Winter Jazzfest 2014: The Best One Yet, At Least From a Saturday Perspective
The lure of Winter Jazzfest over the last decade or so has been the potential for serious bang for the buck: a marathon of jazz festival stars, cult heroes and heroines jammed into two nights on the Bleecker Street strip. Like the best jazz improvisation, Winter Jazzfest can be transcendent. By the same token, recent years have had many maddening moments, lines outside the clubs gowing to ridiculous proportions, especially as crowds armed with ostensibly all-access passes reached critical mass during the Saturday portion of the festival.
Solution: move the bigger draws to bigger venues. Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society sure to sell out a Saturday night gig (which they did, no surprise)? Move ‘em to the expansive, sonically exquisite confines of Subculture. Henry Threadgill leading a new ensemble through an American premiere? No problem. Stick ’em in Judson Church, a comfortable stone’s throw from the West 4th Street subway. This may have been a long overdue move on the part of the festival’s producers, but it couldn’t have been more successful. By midnight, a couple of venues were filled to capacity, but although crowds at the other spaces were strong, there was plenty of room for everybody who was still up for more music.
Argue’s big band threatened to upstage everything else on Saturday’s bill. How does the composer/conductor keep so much suspense and intensity going when his changes tend to be so static and often so far between? With endlessly surprising, constantly shifting voices, subtle rhythmic variations and a voracious approach to blending genres: the foundations of his songs may go on for what seems forever, but there are a million tunes wafting overhead. They opened with All In, a steadily strolling, spicily brassy homage to the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, its centerpiece being a thoughtfully energetic Nadje Noordhuis trumpet solo. From there they dove into the opening suite from the ensemble’s latest album Brooklyn Babylon (rated #1 for the year at this blog‘s Best Albums of 2013 page). The whole group reminded how much fun, not to mention aptitude, they have for Balkan music, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen wowing the crowd with her blazing chromatics. From there, Adam Birnbaum’s creepy music box piano kicked off the jackhammer optimism of The Neighborhood, roaring boisterousness juxtaposed with uneasily flitting motives from the reeds. Argue brought that disquiet front and center by fast-forwarding to the brooding Coney Island; they closed with a pastoral Levon Helm dedication, Last Waltz for Levon, featuring a moody, wistful Ryan Keberle trombone solo and a similarly bittersweet duet for Sebastian Noelle’s strummed acoustic guitar and Matt Clohesy’s bass..
Over at Judson Church, the crowd gathered slowly in anticipation of Threadgill’s set and was treated to a magically crepuscular one from pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and violinist Mark Feldman, the duo alternating compositions. He built to a bracing series of glissandos and trills on his opening number over her hypnotic, harplike inside-the-piano brushings; she followed with a resonant, lingering piece that rose to a creepy altered boogie of sorts. They gave a Feldman suite based on the Orpheus/Eurydice myth a dynamic intensity, brooding sostenuto up against angst-fueled swells and ebbs and ended on a quieter, more suspenseful note with a Courvoisier work.
Threadgill was on the bill to conduct the American premiere of his Butch Morris tribute Old Locks and Irregular Verbs with his new Ensemble Double Up. This turned out to be very much like Morris at the top of his game. Rather than playing purely improvised music, Morris’ larger ensembles would develop variations on a theme or two, sometimes utilizing a couple of pages of composition, and this suite had that kind of ring. Pianist Jason Moran opened with a mournfully elegaic, spaciously funereal, bell-like introduction that rose from stygian depths toward the kind of blues/gospel allusions that Morris liked to employ. From there Threadgill introduced a classically-tinged, anticipatory theme that Jose Davila’s tuba propelled upward in methodical stairstepping waves in tandem with Craig Weinrib‘s trap drums, Curtis Macdonald and Roman Filiu’s alto saxes blustery and atmospheric in turn over cellist Christopher Hoffman’s uneasy ambience. The group followed the long first movement with two shorter variations, the first opening with dancing, bubbly reeds and fluid upper-register piano, the second kicking off with glimmering resonance from pianist David Virelles, moving toward a distant overture of sorts and a bittersweetly triumphant if somewhat muted coda. It made for an aptly elegant sendoff for a guy who did so much, so elegantly, for largescale improvisation.
Over in the boomy sonics of Vanderbilt Hall at NYU Law School, Mostly Other People Do The Killing had some of the crowd doubled over laughing and some of the older attendees scratching their heads. New York’s funniest, most entertaining band in any style of music, never mind jazz, have a new album out, Red Hot, which parodies every 20s hot jazz trope ever ground into shellac, and the group aired out several of those tunes with characteristically unstoppable verve. What makes MOPDtK so funny is that they really know their source material. For fifteen-second intervals, it was easy to get into toe-tapping mood…but then the band would do something wry or droll or ridiculous and throw a wrench in the works. Trumpeter Peter Evans built an echoey, reverb-infused vortex with endless swirls of circular breathing early on, which bass trombonist David Taylor took to vastly greater deep-space extremes later in the set.
Pianist Ron Stabinsky got plenty of laughs out of a solo that was mostly pregnant pauses, then got people howling with a medley of licks that began in the jazz pantheon but then spanned from Billy Joel to Foreigner…and then to Bach and Beethoven. Bassist/bandleader Moppa Elliott, drummer Kevin Shea and guest guitarist Jon Lundbom seemed preoccupied with getting the brief period-perfect bits back on track while Evans and alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon (who’d just played tenor and bass clarinet for Argue) engaged in characteristically snide, mealymouthed banter. It wouldn’t be fair to give away the rest of the jokes that continued throughout compositions with titles like Seabrook. Power. Plant. (named after frequent MOPDtK guest Brandon Seabrook’s band as well as three towns in Pennsylvania), the Shickshinny Shimmy, Turkey Foot Corner and King of Prussia.
Eyebone, guitarist Nels Cline’s eclectically assaultive, swirling power trio with drummer Jim Black and pianist Teddy Klausner was next and made a similarly energetic alternative to Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, who were scheduled to hit around the same time at the church up the block. They opened with jarringly percolating, fleetingly leaping phrases from Cline’s loop pedals and then hit a deep-water ominousness, went into atmospherics and then a riff-driven, metalish interlude. Klausner followed a Cline descent into messy, muddy terrain with one of his own, then the band brought it up with a roar, ending their set with an aggressiveness that made a great segue with Elliott Sharp’s Orchestra Carbon.
E-Sharp didn’t even play guitar in this set, but his tenor sax work mirrors what he does on the frets. It was cool to see the man of a million notes and ideas leading the group through a defly animated workout on minimalist chamber themes. His vigorous, emphatic direction and playing were mirrored by the ensemble, heavy on the low end with twin basses and trombones, Jessica Pavone and Judith Insell on violas plus Jenny Lin on piano and Danny Tunick nimbly negotiating between drums, various percussion and vibraphone. They kicked off with a mighty, Zarathustra-ish theme punctured by the occasional squall or shriek, blustery diversion or Braxton-esque atmospheric swell. Sharp carved out lots of pairings: Pavone an anchor to Lin’s rapidfire knuckle-busting octave attack, the trombones channeling a stormy orchestral bustle, filling the sonic picture from bottom to top, the basses doing the same later on. Sharp filled the brief spaces between movements with fleeting, supersonic upper-register passages and frantic flurries of bop, eventually bringing everything full circle with a series of long, suspenseful, almost imperceptibly crescendoing waves upward.
And that’s where the night ended on this end. There was still plenty going on – fusiony funk downstairs at le Poisson Rouge, and was that Craig Handy coincidentally leading that organ groove outfit at Groove? The place was packed; it was hard to see. And the line for the Marc Cary Focus Trio at Zinc Bar stretched around the block – good for him. Matthew Shipp’s trio set back at Judson Church wasn’t scheduled to start yet, but by this time, the prospect of a third consecutive marathon evening of music looming on the horizon and the rain having finally let up, it was time to take advantage of a grace period from the skies and call it an evening. Here’s looking forward to Winter Jazzfest 2015.
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