Written by Patrick Jarenwattananon from WBGO-FM
The logo for the 2014 Winter Jazzfest, marking the festival’s 10th anniversary, is a giant iceberg floating into New York harbor. Like the iceberg, this year’s edition was both big — 90-plus groups over five nights, representing just a small portion of a larger scene — and cold and wet, in that it rained both nights of the music marathon last Friday and Saturday evening. But Winter Jazzfest was hot on the inside, as we soaked up great music like a sponge.
It’s a lot to process. So on Sunday, after some strong coffee and sleep — more coffee than sleep — we compared notes via online chat with WBGO colleague Alex Ariff and fellow travelers David Adler, Derrick Lucas and Brad Farberman — who covered the fest for the Village Voice, Jazz 90.1 FM in Rochester, N.Y., and Time Out New York, respectively.
Tim Wilkins: How was your WJF 2014 experience?
Derrick Lucas: I nearly drowned in a monsoon waiting to hear Michelle Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba ensemble!
David Adler: The Ches Smith Trio was the very first thing I heard at WJF — I was walking in from the rain and feeling rushed, but Ches’ drum solo pounded away all my worries. That was the prevailing feeling for me this year.
Tim: Was that a “peak musical moment” for you? Mine was the Jeff Ballard Trio with Lionel Loueke and Miguel Zenon, on a tiny stage at Groove. Three superb improvisers at the height of their powers, having so much fun!
Derrick: My favorite was the dance party that erupted at LPR when The Revive Big Band added Dr. Lonnie Smith for “Play It Back.” I’m still trying to come to terms with what I heard with the Burnt Sugar Arkestra featuring Melvin “Sweetback” Van Peebles.
Brad Farberman: Ben Goldberg’s Unfold Ordinary Mind was excellent.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: I really liked Ben’s band, too. He plays contra-alto clarinet (lower than a bass clarinet) as a bass instrument, with two saxes and Nels Cline on guitar. Ches Smith on drums, too, who was ubiquitous this year.
David: I loved Henry Threadgill’s tribute to the late conductor and WJF mainstay Butch Morris. Henry didn’t play at all, but his conducting was a performance — a physical, dancing connection to the music throughout. He summoned huge blocks of harmony with his hands, chord by swelling, thundering chord.
Patrick: The end of Chris Lightcap’s set was another highlight. It was a pumped crowd at 10:30, so peak audience levels and energy. A fair amount of #jazzbro “woo” and cheering. He called Lou Reed/Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with the two tenor saxes punch-drunkenly wailing the NYC icon’s melody, and its repetitive wildness seemed cathartic.
Alex Ariff: A peak for me was the Ralph Alessi Baida Quartet with Gary Versace on piano. Gary’s ability to comp behind Alessi and utilize the entire piano … it felt like there was nothing he didn’t hear.
Brad: I’m going to go outside the marathon and pick the Robert Glasper/Jason Moran two-piano set. Casual, funny, deep and revealing.
Tim: I agree. Robert and Jason — as well as vocalist Ravi Coltrane, singer Bilal, bassist Alan Hampton and drummer Eric Harland, who joined them for their second set at Town Hall — were brimming with virtuosity, but also pleasure for both the players and the audience. Smiles all around.
Alex: The Revive Music showcase at Groove wasn’t just a concert — it was an ultimate hang. All the artists stuck around for the sets following their own, and Glasper, Bilal and others jumped on stage. Jose James’ trumpeter Takuya Kuroda brought a great band that focused on groove, with not a ton of solos. It was all feeling, and the band sounded tight.
Patrick: One of my favorite things was seeing Glasper cheer/jeer his buddies on stage. “Stand up so your fans can see you!” he shouted at fellow pianist Kris Bowers.
Tim: Part of the appeal of the Revive scene is that not only jazz nerds can dig it. There was also a lot of melody in the air this year.
David: Yes, Tim. Threadgill’s big closing section, for example, was extraordinarily melodic.
Tim: There were singer-songwriters like Tillery and Meklit, and “beyond-jazz” like a cappella singers Roomful of Teeth and the 17-piece chamber-pop ensemble Mother Falcon — which someone in the audience, who loved it, described to me as “Arcade Fire meets Riverdance.”
Brad: My WJF had a lot of rock in it. I heard it in sets from Bobby Previte, Ben Wendel, Abraxas and Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey. Even if those bands weren’t playing “rock music,” the feel was there.
Patrick: I sense that the WJF this year picked up slightly more acts that were not even jazz-rock or jazz-hip-hop hybrids, but clearly not-jazz.
Tim: Does this suggest an opening of the jazz tent, or just the open-mindedness of the WJF organizers, who could cast a wider net as the festival has grown?
Brad: I think jazz is getting bigger all the time.
Patrick: I’m all for new hybrids and musicians following their various muses, and it needs to be stressed to a lot of presenters and industry types who attend this thing that NYC is chock-full of all these mutated strains.
But there remains a sense, at least for me, that for jazz to be meaningful as an umbrella, there needs to be some sort of main stem, something which emphasizes legacy and propulsive swing and dancing with a melody and African-American/Afro-Western folklore. And WJF tends to lean on the “new” half of the equation more heavily … which isn’t bad, just something I’ve always thought about with respect to this event.
Tim: New Orleans was well represented — Donald Harrison (with cameos from two fellow Mardi Gras Indians) raised the roof for a crowd of hipsters at LPR.
Patrick: Donald was cheered on to the only encore I’ve ever seen at this festival. The NPR Music video crew, who are not particularly jazz fans, definitely got into everything they heard at LPR, from relative traditionalists (ha!) like Harrison to party-rockers Hypnotic Brass Band. Really, WJF remains one of the few festivals which foster an atmosphere that makes certain bits of this stuff approachable for the layman.
Alex: And it’s the mission of the organizers to open up ears.
Tim: Did they succeed?
Alex: Definitely, they showcased a lot of heavy musicians in this cross-section.
David: Outreach to new audience is vital, but I also loved how WJF connects the jazz “community” or plural communities. A lot of my original listening plans were undone by constant interaction with people I was so happy to see. That revitalized me as much as a lot of the music.
Patrick: +1 to that, David. WJF can foster those moments that restore your faith in the occasional nexus of these subcommunities to actually reach folks. That, and being the best deal in town, is why I hope to be back next year.