Immediacy Meets Intensity at NYC Winter Jazzfest

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Mary Halvorson expanded her hollowbody guitar to match her imaginative foot-pedal-assisted forays at this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest.

(Photo: Melanie Mor)

Crisscrossing dozens of venues, in multiple New York neighborhoods, presenting smart lineups and thoughtful creative events, this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest was an overwhelming success. Musicians both known and unknown, playing challenging music in unique configurations, gave this year’s fest, held Jan. 10–18, a feeling of immediacy and intensity, a splintering of old ways in service to fresh ideas and bold imaginings.

Qualifier: If you expected standards played by a familiar quintet lineup polishing their best Mobley-Flanagan-Pass-Chambers-Taylor spang-a-lang swing-fest, you’d be woefully disappointed. But if your senses were open, your ears keen and your willingness to move engaged, joy would be yours.

The scope of this year’s event was inspiring, entertaining and hopeful. Shows were remarkably positive, giving audiences more than their money’s worth, perhaps more than they hoped for, more than past years’ WJFs would have predicted.

While 2024 WJF offered more single performances than any one reporter could cover, including big names (Joe Lovano, David Murray, Shabaka Hutchings), big tributes (Ryuchi Sakamoto, Curtis Fowlkes, J Dilla) and “Jazz Talks” including “The Art of Being a Multi-Hyphenate” and “The Universality of Jazz,” I stuck to lesser-knowns and what-ifs. The Manhattan and Brooklyn Marathon Nights and a trip to the revived Crown Hill Theatre in Crown Heights Brooklyn dominated.

Williamsburg’s Superior Ingredients stretched the envelope starting with the duo of guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, the former expanding her hollowbody Johnny Smith model Guild guitar to match her brain-altering, imaginative foot-pedal-assisted forays, the latter matching her inventiveness with full set shuddering. What began as dissembled and clinical culminated in beautiful dual waves of rhythm and melody.

Drummer Mark Guiliana followed with a solo set at Superior Ingredients. Beginning on jazz kit, Guiliana moved to playing various floor-mounted bells, cymbals and electronics, providing sparse piano accompaniment to a recording of broadcaster Vin Scully, then a full-on Bonham-meets-Squarepusher drum assault to projected video complement. An audience participation segment led to a full-set Guiliana crescendo. Next, quirky and illuminating, saxophonist Matana Roberts delivered a beautiful solo set on soprano, interspersed with thoughtful spoken word observations (“We don’t deserve dogs”).

One night, I barely made it to Le Poisson Rouge (formerly the Village Gate) on Bleecker Street in time to catch a sparkling set by harpist Brandee Younger (with bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard), trailed by an inspired, surprising performance from pianist/vocalist Samora Pinderhughes. The pianist’s 10-voice choir took the subterranean crowd to church with gospel invocations and impassioned spiritual pleadings — Donny Hathaway meets The Edwin Hawkins Singers.

At City Winery, found on West Side Highway and 11th Avenue, the first truly revelatory WJF performance (for this reporter) was delivered by saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins and his profoundly shapeshifting octet (including a chef stirring an aromatic stew centerstage). Vocalists Alyssa McDoom and Ganavya Doraiswamy, with Wilkins, were the music’s stars, with support from pianist Micah Thomas and drummer Kweku Sumbrey. Wilkins’ spellbinding set wove intense improvisations like a single organism, propelled by Doraiswamy and McDoom’s remarkable vocal incantations, which elevated the music to other galaxies, other dimensions. After the music ceased and the crowd roared its approval, Wilkins seemed surprised. The promise of ’60s spiritual jazz was delivered whole, mighty and new.

Nublu and RadioNublu, in Manhattan’s East Village, offered jazz, sorta-jazz and definitely-not-jazz for WJF, six nights total. One evening I caught an early set by Mozambique vocal/bassist Natalie Greffel before stumbling six blocks in the snow to hear Pedro Martins & Friends at Radionublu. Playing guitar like a reincarnated Allan Holdsworth, supported by an agile quartet including fiery drummer Justin Brown, Martins created a beautiful, kinetic rendition of Joe Zawinul’s “Young And Fine” (from Weather Report’s 1978 album Mr. Gone) before soaring through the stratosphere with original material. These guys played contemporary jazz-with-beats free of cliche, rife with inventiveness and tremendous skill. Though the club was cramped and primitive, Pedro Martins & Friends soared on a freakishly joyous, higher plane.

Two nights later, I returned to Nublu to hear keyboardist BIGYUKI as he and his trio of guitarist Randy Runyon and heroic drummer Charles Haynes threw down salty chunks of slippery funk rock, created from shards of ’90s block-rocking electronic beats, anthemic guitar solos and Haynes’ slam-your-head drumming majesty. BIGYUKI alternately punished and romanced his Korg keyboard stack, recalling ’80s funk trio Cameo one second, Mahavishnu-worthy Jan Hammer the next.

On Sunday, I took a train to Crown Heights. There, the circa-1900, multipurpose Crown Hill Theatre, formerly The Black Lady Theatre, a hub of ’80s/’90s Afro-Centrism, presented “A Night At The East.” This performance drew on jazz past/spiritual future, an announcer introducing the 12-piece ensemble, noting that “all of the performers here represent the spirit of the East, each and every one of them.” The rhythm section of drummer Billy Hart, bassist Luke Stewart, keyboardist Julius Rodriquez and percussionist Kweku Sumbrey churned a swelling backdrop. Saxophonists David Murray and Gary Bartz joined with reedsmiths Nicole Mitchell and Shabaka Hutchings, weaving call-and-response lines, ascending like birds.

Over a 25-minute performance, prefaced by a free-ish trumpet-and-drums duo, the ensemble followed the natural sound-course of spiritual praise, the music rising and falling in intensity. Bartz enunciated freely over Hart’s pulsing groove, his solo ending with “A Love Supreme” refrains. Murray followed, extolling muscularity, mounting quavers, plunging tenor squalls. After the storm briefly settled, Hart kicked anew, leading to crescendos of melodious shouts and cries, abetted by vocal commentary from Moor Mother and Elucid, scalding trumpet and violin from Ahmed Abdullah and Charles Burnham, respectively. Murray, Bartz and Hart owned the night, forging new alliances from 55-year-old roots.

Stoked on plantains and beer, I returned to Nublu. As one act finished, a crowd poured in to hear singer/songwriter Genevieve Artadi. The tiny artist sang queasy melodies over manic-grooved pop, driven hard by drummer Louis Cole, keyboardist Isis Giraldo and Pedro Martins on guitar. Artadi’s hyper-robo sounds reminded me of ’70s new wave act Missing Persons, amped up on steroids and a fiendish click track. The crowd loved it, brows bouncing, feet squiggling. Jazz-not, future hits, yes. DB



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