Archives for posts with tag: Young Philadelphians

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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. Find him on Twitter @streetgriot

TRIO 3 at Minetta Lane

TRIO 3 at Minetta Lane

After the 2015 Winter Jazz Fest wrapped up Saturday night I was left with 2 thoughts: damn am I tired and I can’t wait until next year.

The WJF, now in its 11th year has settled into a groove of being a welcome outpost of music in an otherwise dark month. The shows are an insanely good deal for the amount of top-notch music to be had and it offers a jazz overload over the course of their two main “marathon” days on Saturday and Sunday nights: January 9th and 10th.

I covered some festival logistics in a First Look and a guide to a few highlights in a Cheat Sheet and more or less stuck to the plan. The cheat sheet has an outline of some key acts to look forward to – including some I knew I wouldn’t catch and aren’t reviewed here. The plan was to see a few key groups and minimize venue changes.

I suggested earlier that the WJF is a victim of its own success. It now has to balance support for clubs that feature jazz year-round with the need for larger venues for the more popular acts. Gaining the historic Judson Memorial Church–back this year and home of event registration—as a venue has helped immensely. It’s one of the larger spaces and an excellent event space. Indeed, Arts for Art’s annual Vision Festival moves to Judson this July as well.

Gone was the Groove Lounge, which was almost comically small for saxophonist Gary Bartz’s set last year, and added to the mix were a few new spaces, including Subculture, the Players Theater, and the Minetta Lane Theater. Zinc Bar is still on the program and was still pretty much a no-go unless you got there before daily events started and stayed there. Minetta provided a much-needed larger space, in addition to Judson and Le Poisson Rouge, which returned as a cornerstone venue.

WJF_15_Crowd_screenshot_cropThe WJF boosted the number of venues this year to 10 on both Friday and Saturday nights, which points to the event’s robust appeal. It wasn’t enough and tickets still sold out on Saturday. Festival organizers put the total headcount at 6,500 total over the 3 festival days (there were 2 standalone concerts on Thursday) with the bulk—5,500—split between Friday and Saturday nights. Also new this year was a very handy webapp that let you do a quick online check of crowds and space in a venue. Very cool! Unfortunately, it was sometimes the bearer of bad news and you often got the message you see below. Still, it’s a huge step forward and could be the deciding factor for someone trying to decide whether or not to leave and see an act in a different location.

Event registration/check-in still had its woes. Lines snaked down the block and around the corner to enter Judson’s basement where it was housed, but volunteers were cheerful and efficient once one got inside.

If there’s one lesson to be learned, that’s that you have to stay up (relatively) late to catch some of the good stuff.

If there’s one lesson to be learned, that’s that you have to stay up (relatively) late to catch some of the good stuff. That was my experience last year and I expected the same this year and was not disappointed.

Friday Highlights

I made the decision early on to focus on the acts at Minetta Lane: to get a close look at a few specific artists and catch all of David Murray’s shows, as our Suga’ in My Bowl radio show did a show on him. It’s one of the wonderful (and sometimes frustrating) decisions to be made: who do I see? Of course it is a dilemma because there are often overlapping shows that are appealing, which is the type of problem a lot of festivals would dream of having.

Saxophonist David Murray was all over the festival this year and anchored back-to-back sets at Minetta Lane, first with his Clarinet Summit and then what they dubbed the “Geri, David, and Terri” show with drummer Teri Lyne Carrington and pianist Geri Allen.

Murray’s Clarinet Summit featured Murray himself and Don Byron on sax and clarinet, veteran sax player Hamiet Bluiett on baritone, David Krakauer on clarinet, bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Nasheet Waits. Waits and Shahid would also join Murray the next day as part of his Infinity Quartet.

Murray dedicated a new composition titled ” The Long March to Freedom” to the late Amiri Baraka

Murray dedicated a new composition titled ” The Long March to Freedom” to the late Amiri Baraka, who he described as “a great leader of our people”, noting the one year anniversary of Baraka’s death and that it’s also the title of Nelson Mandela’s book, which Murray said he “read 3 times until it fell apart”.

Baraka’s absence will still be felt in a lot of spaces on the avant-garde New York jazz scene this year. Murray and Baraka collaborated on the New Music-New Poetry (1982, India) release as well as Baraka’s play Primitive World. More to the point, Baraka, in addition to being a writer and critic of the music, could often be seen at performances even if he wasn’t scheduled to read himself, hanging out in the background and digging the music.

The Clarinet Summit also performed a song composed by the late Butch Morris (another figure whose absence is notable), punctuated by Krakauer hitting–and holding–an impossibility high note for an incredibly long time. Nasheet Waits ably held down the rhythm section with a smoking performance on the drums.

Murray’s second set of the evening was a trio with Allen and Carrington. Allen and Carrington have collaborated a fair amount and some of the most satisfying parts of the set came from their interplay, which often developed into long improvisational grooves with Allen starting a theme and Carrington responding on the drums or vice-versa. Allen’s delicate touch on the piano perfectly complemented Carrington’s drumming.

Displaying the confidence that comes from experience, Murray was content to watch the magic unfold as he listened, waiting for the right space to add his voice to the mixture.

Murray displayed another side of his personality and ability as a leader. Displaying the confidence that comes from experience, Murray was content to watch the magic unfold as he listened, waiting for the right space to add his voice to the mixture.

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Saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille, and bassist Reggie Workman have been performing together as TRIO 3 for 2 decades now. The amazing thing is that they manage to return to the format with the numerous other projects that they all have going on. Nevertheless, they do and that’s a good thing.

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Vijay Iyer joined the veteran trio on piano for the set, reprising his guest role on their 2014 Wiring release. Iyer was in the odd spot of being the junior member of an ensemble. It’s a role he easily slipped into, however, adding color with his staccato and slightly angular style, which complemented the work of the main trio well. It was also an interesting counterpoint to Geri Allen–who has also held the TRIO 3 guest spot—but has a much different style on the piano.


Friday evening’s highlight of was arguably guitarist Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians with strings. Ribot’s a familiar face on the NYC jazz scene and on the WJF stage: indeed, his collaboration with guitarist Mary Halvorson a memorable moment at last year’s festival. The Young Philadelphians ensemble also played the WJF in 2012 with a slightly different line-up: a performance that can be seen on YouTube.

This time they were back in a set in a main venue to cap off the evening. The 400-seat Minetta Lane Theater, which had largely emptied after the David Murray and TRIO 3 sets, had again filled and was taken on a quick tour of 1970s soul, funk, and even—gasp—disco by the blistering set.

Ribot, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma, and drummer G. Calvin Weston, and frequent Ribot co-conspirator guitarist Mary Halvorson were joined by a string section of Christina Courtin on viola, Christopher Hoffman on cello, and Dana Lyn on violin.

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While they don’t have any official releases, they’ve been touring and performing for a few years now in slightly different lineups. The group describes itself as melding “[t]he mind-blowing harmolodic punk-funk of Ornette Coleman’s first Prime Time band and the sweet, optimistic pulse of 1970s Philly Soul”. The task is helped along by PrimeTime alumni Tacuma and Weston, both steeped in the groundbreaking saxophonist’s harmolodic tradition – one Ribot is a serious fan of himself, as witnessed by his recent City Winery show with fellow Harmolodic guitar disciple and Coleman alum, James Blood Ulmer.

The Young Philadelphians dug deep into the 1970s funk, soul, and disco crates with covers of People’s Choice’s “Do it Any Way You Wanna”, Silver Convention’s “Fly Robin Fly”, Gamble and Huff’s “TSOP” (better known as the theme to Soul Train), Ohio Players’ “Love Rollercoaster”, and Van McCoy’s “The Hustle”.

The songs would start with slow intros, then build into a frenzy as the melody kicked in and Ribot and Halvorson spit fire from their instruments, shredding whatever fatigue might’ve been in your body. Tacuma’s bass held the center, allowing Ribot and Halvorson to go on their various excursions. The strings generally mirrored the string lines in the original songs while Weston’s drumming anchored the entire affair.

The original lyrics were similarly disembodied and re-assembled – themselves stripped down to the bare essentials and brilliantly re-imagined as chants inside the Philadelphians’ postmodern reconstruction.

If you were a Ribot fan, you might have left wondering if there is anything the guy can’t do on the guitar

If you were a Ribot fan, you might have left wondering if there is anything the guy can’t do on the guitar, especially with the collaborators his keen ear draws toward his orbit. If you somehow entered expecting traditional jazz—whatever that might mean—you might be sorely disappointed unless you just surrendered to the Young Philadelphians’ commands: “Let’s get it on / it’s time to get down!”

Toward the end of the set, a small breeze came from somewhere. Inside what was a comfortably warm theater before the set—and on the coldest night of the year outside–it felt good.


Saturday Night Highlights

Saturday’s strategy was a similarly targeted one: to see a few specific artists. On the list was the sets of Oliver Lake’s Organ Quartet, David Murray’s Infinity Quartet, and Harriet Tubman.

Lake’s Organ Quartet took the stage at around 6:15 at The Bitter End, returning again as a WJF venue. The venerable spot is still a great place to catch music and, while space in front is at a premium, one can usually squeeze in in the back of the club.

For this date, Lake was joined by Jared Gold on the organ, Josh Evans on the trumpet and Gene Lake on the drums. The quartet had no problem keeping the attention of the near-capacity crowd engaged.

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As with Murray, the different ensemble offered a more expansive view of Oliver Lake’s talent and creative process. While his approach to the instrument itself doesn’t change much, the interplay with other members is obviously different, especially as Lake is the leader and senior member of the group. It also allows him to play off of Gold’s contributions on organ and the brightness of the trumpet adds to the different sound. Lake’s voice is also much more prominent in the compositions.

Lake, whose restlessly creative mind extends beyond different ensembles to visual art and poetry, again did not disappoint.

Later on the evening, David Murray got on stage for his final performance of the festival, this time with the Infinity Quartet, which featured spoken word artist and actor Saul Williams (no relation to this writer) along with bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Nasheet Waits, and pianist Orrin Evans.

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Murray mentioned at the beginning of the set that the material the ensemble presented is still in somewhat of a workshop mode. They had premiered it on a European tour and were still fine-tuning the concept.

Williams is well known for his spoken word prowess in the poetry Slam world, appearance on the Broadway run of Def Poetry Jam, and leading role in the recently closed Broadway musical loosely based on Tupac Shakur Holler if You Hear Me. As mentioned earlier, Murray has some experience adding spoken word to his pieces thanks to his Baraka collaborations.

Williams’s strength is richly complex wordplay, delivered in a smooth, nearly effortless flow and timed to a staccato beat. While there was still some tinkering going on, Murray comfortably slipped in and out of the flow with his angular playing punctuating Williams’s words in key places or driving the pace of pieces with his solos while Williams stood on the side.

Harriet Tubman took the stage on Saturday evening at Subculture, a new WJF venue. Tubman consists of guitarist Brandon Ross, bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer J.T. Lewis. They got a little extra exposure last year with a set in Prospect Park’s “Celebrate Brooklyn” Festival and at the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival, the latter done with vocalist Cassandra Wilson, whom Tubman has been collaborating with recently.

Tubman’s set started out blazing. Ross took the duties of group intro usually handled by Gibbs, playfully warning anyone “in need of a defibrillator to please call out” for assistance. It wasn’t far from the truth and the audience was hit with the full force of Tubman’s assault from the beginning song, “Wayne’s Worldwide”, dedicated to Wayne Shorter.

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Tubman’s set and sound is far from chaos, though: it’s a supremely well-oiled machine, with members intensely listening to each other and responding with the type of give and take that only a band truly comfortable with itself can achieve. With a trio consisting of a lead electric guitar and bass and players unafraid to push the limits of their instruments and add just a little distortion to the mix, the machine operates at high volume. The group, which pulls from influences as diverse as blues, free jazz, fusion, and heavy metal exemplifies the type of experimental, expansive, and indeed fearless definition of jazz that the festival fosters.

Tubman’s set and sound is far from chaos, though: it’s a supremely well-oiled machine, with members intensely listening to each other and responding with the type of give and take that only a band truly comfortable with itself can achieve.

Tubman’s name functions as a metaphor for how they approach music, as they dip deep into the recesses of the jazz and blues tradition for their ideas which are given a modern spin and unique sound.

The Gibbs-composed “Wadmala”, for example, takes its name from a South Carolina island in the area famous for the Gullah language and Black cultural traditions.

The bluesy “Can’t Tarry”–the only composition performed with vocals (by Ross)—was appropriately dedicated to the late blues legend R.L. Burnside and began with a long Gibbs bass solo setting the tone for the piece.

The set ended—all too soon for this listener—with “Where We Stand”, dedicated to the late Alice Coltrane.

Through it all, drummer J.T. Lewis is very much the center of things, providing the propulsive heartbeat of the group and visibly listening intently, ready to react (even if subtly) to any change in the dynamic or new musical idea introduced by other members of the band.

In the middle of the set, Gibbs approached the mic during a pause to get a few things straight for the audience. The name Harriet Tubman, he pointed out, was “even more resonant than it was” when they founded the group. Indeed his point seems relevant in the wake of continuing protests over police killings of unarmed Black people.

Gibbs expanded the point, however, and tied it back to the music and the dual nature of free jazz, which has generally functioned not just as freedom of musical form but also had secondary meanings of general freedom. “If Duke Ellington were alive today”, Gibbs suggested, “he’d be using electronics and synthesizers” too, pointedly making the connection between the roots of the music and looking toward the future.

Lewis said via email that the WJF “was enjoyable [and] we were happy to present our music to a new crowd”, adding “we love the look on peoples faces when they hear what we’re doing”. Tubman has a (still untitled) new recording that they’re putting the finishing touches on for a spring 2015 Sunnyside Records release with Wadada Leo Smith as guest artist.

I opted to skip the after-hours sets (the festival’s last scheduled set was a bleary-eyed 2 AM performance at Zinc Bar), confident that even though there was still good music to be had, I’d ended the festival on a high note.

Although predictions of jazz’s demise still abound, the festival proves that there is indeed still a strong creative impulse and no shortage of people woodshedding and willing to both explore the traditions and push the boundaries.

While the finances of promoting jazz are always an exercise in dexterity, audience participation and enthusiasm clearly remains strong for the right mix of artists presented in an appealing setting. Another encouraging trend (although admittedly an anecdotal one) is that the festival seems to succeed at attracting younger audiences, even for the less party-oriented acts.

There was quite a lot of risk-taking and jazz that didn’t sound like jazz—or maybe just not the jazz we’re used to—over the weekend. That’s a good thing.

Harriet Tubman’s set and their Shorter reference, however, seemed well timed. In a round of interviews for his 2013 Without a Net release, Shorter embraced an expansive definition of the music called jazz, telling National Public Radio that it “shouldn’t have any mandates”, and “is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz.” In an frequently referenced quote, Shorter argued that for him “the word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you’”. And there was quite a lot of risk-taking and jazz that didn’t sound like jazz—or maybe just not the jazz we’re used to—over the weekend. That’s a good thing. With the diversity of ages in the audience and on the bandstand, the WJF proves that it’s definitely an exciting time in the music.

With a brisk walk to the subway in the chilly night air ahead, it was a warming and comforting thought.

Text and all photos by Hank Williams. Embedded videos courtesy of BBB Sound and Vision via YouTube. Photos are Creative Commmons Licensed, Non-commercial, some rights reserved.

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. Follow/find him on Twitter: @streetgriot

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