Winter Jazzfest 2012: Drums, Droves And Different Visions : A Blog Supreme A recap of the music and madness at the annual glorious overload of improvisation.
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Winter Jazzfest 2012: Drums, Droves And Different Visions

For the last eight years, New York has played host to a glorious, highly-concentrated overload of improvised music called Winter Jazzfest. In recent years, the early-January festival has expanded to five nearby Greenwich Village venues, two long nights and over 4,000 attendees.

The audiences are remarkably younger and bigger than your average jazz crowds. The performers — with notable exceptions — aren't yet of the profile who can fill weeklong runs or performing arts centers, but many of them ought to be. The corporate sponsorship doesn't really exist (how does that work, exactly?), unless you count a certain limited-edition beer made for this event. As for the music: With about 60 bands scattered about the stylistic map, there's bound to be something any festival-goer would like, if not many things.

With me to recap the music and madness of this year's Winter Jazzfest are producers Simon Rentner and Tim Wilkins of WBGO, and my big-eared colleague Anastasia Tsioulcas, notably of NPR Music's Deceptive Cadence. We had this edited conversation via instant messenger early Sunday afternoon, after partial recovery from two nights of concertgoing.

Patrick: We all here and caffeinated and ready?

Anastasia: Is this going to be McLaughlin Group-esque?

Patrick: A little more free-form, but you can be Eleanor Clift if you want.

Tim: Yes, PJ is the ex-Jesuit in the room.

Patrick: If only. So, everyone: Give me one word or phrase that you've been thinking about Winter Jazzfest 2012.

Simon: How about "clusterf$%#! of creativity"?

Tim: How about a "finally full-fledged festival."

Anastasia: I say "snapshot." And I'd like to explain myself.

Patrick: Go for it AT. Seems like "snapshot" and "finally full-fledged festival" are a bit at odds?

Anastasia: I'm thinking about the roots of WJF. It was directly inspired by globalFEST, a similar APAP-timed showcase, which has the express mission of bringing in artists who are either brand-new to North America (many making their U.S./N.A. debuts) or who had barely been seen here. And this is the one time of year that you have a critical mass of bookers and agents all in roughly the same place at the same time. So the idea was to get unknowns out in front of the business peeps and fans. Whereas WJF — as fantastic as it is in terms of artists and creative vision — is, to my mind, all about "this is downtown NY jazz" as it exists in X year.

Tim: globalFEST came first? Didn't know that.

Simon: Brice Rosenbloom was directly inspired to create Winter Jazzfest to mirror globalFEST.

Patrick: That was, what, eight years ago? And now WJF has become An Event.

Anastasia: Yes. And this is globalFEST's ninth year.

Tim: WJF may have started out as a showcase for "breakout" artists, but now it seems to try to strike a balance between well-known names (alternative or otherwise) and fresh faces, more so than in the past. After the labor dispute last year, the festival was really vindicated by a critical mass of both fans and musicians who recognized its value to "the scene" and got on board. And the artist-friendly tweaks that came out of the labor dispute — like slightly longer sets — benefited the music, to my ears.

Simon: Agreed. Never has there been so much diversity in sound. Another phrase: "crowds, more crowds, and even more crowds." I'm continually shocked to see so many people clamoring and pushing and shoving to see, say, Rudresh Mahanthappa.

Tim: I suppose this is a compromise for fans — but it shows that WJF is becoming an enduring presence as an outright festival.

Anastasia: Yes. A festival and not so much a mere showcase.

Tim: You really saw this in the streets — long lines just to get in to see "name" artists, and sometimes none at all at other venues (even if the big "names" were often onstage with their friends at the other venues, too). "Rudresh Mahanthappa," as one example, is a brand now, not just a music maker.

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012. John Rogers for NPR/ hide caption

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John Rogers for NPR/

Rudresh Mahanthappa performs at Kenny's Castaways during Winter Jazzfest 2012.

John Rogers for NPR/

Anastasia: That's a big statement to make. Rudresh as brand? And OK, a disclaimer: For many years, my husband, who ran jazz A&R at Savoy and had several titles at Bluebird/RCA Victor signed and worked with many of the artists who appeared either under their own names or as side players at this year's WJF. These artists include, but aren't limited to, Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Ravi Coltrane, and Stephan Crump.

Tim: No disrespect intended; i.e., Mahanthappa has become quite successful. He now has an established identity and musical profile that festivalgoers are aware of. I saw him and Vijay Iyer at their first WJF at the Knitting Factory, when both were unknowns. (And that was magic!)

Simon: Yo, can I just make this statement? Not to sound so grandiose, but the more I see of Winter Jazzfest, the more I'm inclined to question what is jazz in the first place. I know that's a cliché, but every year it becomes more and more difficult to contextualize bands like Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem, and Jerseyband, and New York Gypsy All-Stars, and ...

Tim: Yes Simon, there's been a lot of talk about "the J-word" — and whether it still has meaning — in all of the associated conferences (JazzTimes, APAP, JJA) this year. Nicholas Payton's recent blog posts really resonated with a lot of folks. I would argue "jazz" still has meaning, even if what it means is mindblowingly imaginative diversity, which is what WJF demonstrates. The music still needs a "big tent" that brings all of these tendencies into conversation, and WJF in part does that by at least nominally calling them "jazz."

Patrick: Perhaps an example, Tim?

Tim: I was really impressed by the hip-hop influenced acts this year — they seemed much more musically mature than in years past. I think there's a generational shift that's finally taking root with that. You heard it everywhere, not only in the Revive Music Group shows, but also Ben Williams' playing, Lionel Loueke, Marc Cary, Vijay Iyer's trio.

Anastasia: I'd agree. It's about artists who live in 2012 and grew up with a lot of different sounds, and who bring those sounds into their own "j-word" rubric.

Tim: And hip-hop has always been part of the air they breathe, not just a gimmick. I heard plenty of hip-hop influences but fortunately very little of the "Funky Drummer" cliches.

Anastasia: Exactly. It's not a veneer.

Tim: What's great is that these musicians really want is to bring all of that into jazz — or, if we need another moniker, improvised music of the highest level.

Patrick: I think the Revive Music Group showcases at WJF always seem to reflect black-origin popular musics in an organic, honest way — as did a few other bands, say, Jamire Williams' kinda R&B band ERIMAJ feat. singer Chris Turner — and that's worth something for sure. I mean, Ali Shaheed Muhammad from A Tribe Called Quest even came through to DJ a few set breaks.

Simon: Meghan Stabile, the producer at Sullivan Hall's series of shows on Saturday night, has been very important in building on this hip-hop/jazz vision. To see how advanced Casey Benjamin is on the vocoder is astonishing. He's creating a hip-hop language all to himself! I remember when he just played the sax ...

Patrick: Yea, the heads who have been around will tell you Casey can burn on some straight-ahead alto playing too.

Simon: When I saw Casey play in Jesse Fischer's set, with musicians like fellow alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw in attendance, you really witness a great admiration for what Benjamin is doing.

Tim: Yes. I agree that ERIMAJ was a standout for sure, drummer Mark Giuliana's multiple appearances too ... in some ways, drummers lead the way in these kinds of generational sea changes. Think of Eric Harland, E.J. Strickland, etc. In picking sets to hear, I always looked at the drummer first.

Anastasia: i.e. Rhythm Is It?

Patrick: I was talking to Bob Boilen of All Songs Considered the other night that I think that one way to get people into modern jazz/improv expressions is to watch the drummers. They're not always as showy or pounding as a rock or pop drummer — but they can do things no other drummers would think of.

Tim: If "jazz" is a way of moving through time, the drummer always holds the key to quantum leaps forward in conception, like Papa Jo Jones and Elvin Jones each did in their time.

Patrick: And WJF has always been a showcase for so many drumming styles, this year no exception. One of my favorite moments was going to Tyshawn Sorey's set last night (1:45 a.m. start) and seeing Eric Harland, Kendrick Scott, Justin Brown, Mark Guiliana and probably other drummers I didn't recognize all in rapt attention. As you may know, as a composer, Tyshawn writes some unusual music by any measure! But also as you may know, he can play just about anything on the drums.

Tim: Yes, you know something momentous is afoot if you're in that company, and they're paying attention.

Patrick: That sort of thing — the late-night musicians' hang where folks actually get to hear their friends play on stage, for once — and the fact that you can measure what musicians care about because, well, you can see them there is one of the things that makes a festival as intimate as WJF so special. But I digress. Any other drummers of renown you noticed?

Tim: Clarence Penn, who was with Gregoire Maret. Superb.

Anastasia: I continue to be really impressed by Marcus Gilmore. Also, he's grown up — literally. He looks like a man now. That sounds condescending, but I don't mean it that way.

Patrick: He was a LaGuardia High School student when he burst upon the scene!

Anastasia: Exactly.

Marcus Gilmore plays with the Vijay Iyer trio during Winter Jazzfest 2012. John Rogers for NPR/ hide caption

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John Rogers for NPR/

Marcus Gilmore plays with the Vijay Iyer trio during Winter Jazzfest 2012.

John Rogers for NPR/

Simon: Jim Black, Justin Brown, Marcus Gilmore, Matt Wilson ... the list goes on. But here's something. Few people were playing 4/4 swing with the cymbal. A different rhythmic concept may have permanently replaced that ...

Patrick: So, Simon: You raised this idea earlier that you were confused what "jazz" could mean, since WJF was such a diversity-fest, stylistically. Personally, I may not have heard a standard or 12 bar blues head until Steve Lehman reassembled a Coltrane tune (was it "Moment's Notice"?) at 1:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. I'm wondering if anyone else found "swing as we used to know it" lacking this year. And if so, is that disturbing in any way?

I mean, I heard some things that had groove that felt at least somewhat like a post-bop swing bag. Again, drummers: Kevin Shea's nutso bebop with MOPDTK. Henry Cole with the Fabian Almazan trio + strings, so incredibly seamless. (Nobody does snare chatter quite like him.) Marcus Gilmore with Gilad Hekselman with some new-school swing, and if it quacks like a duck ... Dylan Ryan and his freebop ride cymbal with the intricate arrangements of Herculaneum. I hear that the Matt Wilson Quartet + strings was great — well, Matt is never afraid of swinging and getting weird in the same breath. But maybe more often, I heard grooves which felt like they came from a lifetime of rock and rap and funk and "other." And while I usually welcome this, there was so much of that going on, which has me a bit conflicted.

Simon: I'll just say it is not disturbing to me personally. I enjoy the diversity. But I can say that 4/4 swing can signify a kind of "black sound" or music fostered by Great Black American Musicians. And the lack of that particular sound may alienate some people, perhaps from an older generation. But, see, I'm a white guy trying to provide insight.

Patrick: I interject here to note that the paying audience was largely young, male and white.

Tim: I agree that "swing as we used to know it" was lacking in a few sets, but it was heartening (to me, at least) that "swing as we will come to know it" was well-represented. It's analogous to what Paul Motian did so masterfully. Swing was not always audible, but clearly present in his mind at all times. Many of these younger drummers are clearly well-versed in the richness of what has come before, and so to my mind can still be called "jazz." Which to me, more than anything, means an awareness, and hence an access, to a rich vocabulary based on tradition as well as innovation.

Anastasia: But the acknowledgement of that tradition is perhaps less audibly present now. And I wonder how that sounds to someone who might be more of a newcomer to jazz, or "jazz," or whatever one wants to call it. Especially when you have a setup like WJF, with a fabulously low price of entry etc. — that swing could be pretty enticing to someone who wants to sample what this music is about. I wonder if the absence of certain forms (like clearly defined "swing") would be at all off-putting, or at least perplexing. All this considering that one of the gifts of WJF is that in theory, you don't have to be in the inner sanctum to approach the music. (Long lines outside the clubs notwithstanding.)

Tim: Yes, WJF extends a very open invitation, but it doesn't try to be all things to all jazz lovers, for sure.

Patrick: Right. This festival is now teetering on the edge of dissociating itself from the construct of "the jazz tradition." And one of the lines circumscribing said tradition is, at least in practice, that feeling of deep-soul swing. Another is an implicit feeling of continuum, of conversing with predecessors and their social history, and I think WJF is very hands-off about this narrative. Now, I don't think that this is necessarily a bad thing! But I wonder if the issues that Anastasia raises are confusing for any festivalgoers.

Tim: I do think there was more of a "core aesthetic" this year than in the past, and this has something to do with striking the right balance between tradition and innovation. And that's where the word "jazz" is still useful.

Simon: What do you guys think of the band Mostly Other People Do The Killing?

Anastasia: I missed them. Tell me/us about them, please.

Simon: I thought Mostly Other People Do The Killing has an irreverence that reminded me of Mingus. Their "mocking" of jazz tradition is actually their way of paying deep respect.

Patrick: I agree, though I think that some people feel completely the opposite way about it.

Simon: Do tell.

Patrick: I think that some people find the virtuosic scattershot hyper-bebop grating sonically, and a bit discomfiting that folks can apply whatever bits of jazz history they feel like whenever they feel like. But I do think there are enough people who like the good humor and obvious joy.

OK, so we're running short on time. Everyone: One band you liked which we haven't discussed.

Simon: One thing that I will point out is that were two drastically different curatorial visions when you compare Kenny's Castaways (largely the brainchild of Search and Restore) with Sullivan Hall on Saturday (the Revive showcase). Two ways to interpret and build on the jazz tradition, each viable and rich.

Tim: Putting both visions together in one event is part of the genius of WJF. For me, Lionel Loueke's set of new tunes really blew me away. They were both more African, and more hip-hop, than with his usual trio. I'm looking forward to his new album this year. Cellist Marika Hughes and her Bottom Heavy band was also very nice.

Simon: Other musical highlights for me: Vijay Iyer's tribute to Detroit techno, a tune called "Hood." The New York Gypsy All-Stars, preceded by the Julian Lage Group (who wrote mostly all-new material in a three-day span leading up to the festival). There's more ...

Anastasia: I also liked the African direction of Lionel Loueke in this new material a lot. I enjoyed some old friends in Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, each leading their own bands. I've never heard Le Poisson Rouge as quiet as John Medeski's solo set, ever. Just rapt attention. I loved Stephan Crump's Rosetta trio with guitarists Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox — bass and two guitars. I loved Ravi Coltrane with Matthew Garrison (yes, both are sons of their famous fathers) and a drummer who was new to me, Nikki Glaspie. I think the palette of that configuration worked tremendously well for Ravi.

Simon: Ravi Coltrane with Matthew Garrison. Those are some American griots!

Patrick: All good choices. Closing thoughts: What worked with the festival, and what needs to change?

Tim: The WJF added venues and expanded its mandate (both "marquee" and "emerging" acts), which mostly worked, but not always. There were still very long lines, and clubs with tables (Zinc Bar, The Bitter End) still didn't quite know how to manage the flow.

The crowd outside the Winter Jazzfest 2012 check-in area. John Rogers for NPR/ hide caption

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John Rogers for NPR/

The crowd outside the Winter Jazzfest 2012 check-in area.

John Rogers for NPR/

Simon: The crowds are becoming a problem. I'm extremely happy for the event's success, but it can feel absolutely overwhelming.

Patrick: I think we all agree that crowd control, inside and out of venues, is an issue. We mentioned it in last year's chat, acknowledging the festival's growing pains. We endure — I mean, so much good music — but at a certain point, the growing pains are just pains.

Simon: Random thought: The "Jason Lindner" award for most sets played goes to violinist and composer Jenny Scheinman. (Lindner played, I believe, in only one set this year, in the relatively anonymous setting of the New York Gypsy All-Stars.) She played in four bands, including her own Mischief and Mayhem.

Patrick: About that band. Here's my closing thought: I took a colleague who doesn't see much jazz to see Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem (Nels Cline, Trevor Dunn, Jim Black). I think the many good things that WJF has come to represent de facto — open-ness to sonic diversity in improvised music; an unfiltered, unmediated approach; bands that feel new in the best way — they all coincided in that set. Really good grooves. Virtuosity that didn't distract. Positive vibes and big smiles. It wasn't gimmicky, or pretentious, or particularly confusing. And it was easily her favorite set.

Jenny Scheinman performs with Mischief and Mayhem at Winter Jazzfest 2012. John Rogers for NPR/ hide caption

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John Rogers for NPR/

Jenny Scheinman performs with Mischief and Mayhem at Winter Jazzfest 2012.

John Rogers for NPR/