Words by Hank Williams

This week, the annual Winter Jazz Fest is on and in full swing. The 15th edition of the increasingly popular showcase expanded again, with a third “mini marathon” night of music on Saturday January 5th and several standalone events, which we previewed here. In this post, we’ll take a look at the two marathon nights of music on Friday January 11th and Sunday January 12th in venues scattered around the heart of Greenwich Village.

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.

I’ll point you toward the Friday and Saturday schedules 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

The theme is again on social justice, as it has been for the last few years. This year, following on the heels of #MeToo, the spotlight has shifted to women’s role in music. The We Have Voice Collective was initiated by several female musicians, including Fay Victor, Nicole Mitchell, Linda May Han Oh, Jen Shyu, Imani Uzuri, and Tia Fuller. Their open letter calls for a code of conduct, establishing safe spaces for women, LGBTQIA, transgender, and non-binary artists working in music and more opportunities for work in a field that’s often dominated by men. Festival co-organi   and support of the broader discussion around Black Lives Matter, a theme that festival producer Brice Rosenbloom has committed to gender parity for the festival, noting in an essay in the 2019 program that while WJF has taken steps of its own, he sees that there’s still more work to be done and that the next step is pushing individual bandleaders to commit to more gender balance in their groups.

This year’s artist-in-residence is Meshell Ndgeocello, who has several sets of her own and will be part of an afternoon panel discussion on Saturday January 12.

TICKETS AND ADMISSION

WJF has ticket options for either the Friday or Saturday marathon nights–or both–but they don’t offer tickets for individual sets. That said, they’re 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. The one constant is that we strongly recommend getting tickets in advance, since the festival’s popularity does lead to sellouts.

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, but the spaces at the New School that have been used for the last two years are gone and as a result the festival’s more scattered, with poles in the West and East Village also.

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 SOHO Playhouse.

Nublu, Bowery Ballroom, Subculture, The Sheen Center, Public Arts, Mercury Lounge, and Bowery Ballroom are clustered together on the East Village/Lower East Side

Obviously, figuring out what one wants to see also means taking into account the logistics of who’s playing where and getting between venues, which requires more planning with the larger distances this year. It’s still very possible to venue-hop since most are a brisk walk, Citibike, or cab ride away.

 

Photo credit: Winter Jazz Fest (screenshot)
You can download the map here and there’s a copy in the festival program. Pickup of wristbands for marathon nights is at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker St).

HOT TIP: Use the WJF’s crowd estimator to see how much space a venue has before deciding to leave where you are. It’s at: https://www.winterjazzfest.com/crowds

FRIDAY JANUARY 11

Zinc Bar has an enticing lineup for the night and one good enough to consider staying put. The caveat is that it’s been too small for the festival for a long time, which means long lines to get in and a tight, crowded experience once you’re there. Should you decide to go, however, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen opens the night with a 6:40 PM set and at 9:20 PM the Borderlands trio takes the stage with pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephen Crump, and drummer Eric McPherson. The following 10:40 PM set with the Artifiacts Trio featuring flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid, and drummer Mike Reed should be an extremely satisfying one.

Over at the Sheen Center, guitarist Mary Halvorson brings her Code Girl project to the stage at 8:40 PM. Halvorson’s dense, looping electric guitar style’s attracting more fans, both as a side player and as a leader. Her collaborations with fellow guitarist Marc Ribot and others showcase her ability as a collaborative player capable of adding dense textures to an ensemble, which she’s continued in her own projects as a leader. For a deep dive, see our March 2018 show with Halvorson.

Meanwhile at Subculture in the 9:40 PM set, pianist Aaron Parks will work through his 2018 Little Big release, which is gaining a lot of deserved attention.

Over at Mercury Lounge, saxophonist Marcus Strickland‘s Twi Life is a solid pick in the 10:40 PM slot for anyone looking for a fresh take on the music rooted in the jazz tradition, yet incorporating funk, soul, and elements of hip hop. For a deeper dive see our recent show with Strickland as part of our 2019 WJF coverage.

For you real night owls or hardcore fans of the after-hours scene, Nublu‘s 1 AM Late Night Jam Session led by trumpeter Jamie Branch is worth making your way over to the Lower East Side for. Branch’s debut 2018 Fly Or Die release gained the attention of a lot of people who might not have caught her while woodshedding at the Vision Festival or other venues.

SATURDAY JANUARY 12th

The piano duo of Vijay Iyer and Craig Taborn kick things off with a 6:20 PM set at Le Poisson Rouge. Iyer shouldn’t need much introduction at this point, but his densely layered, nearly cinematic works have kept him busy touring when he’s not teaching at Harvard. The conversation between the two should yield a heady, exciting set that will reward close listening yet still being accessible. For a much deeper dive, see our 2015 show featuring Iyer.

 

Later on at LPR, veteran drummer Billy Hart‘s quartet sets up in the 9 PM time slot. Hart, who earned his chops as a member of Herbie Hancock’s groundbreaking and forward-looking 1970s Mwandishi band is now a key member of The Cookers superband when not helming his own ensemble. Expect a high energy straight ahead set that’ll swing hard.

 

Over at SOB’s, vocalist Fay Victor and saxophonist Nubya Garcia present compelling cases for going there. Victor’s 6:40 PM set with Mutations for Justice reprises the concept she’s workshopped over the past year and done versions of at last year’s Winter Jazz and Vision Festivals. Victor’s avant-garde vocal style meshes well with that of her band and speaks directly to the current political period, with some of her lyrics sounding like a stream of consciousness voice from Trump’s brain and critiquing the absolute absurdity of it all. Nubya Garcia’s 9:30 PM set might provide some revelations, as it did for me when I heard her open for Thursday night’s concert with sax greats Gary Bartz and Pharoah Sanders. When asked about how it felt to open for them, she said: “I can’t really put that into words. It’s very surreal and a huge honor.” Garcia’s style seemed a natural pairing and her set was an energetic one led by her playing paired with strong, bass-heavy drumming and trippy, dub-inflected keyboards. If you want to see one possible future of what jazz looks like, see her.

Over on the east side, Subculture has some appealing sets with Liebman, Rudolph, & Drake combining the powers of Dave Liebman and percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake at 9:20 PM. Expect, obviously, a percussion-heavy set but one marked by African rhythms and rich textures set off by Liebman’s work on sax and piano.

You may want to stay put for J.D. Allen and David Murray‘s midnight set, which should keep you alert with the dueling tenor saxophones of the co-leaders. Murray’s capable of playing both “in” and “out” and matching lyricism with pure energy.

To tip my hand somewhat, I’ll probably post up at The Sheen Center, a new venue this year. If you missed saxophonist Gary Bartz‘s historic Thursday night set with Charles Tolliver and Pharoah Sanders, you have another chance to catch him in the 8:20 PM set with Pocket Science, where he teams up with colorful (in every sense of the word) electric bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma. I’m not quite sure what to expect, but Tacuma’s funk and harmolodics-inspired riffs should give Bartz a nice foundation to launch from.

If you’re inclined towards Pocket Science, stick around for the 9:40 PM set intriguingly titled Impressions of Pepper Round Robin with an all star cast of drummers Mark Giuliana, Makaya McCraven, and Nate Wood; electric guitarist Liberty Ellman; keyboardists Brian Jackson (best known for his Gil Scott Heron collaborations) and Matthew Whittaker; pianist David Virelles; trumpeter Keyon Harrold; harpist Brandee Younger; trombonist Clark Gayton; and saxophonist JD Allen. Admittedly I don’t know exactly what to expect here, but it’s certain to be a wild, loud, electronic ride.

At 11 PM, pianist/vocalist Amina Claudine Myers slows things down a bit with a quieter, more contemplative set that’ll showcase her thoughtful lyrics and vocal ability. Myers is joined by three other vocalists here, so expect some interesting interplay between them.

That’s a lot! But the nice thing about Winter Jazz is that it presents you with a good dilemma: who to choose from the sheer amount of interesting acts. We’ll check back in after it’s all wrapped up.

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 Lehman College in The Bronx.

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