On the same week as my visit to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, I spent most of bitter-cold Friday and Saturday nights shuffling around the Bleecker & MacDougal intersection of the Village, taking in eight or ten different sets of this year’s Winter Jazzfest. For $30, roughly the music charge for one set at Jazz Standard or Iridium, I purchased a ticket that enabled me to catch as many sets as I could among the various venues. On Friday, the clubs were (Le) Poisson Rouge, Kenny’s Castaways, and Zinc Bar; on Saturday, WJF added Sullivan Hall and the Bitter End.
This bargain price drew large crowds, including many attendees in town for the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. Seats were almost impossible to come by for most sets, unless you chose to camp out at one club as early as 6:00 p.m. The rooms were often packed tight and some acquaintances told me they were unable even to get into certain shows, a problem I myself did not encounter.
On the up side, most sets started on time or close to it; change-overs were accomplished without undue delays, and the sound systems were good to excellent. Audiences were genuinely attentive and sometimes wildly enthusiastic, and it was a trip to hear actual creative music performed at a Bleecker Street tourist trap/frat bar like Kenny’s Castaways. (Not sure I’d even set foot in that place since the Eighties, when 1967 founder Pat Kenny was still alive and the Smithereens held forth regularly on its small stage.)
Here, in chronological order, are my impressions of the performances I witnesssed:
(1) Jamie Leonhart @ Le Poisson Rouge – A very good young singer, although not one much in (my idea of) the real jazz tradition — more like “alternative” pop/folk with jazz inflections. Jamie sang her own songs, no standards, and fronted a band whose odd instrumentation included two clarinet players. Deidre Rodman of the Lascivious Biddies was a subtle but strong foil, playing melodica and singing harmonies. The emotional peak of the set was the closing “Let The Flower Grow” — a
pro-humanity/anti-military song, poignant but not sappy, composed by Jamie’s father-in-law, the bassist Jay Leonhart.
(2) Briggan Krauss Trio Coordinate @ Kenny’s Castaways – Krauss has been living and gigging in NYC since ’94 but somehow I’d never heard of him until tonight. He’s made both jazz and electronic music recordings but here stuck to alto saxophone with bass and drums. Krauss had a floating sound with a lot of air around the notes, while drummer Kenny Wolleson’s playing reminded me a bit of Tony Oxley when I saw the latter duet with Cecil Taylor at the Village Vanguard in 2008. Trio Coordinate played what sounded like genuinely free improvisations of varying length — they definitely were communicating, although exactly what was being communicated is tough to put into words. My wife Leslie Rondin thought they sounded great.
(3) Jeremy Udden’s Plainville @ Kenny’s Castaways – Alto/soprano sax man Udden led an instrumental group of five or maybe six guys with a distinct Americana flavor: guitarist Brandon Seabrook doubled on banjo, Pete Rende switched off from electric piano to pump organ. The result sometimes sounded like Lee Konitz jamming with The Band — okay, not on that level, but good stuff nonetheless even if none of the individual tunes stuck in my head.
Like all tonight’s sets at Kenny’s, this one was part of a showcase put together by the youthful eager beavers of SearchAndRestore.com. At their info table, I picked up an entertaining pamphlet, The Jazz Pirate Press, with jottings by Roswell Rudd, Curtis Hasselbring, and Josh Roseman. SearchAndRestore’s mission statement reads, in part: “To build a sustainable jazz community, we need to make great jazz more open to the public…We only book double bills so the shows have a more communal feel. No drink minimum, no emptying out after a set. Standing room and seats. This more casual jazz environment lets people feel like they’re part of something.” Sounds good to me, although so far their Web site looks more like an aggregate of info on the regular NYC club calendar — I didn’t see many S&R-originated or sponsored shows there.
(4) Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet @ Le Poisson Rouge – The trumpeter and his group drew a full house for the last set of the night at this venue. The SeXXXtet included female vocalist Johnaye Kendrix and the wizardly Taylor Eigisti on electric piano; the overall groove reminded of some of Freddie Hubbard’s better Seventies tracks for CTI and Columbia. Payton played with his usual impeccable technique (and also sang a bit) but it was difficult to hear, through the band’s wall of sound, what if anything he was really saying on the horn. After about 20 minutes, I got tired of standing in one spot, there was no room to dance, and we headed home.
(1) Carmen Consoli @ Le Poisson Rouge – Not her first time in NYC but my first exposure to this female singer/songwriter/guitarist (born 1974) who grew up in a village near Catania, Sicily. A successful mainstream pop artist in Italy (seven studio albums, hit singles, slick videos, etc.) who in recent years has turned toward acoustic music, Carmen Consoli was the single most impressive performer I saw at Winter Jazzfest. Ironically, her music had less to do with “jazz” than any just about other act I heard all weekend. She employed the very effective stage strategy of introducing her songs in English, giving details of their story lines and inspirations, then singing them in Italian. She is a powerfully expressive vocalist, a superior melodicist, and a skillful if not virtuoso acoustic guitarist who used altered tunings and finger-picking patterns to give variety to her set.
This clip from a live MTV-Europe show gives some of the flavor of Carmen’s performance at WJF:
Here’s Carmen with orchestral backing, live in Taormina, Sicily:
(2) Ben Allison @ Le Poisson Rouge – The bassist led a quintet with Jenny Scheinman (violin), Steve Cardenas (guitar), Shane Endsey (trumpet), and Rudy Royston (drums). The music came across as stiff and overly composed, and the dutiful solos did not move me. This is the third band with which I’ve seen Jenny Scheinman play and I just don’t get what all the critical hoo-hah is about. A list headed “Jazz Violinists I Dig More Than Jenny Scheinman” would include Billy Bang, Charles Burnham, Joe Kennedy, Ray Nance, Sid Page (ex-Dan Hicks’ Hot Licks), Stuff Smith, Eddie South, even Svend Asmussen (age 94, he still gigs occasionally in Copenhagen).
(3) Gretchen Parlato @ Sullivan Hall – A technically accomplished singer with a sensual, breathy tone, rhythmic acuity, and flawless diction whose limitations began to weigh on me over the length of a full set. She benefited greatly from the instrumental support of bassist Alan Hampton, drummer Kendrick Scott, and Taylor Eigisti running enjoyably rampant on electric piano.
(4) JD Allen Trio @ Kenny’s Castaways – Tenor saxophonist Allen played with both muscle and melodic invention in the first half of this set, i.e the part I heard. Rudy Royston’s drumming was livelier and more propulsive in this setting than with Ben Allison the night before.
(5) Dr. Lonnie Smith @ Sullivan Hall – My third live exposure to this veteran organist was the best and hottest set I’ve heard him play to date. Guitarist Jonathan Kriesberg and drummer Jamire Williams, who are maybe half the leader’s age, seemed to propel the 68-year-old Smith to higher heights and funkier funk. The closing “Pilgrimage,” with its step-by-step modulations
rising to an ecstatic climax, conveyed an almost Hendrix-like majesty and drove the crowd wild. (Note: Dr. Lonnie Smith is not the keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith of Cosmic Echoes fame.)
(6) William Parker Quartet @ Sullivan Hall – Great and I mean great. About Parker’s bass playing, I can’t say it any better than Chris Kelsy at AllMusic.com: “Although he does, to an extent, serve as a harmonic anchor in his groups, his more important role is as a source of energy. Parker drives a band like few other bassists; in combination with a powerful drummer, a Parker-led rhythm section is an inexorable force.”
Here, with Hamid Drake absolutely killing on drums, the effect was like “inexorable” times five and a launching pad for the extended searching solos of altoist Rob Brown and trumpeter Lewis Barnes. Two tunes comprised the entire set: “Criminals in the White House” and “Malachi’s Mood.” Since I lack the technical vocabulary to describe this music, may these classic radical jazz album titles invoke its sound and spirit:
The Way Ahead… Far Cry… Tomorrow Is The Question… Ascension… Universal Consciousness… Destination Out!
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