Artists Spanning Generations Infuse BRIC JazzFest with Soul

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Steve Cardenas (left), Jeremy Pelt, Allison Miller and Ben Allison (the group’s leader) perform at the BRIC JazzFest in Brooklyn on Oct. 13.

(Photo: Courtesy BRIC JazzFest)

The second edition of the BRIC Jazzfest marathon—held October 13–15 in three separate spaces in BRIC House, the presenting organization’s 40,000-square-foot multidisciplinary arts center on the former premises of a vaudeville house in Brooklyn—presented a well-curated sampling of jazz culture in New York City.

Perhaps thinking of attenuated 21st-century iPad-generation attention spans, co-curator Brice Rosenbloom (the impresario of New York’s Winter Jazzfest and Celebrate Brooklyn), along with BRIC performing arts programmers Jack Walsh and Diane Eber, staggered the starting times of the nine acts booked each evening to enable attendees to catch at least a portion of each group. In a miracle of logistical efficiency, each set of the first two nights started on time.

BRIC House was packed with attendees on Oct. 13, thanks to a grant from the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment that enabled free admission for that evening. The proceedings opened in the Stoop, a small amphitheater space that links the complex’s lobby to its high-ceilinged, white-walled gallery, with rising star singer-trumpeter Bria Skonberg leading an informed, swinging quintet (Evan Arntzen, tenor saxophone and clarinet; Mathis Picard, electronic keyboard; Corcoran Holt, bass; Darrian Douglas, drums) through a polished set.

Skonberg began with Sidney Bechet’s “Egyptian Fantasy,” opening with some Louis Armstrong-style phrases before giving way to Arntzen’s swooping clarinet. There followed a crisp arrangement of Cole Porter’s “From This Moment On,” on which Skonberg first sang the lyric—a nice vehicle for her husky contralto, instrumental phrasing and clear enunciation—and then uncorked a trumpet solo in the style of Clifford Brown.

In the more intimate confines of the Studio performance space, trumpeter-composer Kenyatta Beasley—joined by tenor saxophonist Keith Loftis and a strong rhythm section with pianist Anthony Wonsey, bassist Dezron Douglas and drummer Alvester Garnett—played the music of the late saxophonist-composer Frank Foster, to whom he paid tribute on the 2014 album The Frank Foster Songbook. All members soloed with a swinging attitude on “Simone” and “Chiquito Loco.”

Across the hall in the Ballroom—a 440-person capacity space—trumpeter Michael Leonhart’s Orchestra was playing the leader’s arrangement of “Afrodesia,” an Afro-Cuban-inspired Kenny Dorham number from 1955 with Gillespie-esque harmonic underpinnings. This creative ensemble of about 20 members included such New York A-listers as Sam Sadigursky on bass clarinet, John Ellis on tenor saxophone, Ian Hendrickson-Smith on baritone saxophone and Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon, as well Sunny Jain on tablas, Mauro Refosco on various percussion (including berimbao), Ari Bornick on guitar, Ron Oswanski on accordion, Christine Kim on cello, Pauline Kim Harris on violin, Mustafa Baghat on sitar, Joe Martin on bass and a four-voice chorus section.

With its unwieldy size and unorthodox instrumentation, the band’s performance could have been a train wreck (especially given the group’s scant time to do a sound check). But the unit played Leonhart’s unique charts with precision and a freewheeling attitude, thanks to the leader’s relaxed, expressive conduction and drummer Daniel Freedman’s ability to nail down and embellish a global array of rhythmic signatures.

“Built For Comfort,” from Leonhart’s Chess Suite, was an East-meets West hybrid that moved from a sitar intro to a Mingusian theme to Brass Fantasy/Dirty Dozen style N’awlins funk.

Another piece began with a rubato accordion passage upon which the chorus began to signify with wordless tones, and then developed motivically as Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” entered the flow, spurring an impassioned Ellis tenor solo. Another selection showcased Leonhart’s score of a trio of poems written and performed by their authors—Ilyana Kadushin, Jamie Leonhart and Jordin Ruderman.

In the Studio, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall—joined by Brandon McCune on Hammond B-3 organ and drummer Chris Beck—played the David “Fathead” Newman vehicle “Hard Times” and Jackie McLean’s “Appointment In Ghana.”

Then it was back to the Stoop, for a duo by drum genius Marcus Gilmore, a week past his 30th birthday, and keyboardist-electronicist Taylor McFerrin, who sampled, looped and minimally entextured Gilmore’s polyrhythmic inventions for the first 20 minutes, while steadily raising the levels of volume and intensity to body-vibrating levels.

At the Studio, bassist-composer Ben Allison’s Think Free quartet, with trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, guitarist Steve Cardenas and drummer Allison Miller began their set with “Roll Credits” (from the bassist’s 2008 Palmetto album, Little Things Run The World), which referenced a few bars of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low,” then branched off into other anthemic directions. Pelt and Cardenas delivered the message with focused, intense statements, before Miller’s ferocious concluding solo.

The sinister, snaky ambiance of “Tricky Dick” (from Cowboy Justice, 2006), mirrored Allison’s opinion of the character of the two former Republican Vice Presidents known by that moniker, as did Pelt’s clear, pointed opening solo.

Performances on Oct. 13 concluded in the Ballroom with saxophonist David Murray’s quartet, featuring Orrin Evans on piano, Jaribu Shahid on bass and Nasheet Waits on drums. After a searching solo on “Mirror Of Youth,” from the recent album Perfection, with Geri Allen and Terri Lyne Carrington, the 61-year-old reedist found his zone on a lengthy, heroic declamation on “Body And Soul,” fueled by Waits’ ametric rhythm and grounded by Evans’ percussive comping. Four hours after the “marathon” began, it seemed like a perfect moment to exit.

Singers and pianists formed the core of the programming on Oct. 14. First up on the Stoop was Nigerian bassist Michael Olatuja with his Lagos Pepper Soup project, a formidable band including keyboardists Etienne Stadwijk and Manuel Valera, vocalist Thana Alexa, tenor saxophonist Samir Zarif and drummer Nate Smith.

Olatuja started with a rubato bass intro, using the pedal to establish and sustain overtones; as he gradually morphed into and established a groove, synth tones emerged and hung in the air, like atmospheric pressure building to a storm.

After about eight minutes, the tenor saxophone and voice doubled an anthemic melody, complemented by orchestral colors from Valera and intense funk subdivisions from Smith. Alexa launched a cogent syllabic vocalese solo; Stadwijk transformed his synth into a quasi soprano saxophone.

After tenor and keyboard solos by Zarif and Stadwijk, Olatuja again commanded the space, and decrescendoed back to rubato, before segueing to a funky slap bass figure to introduce the next song.

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