Winter Jazzfest 2012: Spit Takes

Oscar Noriega performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012. i i

Oscar Noriega performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012. John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com hide caption

itoggle caption John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com
Oscar Noriega performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012.

Oscar Noriega performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012.

John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com

Greetings from New York City, where a large conference of performing arts professionals has given rise to a groundswell of on-site and extracurricular jazz activity this weekend. Easily the most swollen of these activities is the Winter Jazzfest, a two-night music marathon held in a tight cluster of venues in Greenwich Village.

Winter Jazzfest is still one of the greatest bang-for-your-buck things you can do this weekend. Even after ticket prices rose this year, a two-day pass to gorge yourself on jazz/"jazz" costs $45, which, per show, could average out to less than the price of a falafel sandwich on nearby MacDougal Street. (I know some of you know what I'm talking about.) Last night — night one of two — I caught significant portions of nine sets, plus bits and pieces of others.

The photo above shows you just how intimate many of these venues are: close enough to see the spit fly from a saxophone. For those who don't have patience for long lines and capacity crowds, and don't have the stamina to stand for hours with people overcrowding your sightlines and personal space, the novelty of seeing young folks pack improvised music shows may begin to wear thin. But for those open to last-minute changes to the game plan, and who don't mind a bit of a wait in a relatively mild January night, you might just have been rewarded by being within spitting distance of a MacArthur fellow (Miguel Zenon) or Wilco's freakout guitarist (Nels Cline) or an internationally-recognized star (Rudresh Mahanthappa, Steven Bernstein, so on).

We'll have a fuller recap of both nights here on Monday. For now, here's another photograph that represents two other dominant impressions from the first evening:

Sketchy Black Dog performs at Zinc Bar at Winter Jazzfest 2012. i i

Sketchy Black Dog performs at Zinc Bar at Winter Jazzfest 2012. John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com hide caption

itoggle caption John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com
Sketchy Black Dog performs at Zinc Bar at Winter Jazzfest 2012.

Sketchy Black Dog performs at Zinc Bar at Winter Jazzfest 2012.

John Rogers for NPR/johnrogersnyc.com

That's a shot of the band Sketchy Black Dog, a piano trio with string quartet specializing in classic rock covers: David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, etc. Strings are somehow a big theme this year: In addition to happily engaging sets led by violinist Jenny Scheinman and cellist Marika Hughes, there were string sections scheduled to support Ben Allison's trio, Joel Harrison's arrangements of Paul Motian tunes and the aforementioned Sketchy Black Dog. (It's unclear if all the string sections actually managed to show up, but that's a separate issue.) Tonight brings the Fabian Almazan trio with strings and the Matt Wilson quartet with strings — the hyperlinks take you to live recordings of those bands hosted on NPR Music. And that doesn't even take into consideration the guitar heroes fronting ensembles (Julian Lage, Marc Ribot, Gilad Hekselman) and string bands (New York Gypsy All-Stars) and various cellos and violins tucked into other bands.

The other half of the Sketchy Black Dog equation is, of course, Rock. Friday night seemed to largely highlight improvised expressions influenced deeply by the drive of rock and jam-band music — the Nels Cline Singers, or Marco Benevento solo, or a few other guitar-happy bands. There was probably more of a rock aesthetic than a straight-ahead (or even "modern") swing aesthetic last night. One Twitter comment I noticed, from pianist Enoch Smith, Jr., pointed this out:

@EnochSmithJr: At the #2012WJF where I haven't heard anything yet resembling Jazz never mind #BAM

The #BAM hashtag, of course, refers to the newly-revitalized idea of Black American Music — the umbrella category of Afro-American origin musics encompassing jazz.

There were a few bands coming from a pan-African perspective, like Moroccan singer Malika Zarra or hand percussionist Adam Rudolph (which Smith eventually found and enjoyed). And other groups were deeply indebted to black-encoded popular music: the hip-hop soul of Jamire Williams' ERIMAJ, or the Sly Stone project of Steven Bernstein's MTO. (The Revive Music Group showcase on Saturday promises additional visions of youth and blackness in improvised music.) But apart from a few exceptions — trumpeter Dominic Farinacci, notably, who went on at the ridiculously early 6:15 p.m. time slot — there wasn't much that felt like common-practice, blues-and-swing-and-standards jazz. That's always the tension when you have something expressly promoting new visions of improvised music and give it a title like "Winter Jazzfest," isn't it?

Anyhow, Enoch Smith did find some things to his liking. And if the promoters of this event find a way to please well-educated fans like him enough of the time, this absurdly overstuffed, overloaded hang at least seems worthwhile.

@EnochSmithJr: All's well that ends well. Good jazz with @quinism at zinc. Bumped into @LuquesCurtis on to Dizzy's

More on all this on Monday.

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