Like the NY Times headline said: A Lot Of Jazz. Many More People.
But if you paid in advance and could deal with the sometimes-crushing crowds, the seventh annual Winter Jazzfest was one of the great NYC live entertainment deals of the year. For the online advance price of $35.00 plus the inevitable $5.00 “service charge,” I purchased a wristband good for admission on both Friday and Saturday nights to any set by any act in any one of the multiple WJF venues clustered around the historic Village intersection of Bleecker & MacDougal Streets.
There were three clubs in use on Friday and five on Saturday. The fewest number of acts to appear in any one of them was four, on Friday night at Le Poisson Rouge, where 89-year-old Chico Hamilton topped the bill beginning at 9:15 p.m. (I missed him). Every other venue was hosting nine acts per night, beginning at around 6:00 p.m. and running past 3:00 a.m. Each set ran about 50 minutes and the changeovers, at least the ones I sat through, went quickly and efficiently.
Naturally, I was not the only person taking advantage of this bountiful bargain: WJF wristbands sold out before 9:00 p.m. Saturday, seats were almost impossible to come by even at the seated venues, and some sets were packed to the firetrap level. (Zinc Bar was turning people away on Friday night, I never even tried to get in there.) I made the right move in going solo and thus able to maneuver independent of someone else’s level of discomfort, exhaustion, hunger, intoxication, etc.
FRIDAY, JANUARY 7
(1) JD Allen’s VISIONFUGITIVE! Conducted by Lawrence D. “Butch” Morris (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – Nearly a full house at this SRO venue in the former below-ground home of the Village Gate (1958-1993). But I manage to get close to center stage where Allen (tenor sax) plays some dense, fairly complex music with a large band conducted by Butch Morris: two basses, two drummers, percussion, vibes, four horns, and more. To my ears, the long (12-15 minute) opener never achieves lift-off although there’s a frisson of pleasure when the two drummers kick in together at about the halfway point.
After this piece, Butch Morris temporarily halts the proceedings to offer a show-and-tell demonstration of his “conduction” techniques — and rather than pedantic and boring, it’s informative and engaging. Morris pauses to explain his hand and baton movements while constructing a spontaneous composition from improvisational building blocks; at one point, he tosses into the front rows a batch of postcards imprinted with a detailed definition of “Conduction.” It reads in part: “The practice of conveying and interpreting a series of directives to modify or construct sonic arrangement or composition.” As the critic Howard Mandel wrote, Morris’ hand signals “convey instructions to repeat, hold, return, etc., but not specific pitches or beats; those are chosen by the players themselves.” He elicits some strong solos, including an extended foray by Allen, partly unaccompanied; and the piece as a whole is coherent, powerful, and (in my experience) unique in the context of jazz performance. I remember seeing Butch Morris in action several times since the late Eighties. But I realize that until tonight, I’d never really understood what he did.
(2) Jen Shyu & Jade Tongue (9:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – Speaking of something really different…This performance feels like it belongs on the concert stage, with better lighting and more room to move, rather than at the far end of this long-time Bleecker Street bar. Jen Shyu was trained from childhood in ballet, piano, and violin, and her WJF set incorporates dance elements along with her keyboard playing; she’s accompanied, with rapt attention and excellent musicianship, by Dave Binney (alto), John Hébert (bass), and Dan Weiss (drums). She sings in what sounds like three different languages: English, Spanish, and possibly Hokkien, the form of Chinese spoken by most people from Taiwan (Shyu’s parents are from Taiwan and East Timor).
On her Web site, Jen’s bio lists among her early accomplishments “playing [as piano soloist] Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, 3rd movement with the Peoria Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen; placing…in the Finals, at age fifteen, at the Stravinsky International Piano Competition, playing piano solo works by Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, and Chopin; being the youngest student at Yale University’s Summer Drama Program at sixteen; serving as Illinois’ Junior Miss her senior year of high school and winning the Miss America Talent Scholarship at America’s Junior Miss with piano.” I myself managed to graduate high school and haphazardly complete four or five semesters of college.
(3) Charles Gayle Trio (10:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – The spirit of late-period John Coltrane and Albert Ayler lives in the music of tenor saxophonist Gayle, a seemingly ageless fixture of “downtown” music for the past 25 years (he turns 71 on 2/28/11). At AllMusic.com, Chris Kelsey enumerates his “long, vibrating, free-gospel melodies, full of huge intervallic leaps, screaming multiphonics, and a density of line that evidences a remarkable dexterity” — Charles Gayle has been playing in this style since the late Sixties without getting any closer to the musical mainstream. His set is like one 50-minute-long song, with only a single quote I can recognize (from a standard, something like “They Say That Falling In Love Is Wonderful”), and bassist Larry Roland and drummer Michael Thompson are with him every step of the way. It’s fairly awesome.
(4) Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth (11:00 p.m. @ Kenny’s Castaways) – Never even heard of this bassist/composer, but his set follows Gayle and I decide not to relinquish a precious seat in the increasingly crowded room. Lineup is Craig Taborn on electric piano, tenor saxophonists Chris Cheek and Jeff Lederer, and Gerald Cleaver, drums; trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, another new name to me, sits in for half the set. Bigmouth is really good. Lightcap’s a strong, supportive bassist; his originals are melodic but not predictable, and the horns’ interplay remind me a bit of Ornette Coleman’s late-Sixties band with Dewey Redman on alto. I’d go see these guys again, for sure….It’s midnight, and although the night is relatively young, I head home to Brooklyn Heights.
SATURDAY, JANUARY 8
(1) Don Byron’s New Gospel Quintet (8:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – The free-wheeling Byron has kept this particular band together for three years: NGQ made its debut in the spring of 2009 at Jazz Standard. Performed to a full and enthusiastic house, this set is more expansive and more exciting than the one I caught last April at Jazz Standard. Certainly, having Geri Allen on piano raises the whole band to a higher level; she also turns in a couple of superb solos. Byron sounds great on both clarinet and tenor sax; Brad Jones (bass) and Pheeroan akLaff (drums) form a supple, propulsive rhythm section.
Meanwhile, vocalist DK Dyson lets loose her full complement of shouts, moans, swoops, bird calls, and glottal ululations, from “Precious Memories” and “Feed Me Jesus” through an especially stirring version of (I think) James Cleveland’s “The Last Mile Of The Way.”
(2) Charlie Hunter Trio (9:15 p.m. @ Le Poisson Rouge) – Hunter’s been recording since ’93 and gigging longer than that, but somehow I’ve never caught his act until tonight, when he leads a trio including Eric Kalb on drums and Michael R. Williams on trumpet. I thought I’d get the chance to see just how Charlie manages to play leads, chords, and bass lines simultaneously on a seven-string guitar; unfortunately, he remains seated and I can’t see him at all. After ten minutes of mildly funky mid-tempo jamming served lukewarm, I take my leave for Sullivan Hall and…
(3) The Curtis Brothers feat. Giovanni Almonte (10:15 p.m. @ Sullivan Hall) – Zaccai Curtis (piano), Luques Curtis (bass), Richie Barshay (drums), and Reinaldo De Jesus (congas) play high-powered Latin jazz that really cooks. Their efforts are undercut by vocalist Giovanni Almonte, whose delivery combines the least attractive qualities of Eddie Vedder and Nina Simone. The lyrics, presumably his, are a succession of vapid cliches and tired themes: let’s save the planet, let’s live in peace, you are/I am a beautiful person, etc.
(4) Nomo (10:45 p.m. @ The Bitter End) – Not most people’s idea of a jazz group, this eight or nine-piece band out of Ann Arbor MI mines the Nigerian Afrobeat grooves most famously plowed by Fela. They hit the Bitter End stage with a bang, propelled by rock-steady drumming and those distinctive Fela horn voicings. Sun Ra’s “Rocket No. 9” comes as a delightful surprise — I remember hearing NRBQ cover the same song live in the summer of 1969. Nomo keeps up the energy level until a female vocalist (whose name I don’t catch) takes front and center. Her singing fails to impress, the lyrics are eminently forgettable, and the Excite-O-Meter drops ten or fifteen points. But Nomo sounds like a very good dance band, especially if given more than 50 minutes in which to blow.
(5) Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers (11:45 @ The Bitter End) – With ElSaffar (trumpet, santoor, vocal), Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto sax), Carlo DeRosa (bass), Zafer Tawil (oud, percussion), and Nasheet Waits (drums). After the good-time party sounds of Nomo, the intellectual acuity, instrumental virtuosity, and global reach of this group combine to hit me with serious G-level force.
Two Rivers keeps flowing for 25-30 minutes, at which point ElSaffar switches from trumpet to the santoor. Wiki says: “It is a trapezoid-shaped hammered dulcimer…with seventy strings. The special-shaped mallets (mezrab) are lightweight and are held between the index and middle fingers. A typical santoor has two sets of bridges, providing a range of three octaves.” A unique and distinctive sound, for sure; unfortunately, most of the band has dropped out to let ElSaffar do his santoor-and-vocal thing, a little of which goes a long way for me. You can hear Two Rivers on MySpace, including the twelve-minute exploration “Menba’.”
(6) Underground Horns (12:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – With Welf Dorr (alto sax), Kevin Moehringer (trombone), Mike Irwin (trumpet), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba), Okai (djembe), Kevin Raczka (drums). Based on the enthusiastic endorsement of a woman standing behind me on line earlier in the evening, I stick to my bar stool to catch this Brooklyn band. Despite their upbeat energy, UH come across like a Berklee student tribute to Fred Wesley & the JB’s. Cliché riffs abound; the solos go on a while but mostly fail to develop. It’s 1:30 a.m. and I’m wondering how much longer I can hang.
(7) Noah Preminger Group (1:45 a.m. @ The Bitter End) – Noah Preminger (tenor sax) is one of the most critically hailed players under 30 to emerge in the past few years. I listened quite a bit to his 2008 debut, Dry Bridge Road, but was less favorably impressed the one time I saw him live. Tonight, however, Preminger is on from the first notes of his first tune — an Ornette composition, maybe “Toy Dance?” He has the searching quality that characterizes so many of the great soloists, building each solo with unpredictable note choices and a breathy tone. It’s 2 a.m. and the joint is barely half-filled — is someone really playing better jazz than this at some other venue? Seems hard to imagine.
Matt Wilson (drums) and John Hébert (bass) are right with their leader, but pianist Frank Kimbrough looks grim as he attempts to coax some music out of the club’s clangy, metallic, and quite possibly out of tune instrument. He almost succeeds, mostly sticking to the middle of the keyboard as he soldiers on through “Until The Real Thing Comes Along,” “Then I”ll Be Tired Of You,” and his own composition “Quickening.”
Meanwhile, Matt Wilson is showing no mercy to his good buddy: “Hey, Frank, is that a piano or a banjo?” he cracks with a broad grin. “Ladies and gentlemen, Frank Kimbrough on the pianjo!“ Such are the hazards and rewards of The Jazz Life…but wait ’til next year!