Melvin Gibbs and JT Lewis of the band Harriet Tubman

Words by Hank Williams

This week, the annual Winter Jazz Fest is on and in full swing. The 16th edition of the popular festival has morphed slightly this year, with an additional Brooklyn “marathon” night of music and standalone events in addition to the now-traditional . In this post, we’ll take a look at the two marathon nights of music on Friday January 10th and Saturday January 11th in venues scattered around the heart of Greenwich Village and the new Brooklyn marathon on Friday January 17th. I’ll also look at the Saturday January 11th show in Brooklyn.

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 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

Social justice is front and center with the festival: as it has been for the last few years. The #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #wehaveavoice are all part of the fabric surrounding the festival and it has joined the Europe-based Keychange initiative that urges festivals to achieve a 50:50 gender balance for acts by the year 2022. This follows on the discussion opened by the  We Have Voice Collective that published an open letter calling for a code of conduct, safe spaces for women, LGBTQIA, transgender, and non-binary music artists, and more opportunities for work in a field that’s often dominated by men.

This serves as an important concrete action backing up the expressed solidarity. There will again be a series of talks–this time highlighting wellness and health aspects of jazz–during the daytime on the weekend of January 11th-12th and during the following week, ending on Friday the 17th.

TICKETS AND ADMISSION

WJF has a variety of ticket options for either the Friday or Saturday Manhattan marathon nights–or both–and the new Brooklyn Marathon or standalone events. As usual, they don’t offer tickets for individual sets on Marathon nights. That said, tickets are 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 and WJF mainstays Zinc Bar, The Bitter End, and Le Poisson Rouge return with poles in the West and East Village also.

Zinc Bar is small, popular, and perennially crowded, 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 is SOB’s.

The Dance, the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, and Webster Hall anchor the northern/eastern ends of the Village/Lower East Side.

Nublu, Zürcher Gallery, Subculture, 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 some planning with the larger distances between venues. It’s still very possible to venue-hop since most are a brisk walk, Citibike, or cab ride away. The projected unseasonably warm weather for the Manhattan Marathon should make the task slightly easier.

 

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 10

The recently renovated Webster Hall plays host to a solid night of programming. Teenage piano prodigy Joey Alexander takes the stage at 7 PM, followed by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire at 8:15 and drummer Makaya McCraven‘s “In These Times” at 9:30.

Alexander’s gained a lot of (deserved) positive press since an invitation to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center and Wynton Marsalis at age 14 and his following debut album, centered around a solidly inventive cover of My Favorite Things. Alexander’s maturing exponentially as a player and should be around for a long time. Catch him now and decades later you’ll be able to look back and recall his trajectory as an artist from your own experience.

Akinmusire and McCraven take slightly different approaches to the music, rooted in hip hop and beats as much as the jazz canon. Appropriately, perhaps, the night wraps with a DJ set by Pete Rock (yes that Pete Rock …) at midnight.

Over at SOB’s, the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble hits at 7:45 PM. The band’s anchored by the sons of the late Phil Cohran, a key figure of the Chicago branch of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They’ve successfully taken the meticulous lessons from their father and the older generation of politically and socially-conscious musicians and adapted it to the current era and the reality that much of their musical world has been shaped by hip hop. Expect a brass-heavy set with a party vibe, but don’t underestimate them: solid musicianship, not gimmicks, are the foundation of their performances. If you miss them here, fortunately, you get another shot on Saturday, when they’ll be at Mercury Lounge at 11:30 PM.

At the new venue, The Dance, Guitarist Marc Ribot and trumpeter Jaimie Branch are both worth a look.

Ribot’s Ceramic Dog ensemble hits at 11 PM. Described as a noise rock trio, Ceramic Dog is one of many ensembles the incredibly inventive and prolific guitarist has fronted at Winter Jazz Fest over the years. Expect a somewhat loud and high energy set from them.

Branch is flying high (excuse the pun) on the successful release of her 2018 Fly Or Die debut and follow-up Fly or Die 2 albums as a leader along with side projects like James Brandon Lewis’s Unruly Notes. Branch’s approach seems to pull as much from the avant garde tradition as from current influences of pop and hip hop. Branch has serious chops, though, and her musicianship will impress you. It’ll be worth staying up late for her 12:15 AM set.

Finally, at Nublu, Mary Halvorson joins fellow guitarist John Dieterich at 10:45 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.

 

 

 

SATURDAY JANUARY 11th

The Nuyorican Poets’ Café hosts a solid night of music, poetry, film clips, and probably some personal remembrances in the honor of the late poet/journalist Steve Dalachinsky, co-curated by his partner, poet Yuko Otomo. Expect lots of regulars from the Vision Festival, including guitarist Marc Ribot, vocalist Fay Victor, pianists Matthew Shipp, Kris Davis, and Matthew Shipp, saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, and many more people in sets running from 7 PM-Midnight. Steve’s poetry was heavily influenced by free jazz and the Beat movement and he often read with musical accompaniment.

Meanwhile, over at The Dance, steel pedal guitarist Susan Alcorn’s Quintet hits at 10:45 PM.  Alcorn, originally inspired by Blues slide guitar, now blends free jazz and avant-garde European classical styles in her approach. Here, she’ll be joined by guitarist Mary Halvorson in a set that recreates a collaboration from the Vision Festival. See a version of their collaboration below.

 

 

Over on the east side, Subculture hosts The Cookers at 7:30 PM and René Marie’s Experiment in Truth at 11:15 PM. the Cookers is a supergroup of veterans Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Donald Harrison, George Cables, Cecil McBee, Billy Hart, George Cables, and David Weiss. Hart and Henderson are alumni of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi formation and Harper was a trusted part of Lee Morgan’s ensembles. Expect a hard-hitting, post-bop set from them that’s likely to have a wide appeal to jazz aficionados and neophytes alike with music that’s technically challenging yet very accessible. René Marie will probably slow things down a bit for the late set, with smoother, lyrically dense ballads that will appeal to fans of vocalists.

One set stands out at the centrally-located Le Poisson Rouge: saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin’s Pursuance, which presents the music of John and Alice Coltrane with legendary bassist Reggie Workman, who was part of John’s early 60s groups. Benjamin, whose work often leans toward engagement with pop and party music, will show her range and depth here. This is a set that’s also bound to have a wide appeal. See Benjamin’s take on Coltrane’s “Liberia” in the embedded clip:

 

 

Over at SOB’s, saxophonist Tia Fuller’s 7:30 PM set is a good pick. Fuller’s supple style was on full display on last year’s Diamond Cut release and should provide much of the grist for the night’s set.

 

 

If you missed the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s Friday night set (or want to see them again) then they’ll be at Mercury Lounge at 11:30 PM. Mercury was a venue that had space issues last year, though, so get there early and be prepared to fight your way to the front of the room.

Finally, Webster Hall again has a solid night of programming with harpist Brandee Younger, drummer Makaya McCraven, and pianist Robert Glasper. Younger’s 7:30 PM Soul Awakening set should draw on material from her album of the same name and reflects her thorough digestion of Alice Coltrane and harpist Dorothy Ashby and her own musical voice.

McCraven’s 8:15 PM set presents work from his Gil Scott-Heron tribute, We’re New Again. Finally, Glasper’s 10:45 PM set finds the versatile pianist in an electric trio setting with a DJ as one of the members. It should be an interesting intersection of his traditional trio work and his affinity for the sampling and looping of hip hop.

SATURDAY JANUARY 11th Brooklyn Show

I’ll actually be spending much of Saturday night in Brooklyn at The Sultan Room for the standalone show of Harriet Tubman and guitarist James Blood Ulmer.

Tubman, consisting of drummer JT Lewis, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and electric guitarist Brandon Ross, is a power trio that shows elements of their various influences. Tubman’s music is deceiving though. It’s deeply layered and complex as they develop melodies that call for a response from each member. While it is music that holds greater appeal for fans of electrified sound, fusion, or avant garde, their appeal is much greater. Critics and a wider audience seemed to grasp that with their last two releases, including last year’s Terror End of Beauty.  It’s hard to tell exactly what they’ll play since nearly anything from their catalog is fair game, but anything they bring to the table will be satisfying.

Ulmer is a great match for Tubman. Joyce Jones talked to him for our last show on WBAI, where Ulmer went through his varied influences though let it be known where he comes from: “I play the blues. I call it the political blues.” Ulmer was also key in the late Ornette Coleman’s formation of his theory of Harmolodics and absorbed much of those lessons as well. He doesn’t gig as much these days and his last Winter Jazz appearance had him playing solo in a thoroughly captivating performance that showed his masterful storytelling and guitar prowess.

 

 

FRIDAY JANUARY 17th Brooklyn Marathon

Photo credit: Winter Jazz Fest (screenshot).  Map download here and there’s a copy in the program

Details are still in formation for the new Brooklyn Marathon night, but sets with DJ Logic and drummer Billy Martin, bassist Ben Williams’s I Am a Man, trumpeter Keyon Harrold catch my eye right now.

DJ Logic is one of a few who successfully works in an improvisational setting with other musicians and turns samples into true instruments and part of multi-layered performances. Paired with Martin, one of the popular long-running Medeski, Martin, and Wood trio, the set shows lots of promise.

 

Standalone Shows: through January 18th

While I don’t have space here to detail them all, you should take a look through the schedule of separate shows. From Detroit to the World on Sunday January 12 features a pre-show discussion on the history of Detroit’s jazz scene. On the same day, pianist Kris Davis and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington team up with the incredibly inventive DJ Val Jeanty for another set worth checking out. Remember that tickets for most of these shows are sold separately.

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.