Orrin Evans plays piano and conducts his Captain Black Big Band at Sullivan Hall as part of Winter Jazzfest.
In jazz-rich New York City, it often seems like there's a major festival going on every week. But few concerts have become as hotly anticipated as those of the city's annual Winter Jazzfest. This year, the music marathon encompassed five venues, two nights and 60 performances, and drew more than
3,000 4,000 fans.
What started as a showcase designed for attendees of the concurrent Association of Performing Arts Presenters Conference has become a massive event for New Yorkers, too. It's a worthy celebration not just for its overload of shows, most of which feature less-known ensembles or known musicians' new bands; it's also an exciting scene, with plenty of that prized young audience, not to mention plenty of musicians hanging out and watching their friends play.
In addition to the great music and the equivalent vibe, this year's Winter Jazzfest was marked by sub-freezing temperatures at night. That set into clear relief the event's struggles with crowd control. Tickets — an absurdly good deal at $35 for two entire nights — sold out early, and those looking to hop from club to club often found themselves struggling to peer over standing-room-only sections, if not waiting in long lines to enter.
These are good problems to have, of course. Among the 4,000-plus were Josh Jackson, host of WBGO's The Checkout, and Simon Rentner, another WBGO staff producer. They joined me for a recap of what we all saw, via instant message. (NPR Music's Bob Boilen, of All Songs Considered, was there on Saturday evening, and had some reflections too.)
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So let's start with this premise: There were a lot of people at Winter Jazzfest. In fact, maybe too many for the amount of space allotted.
Simon Rentner: I think Ben Ratliff drove home this point in his Saturday New York Times blog post. Even after getting my magic "all-access" pass, I was denied at many doors and left in long lines shivering.
Josh Jackson: I'm excited by the prospect of success, but the presenters will need to make plans for next year. It will only get bigger.
Patrick: Yes to all that. I think that's the takeaway here for the organizers: You've hit on a good thing here; now make it so people can see it more comfortably.
Simon: I also have to say that I was in a state of disbelief in seeing the people at this event ... at times it felt like the indie-rock scene. Young, hip, yet even more ethnically diverse. Not the same ol' jazz crowd. Plus a lot of women! Is it just me, or do jazz shows tend to be heavily male-attended?
Patrick: Well, that's funny Simon. I saw this tweet on Friday:
RT @jessiolsen: great thing about #winterjazzfest is that its such a sausage fest that there is never a line for the ladies room
But I will say — a fair amount more women than your usual "hygiene-deficient men by themselves" jazz crowd for sure. And in any event, our annoyance at long lines to get into overcrowded rooms in cold weather is probably a good sign that people were willing to put up with it. I saw a lot of excitement indoors.
Simon: The point is: This event makes jazz seem relevant (and have a future). It gives me the warm fuzzies.
Patrick: Yes and yes again. So what were some highlights?
Josh: I enjoyed Butch Morris' conduction lesson for the audience. I thought it was a nice way to engage the audience, and maybe a little helpful for the musicians onstage. They were still learning it, too, it seemed. But when it worked, it really worked.
Patrick: Totally agree. This was a collaboration between a group of musicians under Morris' live "conductions" and the JD Allen trio, playing some of Butch's cues and JD's tunes. (JD recorded a Butch tune on his latest record.)
Josh: "Conjuration of Angles."
Patrick: I love me some JD Allen trio, and I somehow saw that band four times (!) in 2010. I didn't know what to expect with this. But this felt like a grand modification and amplification of his concept, with enormous polyrhythmic energy and two independent directors.
Simon: Even though I missed the set, I received tremendous feedback from atypical sources. Apparently Butch conducted a masterpiece — sometimes his conductions can go off-track, but I hear this was brilliantly restrained and executed.
Patrick: Great grooves for sure. Simon, what did you see that you liked?
Simon: On the heels of the Marsalises receiving the NEA Jazz Masters award this Tuesday night at Jazz at Lincoln Center, I think there is a new jazz family we should look out for — The O'Farrills.
Josh: His boys can play, Zachary and Adam.
Patrick: You refer, of course, to Arturo O'Farrill's kids?
Simon: Adam (trumpet) is 16 — still a junior at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts. Zack (drums) is 19, currently a sophomore at City College. They performed one of the highlight compositions I heard during the festival — "The Composer's Process," written by Adam.
Patrick: Wow. Who was in that band? That was a last-minute replacement for a canceled appearance, I understand.
Simon: Gregg August on bass joined the O'Farrill family. It should be noted: The leader and pianist, Arturo O'Farrill, is deeply entrenched in this music's history. His father is the legendary late pianist Chico O'Farrill, and Arturo still leads his father's big band. So watch out, Marsalises — there's a new jazz dynasty on the rise.
Patrick: I gather the O'Farrill Brothers (third generation) have a record coming out soon to look out for, too. Eyes peeled.
Simon: My final comment for O'Farrill's set: Time flew by, never a dull moment, very exciting original tunes, extremely well-played and incredible ensemble sound. Absolutely jaw-dropping. So, Patrick, what was your highlight?
Patrick: If you could get into Zinc Bar, where this O'Farrill set happened, you might have seen a lot of good music. The Aaron Goldberg trio played a sparkling 12:30 a.m. set that started at 12:45 because drummer Eric Harland flew out of a cab with his cymbal bag to make it. He was coming from two sets at Birdland, plus a recording session earlier that day. He didn't miss a beat.
Aaron Goldberg plays a brightly colored piano at Zinc Bar on day one of Winter Jazzfest 2011.
Josh: A necessary endurance. For many musicians, the Winter Jazzfest set was their third or fourth set of the night. And there were musicians who performed three and four sets during the festival itself. I'm looking at Jason Lindner on the first night. Lindner played with Anat Cohen at Le Poisson Rouge. Then Zinc Bar with Kokayi and Dafnis Prieto (and that was really good). Then Lindner's own Now vs. Now trio at Kenny's Castaways.
Simon: Jason Lindner has been a staple since the beginning of Winter Jazzfest. Taking him out would be like removing Tom Brady from the New England Patriots. Speaking of which, shouldn't there be an honorary award given to the busiest musician at the festival? Perhaps we should call it "The Jason Lindner Award." Any nominations?
Patrick: Kendrick Scott and part of his band came from a Terence Blanchard gig (two sets) to play a 3:15 a.m. set. 3:15! And it was great — Kendrick is one of those drummers you must see live to fully appreciate, relentlessly fluid in varying up the groove. I also saw drummer Ted Poor play back to back on Friday, with Shane Endsley's The Music Band and then The Respect Sextet. Then he went to play two sets at the Village Vanguard with Kurt Rosenwinkel!
Simon: My nomination: rising star bassist Ben Williams. He appeared with Marcus Strickland, Kenneth Whalum, Jacky Terrasson, Igmar Thomas — that's four and counting. Am I missing anyone?
Bassist Ben Williams plays in the quartet of saxophonist Marcus Strickland (foreground).
Josh: Speaking of Igmar Thomas, another fun moment for me happened at Sullivan Hall after Igmar's set. Asphalt Orchestra played in the middle of the audience while the stage crew set up for the Curtis Brothers quartet. That was a good idea for many reasons.
Patrick: Agree. What is Asphalt Orchestra, to someone who hasn't been ambushed by them?
Josh: Asphalt Orchestra is a marching group of ruffians. They use tuba, piccolo and lots of brass. They play contemporary music with a flair for spectacle.
Simon: If only that band played in a hypothetical "summer jazzfest," then the band would be the glue to meld all the venues together, marching down the street performing from club to club, hint hint...
Patrick: They segued between Nels Cline and Steve Coleman, too. I caught the tail end of Nels' set; really conceptual stuff. He played solo guitar with lots of effects while Norton Wisdom painted.
Simon: I really wish I'd seen that set. Again: a victim to the insane crowds.
Patrick: Nels' playing was improvised, and would have been weird by itself. But I was transfixed watching those painted creations emerge, then be partially erased, and modified, in relation to Nels. Then there was a small marching band party. And then Steve Coleman's crazily tight Five Elements band, which I can't tap my foot to, but which my head nods for involuntarily.
Josh: I think the crowd issue encouraged me to camp out at Sullivan for the remainder of Saturday evening. There were many nice sets — Derrick Hodge Quartet, Maurice Brown Effect. And there was plenty of elbow room until Robert Glasper's Experiment band. That band succeeds at making loose "tight."
Simon: Funny: That was my approach at Zinc Bar. I guess that's why we never saw each other — a first!
Josh: I was exhausted midway into the Glasper set, maybe even a little "T-Pain"-ed out by Casey Benjamin's vocoder (yes, I know T-Pain doesn't use the vocoder, but same difference), and I have a 4-year-old to answer to in the mornings. So I bailed.
Patrick: I was taken with the Derrick Hodge group, or what I saw of it. He played some no-messing-around funk to close, but also did these engrossing electric bass solos on ballads. I missed Maurice Brown, but I've seen that group before, and bet they killed it, too. And Glasper had a line to get into. For a 1:15 a.m. set! I made it in only because the band demanded an encore.
The crowd demanded an encore from the Robert Glasper Experiment at Sullivan Hall -- and Glasper was one of the few artists allowed to fulfill such requests.
Simon: I notice a lot of emerging musicians now adopt — dare I say — a "Glasperian" approach to phrasing and composing. Do you both agree? I noticed this with pianist Shimrit Shoshan (and many others) ... It just seems that musicians hover around a blue note or tonal center with greater frequency, almost cathartically squeezing out feeling from every phrase, every musical idea. It always emotes. It definitely has a sound.
Patrick: Yeah. It might linger there for a while, exploring, teasing, maybe even boring you. But there are always moments of clarity — and those moments can be mind-blowing. Anyway, what's Shimrit Shoshan's story?
Simon: Let's call her a "diamond in the rough." This inspiring pianist, and daughter of a fisherman, graduated from the same performing-arts high school as Anat and Avishai Cohen — Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, clearly a cultural institution of great repute in Israel. She tried to break in to New York's jazz scene for eight years, playing lots of late-night gigs in relative obscurity. She was selling expensive rocks in Manhattan's diamond district to make ends meet. Her playing definitely sparkles, too — I guess she lights things up at Smalls Jazz Club on the weekend. Her trio included John Hebert and Eric McPherson, by the way. Really nice group with a "Glasperian" feel and fluidity.
Patrick: Wow. Well, any more discoveries from your perspectives? Josh?
Josh: I'm impressed more and more with Jeff Lederer. He replaced Tony Malaby in bassist Chris Lightcap's Bigmouth, and he was slaying dragons admirably with his tenor saxophone. Another bonus for that set was trumpeter Kirk Knuffke on "Ting." I like his sound. Speaking of trumpets, I'm excited to hear more from Shane Endsley and the Music Band. There's real promise with that group, based on the 20 minutes I heard.
Patrick: Led is totally underrated. He's coming out with his own record this year, I'm told. As is Endsley.
Josh: I couldn't hang long enough to see saxophonist Noah Preminger's set at The Bitter End. But I'm planning to watch him box this week — literally, compete in boxing.
Simon: Noah sounded great.
The Noah Preminger quartet (L-R): Matt Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, John Hebert, Preminger.
Patrick: I caught part of that Noah set, too, and concur. Him, Frank Kimbrough (playing a really, absurdly, terribly out-of-tune piano), John Hebert, Matt Wilson.
Simon: By the way — bassist John Hebert should also be strongly considered for the "The Jason Lindner Award," along with drummer Rudy Royston.
Patrick: Indeed. Noah's friend, pianist Dan Tepfer, was watching. (They're also ping-pong rivals; he told me to tell Noah that "I'm better.") And then, at 2:45 a.m., David Weiss' Point of Departure Quintet went on. They were fire incarnate, man. No B.S. — just uptempo burners. At 2:45 a.m. As far as discoveries go, for me, there was Orrin Evans' Captain Black Big Band. A lot of swing, but it had this really loose, relaxed feeling to it. I can be turned off by big, brassy late-Basie-style big bands, but there was a subtlety of texture to all that excitement. They have a record coming out soon, too. And there was also a vocalist named Gregory Porter. He played the earliest set of anyone on Saturday, 5:45 p.m. His band had nobody I knew, and I didn't much care for his record, Grammy-nominated though it was. But, man, this dude has a voice of a champion — like a classic soul singer, but with jazz "listen to your surroundings" instincts. He writes tunes, too. And we haven't even gotten to the bands I've only heard on record, and confirmed their greatness: Juan-Carlos Formell's Johnny's Dream Club, the aforementioned Chris Lightcap band, Mike Pride's From Bacteria to Boys, a little bit of James Carney Group, Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers with Rudresh Mahanthappa...
Simon: More discoveries from me. As I mentioned before, Marcus Strickland's quartet with his brother on drums. Then Jean-Michel Pilc, Francois Moutin and Ari Hoenig — they just created music out of thin air. No lead sheets. But their music was structured, dramatic and absolutely riveting. They are like magicians — how do they do that? The audience just shakes its heads for their mind-boggling achievement in trio playing.
Patrick: Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered was there, and told me he really liked that set, too. Okay, dudes, I have to go. But I'd like to make a plug on Josh's behalf before we go: Don Byron's New Gospel Quintet. This band had him, Geri Allen, Brad Jones and Pheeroan akLaff together on stage. But this show was run by DK Dyson, the vocalist. And I understand, Josh, you have that recording for The Checkout coming soon?
Josh: Indeed. I got a few minutes of hang time with Bob Boilen at the Don Byron New Gospel Quintet set. If all goes according to plan, folks will be able to hear that on The Checkout in February for Black History Month.
My final thought on this whole shebang: Winter Jazzfest has mastered the art of finding an audience and getting it amped for jazz music. We have three hip presenting entities — Boom Collective in association with Search and Restore and Revive Music Group. It's time to revisit the business plan and partnership. Make this work for the madding crowds, or there will be ignoble strife. And make it lucrative for musicians in some tangible way. Finally, think about getting this idea out of New York. Young audiences everywhere deserve to get a taste.
Patrick: Absolutely. Winter Jazzfest and its kin need to exist in more cities (and it could stand to pay some folks better, too). It absolutely can. Now, to do it.
Josh: Indeed. Now, as Duke and Billy wrote, "I'm Checking Out, Goom-Bye."
Simon: This was fun. And the music continues here in NYC. See you guys out there.