the festival ingests and repeats this year’s commitment to social justice remains to be seen–the late spring-summer Vision Fest has that as an embedded part of its DNA—but the willingness to read and react to artists’ own messages says quite a lot. Nevertheless the Winter Jazz Fest still boldly forges ahead artistically and creatively year after year with a finely curated collection of artists who push and stretch the boundaries of jazz while staying firmly rooted in the musical traditions.
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