New York’s Hot Jazz Festival Sizzles at Stylish McKittrick Hotel

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Cécile McLorin Salvant performs at the Hot Jazz Festival in New York City on Sept. 25

(Photo: Aidan Grant)

Leave it to Michael Katsobashvili, an ebullient impresario from the nation of Georgia, to keep the fires burning New York City’s Fourth Annual Hot Jazz Festival. This celebration of 1920s and ’30s music attracts a strong cult following of hot-jazz devotees, some of whom arrive decked out in period costumes ready to dance the night away.

This year the festivities took place at a ’30s-style pleasure palace called The McKittrick Hotel. (It’s actually a pseudo hotel—located in a formerly abandoned warehouse on 27th Street in Manhattan—created to house the immersive theater piece Sleep No More). This day-long extravaganza held more than a few surprises for patrons, not the least of which was an unexpected visit from Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cadre of bodyguards.

New Orleans-born singer Sasha Masakowski, daughter of renowned guitarist Steve Masakowski, kicked off the marathon with a swinging set on the outdoor roof garden, Gallow Green. Accompanied by trumpeter Bjorn Ingelstam, New Orleans drummer Don Hicks, bassist Neal Caine and special guest guitarist Mark Whitfield, the charismatic 30-year-old singer showcased her relaxed scatting style and alluring, behind-the-beat delivery on an easy-going opener, “Exactly Like You.”

Next she engaged bassist Caine in an intimate conversation as an introduction to “On The Sunny Side Of The Street” before the band leapt into the buoyant melody of that nugget from 1930.

Whitfield demonstrated his extroverted six-string style on “Caravan,” the Juan Tizol-Duke Ellington classic from 1936, which also had Hicks contributing an old-school New Orleans parade beat solo (which he probably picked up from his Crescent City mentor Johnny Vidacovich). Masakowski concluded this spirited romp through Ellingtonia with some hot scat exchanges with trumpeter Ingelstam.

On a bluesy “Basin Street,” Ingelstam summoned up some growling Bubber Miley-style plunger playing while Hicks went straight for Zutty Singleton on the kit and Whitfield added streams of Wes Montgomery-esque octaves and chord melody work. On her earthy rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” Masakowski danced like they do down there below sea level. The quartet closed their set with a rousing version of Paul Barbarin’s “Bourbon Street Parade” that had patrons at Gallow Green dancing in the aisles.

Downstairs at The Heath—an indoor stage with a smoky, Depression Era ambiance—trombonist Wycliffe Gordon paid tribute to Louis Armstrong with a stellar quintet featuring clarinetist Evan Christopher, pianist Aaron Diehl, bassist Yasushi Nakamura and drummer Lawrence Leathers.

Following Diehl’s wonderful solo piano intro to Fats Waller’s 1929 classic “Honeysuckle Rose,” Gordon and company jumped on that lighthearted vehicle, which featured some easy call-and- response between trombone and clarinet, à la Trummy Young and Edmund Hall from Louis Armstrong’s All-Stars.

Shifting the mood radically, the ensemble tackled the mournful Andy Razaf-Fats Waller tune “Black And Blue,” which Armstrong recorded in 1929 after performing it in an off-Broadway production of Hot Chocolates. Gordon’s vocals were soulful and as thought-provoking as the lyrics (“My only sin is in my skin/ What did I do to be so black and blue?”) took on a profoundly new meaning in these times of racial tension between police and African-American communities and public protests in places like Seattle, Charlotte, North Carolina, and El Cajon, California.

Christopher’s clarinet was prominently featured on a rousing “Swing That Music” as he nonchalantly dropped in quotes from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and Louis Jordan’s “I Want Your To Be My Baby” before Gordon jumped in with a raucous Kid Oryesque tailgate trombone solo on this 1936 Armstrong original.

Gordon, whose gravelly-voiced singing somewhat resembles Satchmo’s, added his own homage in “Hello Pops” and closed his set with an upbeat “When You’re Smiling,” a Tin Pan Alley tune that Armstrong first recorded in 1929.

On the festival’s eye-catching third stage (an authentic 1930s railroad car set up in the hallway outside The Heath) two members of the Xylofolks performed in fuzzy animal costumes on upright bass and xylophone while curious patrons in period costumes looked on with delight.

Back up on the rooftop Gallow Green, Western Swing group Brain Cloud, led by mandolinist-clarinetist Dennis Lichtman and featuring vocalist Tamar Korn, summoned up the spirit of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys on the instrumental “Almost To Tulsa” and “Brain Cloudy Blues.” The band also offered the 1939 jazz standard “Comes Love,” done up Western Swing style with tight unisons between guitarist Skip Krevens and lap steel player Raphael McGregor.

Next up at Gallow Green was the stellar trio of guitarists Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo with bassist Nicki Parrott. Together they ran through burning Django-inspired renditions of “Cheek To Cheek” and “Memories Of You,” then settled into a mellow “September Song” and a buoyantly swinging “The Best Things In Life Are Free.”

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November 2018
Stefon Harris
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