Just as the Montreal International Jazz Festival, widely acknowledged as one of the biggest and most comprehensive festivals in the world, grew from its initial incarnation as a couple of venues on a strip of Rue St. Denis to a sprawling campus around the city’s Place des Artes complex, so has New York’s Winter Jazzfest expanded from its initial base of a few clubs on Bleecker Street to an expansive enterprise encompassing eleven clubs from the East Village to Tribeca to a trio of spacious venues on The New School campus. Shepherded by founder-producer Brice Rosenbloom, the Winter Jazzfest has become, in its 14th year, a contender on the international scene, right up there alongside other major international jazz festivals.
Spread across eight days and encompassing more than 100 groups and 600 musicians, the 14th annual Big Apple bash included a rainbow of musical expression along with tributes to heroes (Alice Coltrane, Muhal Richard Abrams, Geri Allen) and thought-provoking panel discussions on social and racial justice, gender equality and immigrants rights.
The gifted singer and intrepid improviser Kavita Shah created a stir at Subculture in her sparse but adventurous duo set with French bassist virtuoso Francois Moutin, premiering tunes from their upcoming album Interplay on Dot Time Records. Stretching and exploring standards like “You Go To My Head” and Edith Piaf’s signature “La Vie En Rose,” the two shared an uncanny chemistry, as Moutin unleashed his rich, woody tones with monstrous conviction while Shah soared freely over the barline with her phrasing. They also injected Dafnis Prieto’s rhythmically infectious “Blah Blah” with an appropriately buoyant Afro-Cuban spirit, underscored by Moutin’s rampaging bass lines. Their set was instantly elevated by the presence of special guest Sheila Jordan, an important mentor for Shah.
“I met Sheila just a few years after my father and grandparents passed away,” she told the packed house at Subculture. “She became a force in my life, a guiding light and presence that I needed.”
In classic New York story fashion, they met randomly on the subway.
Jordan, who pioneered the revealing bass-voice format in the 1950s with partner Steve Swallow, told the audience: “It’s a joy to be here on stage. I look at Kavita as my child. And to see these two young musicians doing it just breaks my heart. It’s so beautiful.”
Jordan, who was positively beaming at age 89, joined her young proteges on an interactive rendition of “Falling In Love With Love,” the opening track to her 1963 Blue Note debut, Portrait of Sheila. Sporting her trademark Buster Brown bob, a signature for more than 50 years, Jordan took great liberties with her phrasing on that Rodgers and Hart nugget while trading playful eights with Shah near the end of that tune. Jordan’s haunting take on Horace Silver’s melancholic ballad “Peace” was imbued with deep feeling and a subtle socio-politico message when she added the line: “Peace when the day is done/Peace for everyone.”
Over at The New School’s 5th Floor Theatre, improvising vocalist Fay Victor unveiled her new all-star ensemble, SoundNoiseFUNK, featuring soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome, guitarist Joe Morris and drummer Reggie Nicholson. An uncommonly empathetic band of deep listeners, Victor’s troupe of kindred spirits traveled to myriad zones in their purely improvised set. With Morris’ Derek Bailey-like splatters of pointillistic single notes, Newsome’s remarkable overtones, percussive effects and displays of circular breathing setting the tone, along with Nicholson’s sensitive and at times kinetic commentary on the proceedings, Victor was freed up to soar with impunity as she morphed from character to character like a jazz vocal version of Robin Williams during their scintillating set.
Throughout the course of this continuous stream of music, colored by dramatic shifts in events, Victor demonstrated touches of Aretha Franklin, Yoko Ono, Connie Boswell, Betty Carter and Diamond Galas while also channeling opera singers, voodoo priestesses and an Islamic sheik singing the call to prayer along the way. Her spoken word piece, “The Threat,” was potent and powerful, including the line, “My skin makes me vulnerable to slights/My skin got me in the skin I’m in,” while also calling out the hypocrisy of the Pilgrims in proclaiming, “No one else was here/the land was empty and barren.” And while Morris astounded with his staccato runs, sounding at times like a cross between Johnny Smith and James “Blood” Ulmer, and Newsome showcased his expansive vocabulary, alternately making his straight horn sound like a digeridoo, a duck call, a fuzz guitar, it was Victor’s finesse, ferocity and freestyle abandon that led the way. Watch for the upcoming debut recording on the ESP-Disk label by this extraordinary musical collective.
Guitarist Brandon Ross, who wails with distortion-laced authority in the Harriet Tubman power trio, took a much gentler approach with his For Living Lovers ensemble, featuring acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi, trumpeter Stephanie Richards and his Tubman bandmate JT Lewis on drums. Performing tunes from Immortal Obsolescence, an elegiac song cycle based on the idiosyncratic artwork of Venezuelan photographer Carolina Munoz, Ross played strictly nylon-stringed acoustic guitar and summoned up a well of emotion on darkly evocative tunes from the 10-song cycle. There was a tenderness and fragility to these pieces and an undercurrent of melancholy.
At times turbulent, stirred up by Lewis’ free drumming torrents, their set was marked by deep listening, sensitive accompaniment and potent solo contributions from Richards. And on one gently introspective offering, “Name Us Light,” with lyrics by Kip Hanrahan, Ross sang in a high, fragile voice that sounded like Prince on a somber Carla Bley composition. Bassist Takeishi is a tasteful and artful accompanist who always seems to play just the right thing for whatever circumstances he finds himself in. His musical rapport with Ross throughout this set was hand-in-glove. And Lewis, a master rhythmatist, shaped the proceedings with his deft touch on the kit with brushes and sticks, alternately swinging, grooving and creating a rolling free pulse in the tradition of Rashied Ali. This versatile crew ranged from poignant understatement to frenetic pulsations, while keeping it strictly on the acoustic tip.