The Ibero-American Flavor of Winter Jazzfest


For the past 15 years, Winter Jazzfest’s signature event has been a weekend marathon spread across dozens of New York venues, with performances from early evening stretching out toward the dawn.

This year, for the first time, Winter Jazzfest extended over two weekends and held a half-marathon in Greenwich Village in six venues on the first Saturday of January, followed by the full and classic two-night marathon the following weekend. Both weekends were curated within Winter Jazzfest’s framework of exploring themes of social justice, this year’s focus being on gender equity as the festival promised to offer gender-equitable programming by 2022.

Shuttling back and forth between several venues on Bleecker Street during an unusually warm January, the half-marathon was a somewhat more manageable mad-scramble for space and sightlines than the full-marathon experience. Venues still were characteristically packed as the evening progressed.

The evening took off at The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture’s elegant auditorium with the Marta Sánchez Quintet’s polished compositions. The Spanish pianist, raised in Madrid, gently conducted the dialog between herself and Alex LoRe on alto saxophone, Jerome Sabbagh on tenor saxophone, Simon Willson on bass and Daniel Dor on drums, all of whom rendered the bandleader’s cerebral creations with space for each musician to breathe and explore. Several of the compositions, such as Sánchez’s “Danza Imposible” (the title track from her latest album) highlighted the rich, intertwining textures created by two frontline saxophones. Dor recorded on Sánchez’s two most recent albums, and the interplay between the drummer and bandleader brimmed with a rich, unhurried beauty. As an opener to the half-marathon, the concert just hinted at what was to come.

At (Le) Poisson Rouge, a packed audience was treated to Richard Bona’s “Bona De La Frontera (Bona From The Border),” a newer flamenco-imbued project, inspired by Paco de Lucía. Bona has been performing the project’s music in Europe for a few years, but the work now is finally being dispatched to American audiences. The Cameroonian bassist and vocalist has moved from his past exploration of African and Cuban rhythms to creating within the context of music drawn from Southern Spain, a tradition not unlike the flamenco music ida y vuelta that emerged from an interplay between Spanish and Afro-Latin rhythms and melodies in the new continent, and then was shuttled back across the Atlantic.

Bona’s ensemble featured a full complement of flamenco musicians, including renowned guitarist Antonio Rey, percussionist Paco Vega, the marvelous cantaora (flamenco singer) Mara Rey, violinist Thomas Potiron and the brilliant dancer Farrukk. Bona presented an enchanting musical concoction that flowed on a bed of his West African vocals and sweet bass lines, punctuated by the drama of Antonio Rey’s guitar playing, the nearly delirious footwork of Farrukk, as well as the plaintive laments of the cantaora. As the music has not been recorded, Bona titled the songs as they were played, giving them impromptu titles like “Rumba No. 1” or “Ballad No. 1.”

Later at SubCulture, where Chilean saxophonist Melissa Aldana played an intense and sophisticated post-bop set accompanied by pianist Micah Thomas, bassist Rick Rosato, vibraphonist Joel Ross and drummer Kush Abadey. During her “Elsewhere,” Aldana’s tenor and Ross’ fiery vibes lit up the room, as the bandleader amply shared the formidable skills that won her the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. As the daughter and granddaughter of jazz musicians, Aldana has bop in her blood, and her forceful playing at times evoked earlier eras, but always lucidly framed by a 21st-century perspective.

After a long break, the night at SubCulture culminated in a Cuban firestorm, a mesmerizing duet of superstars from the Cuban jazz scene: Grammy-nominated pianist Alfredo Rodríguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Both are lauded for their virtuosic performances, but each brings two uniquely rich worlds to the musical table. Rodriguez has the classical training of Havana’s renowned and rigorous conservatories; Martinez’s virtuosity emerged in the Old Havana barrio of Cayo Hueso, and was forged in the sacred drumming of Cuban Santería. Together, these two masters traded and juxtaposed riffs, laughing and delighting themselves and concertgoers in the deliciousness of their musical conversation, Martinez transitioning back and forth from traditional Cuban percussion to drum set as they moved through material from their upcoming album, Duologue, as well as some Cuban standards. Those in attendance even were treated to a jazzy moment of flamenco, when Rodriguez invited vocalist/saxophonist Antonio Lizana to accompany and sing a soaring lament.

The first weekend was true to Winter Jazzfest’s theme, with performances from artists with roots in Spain, Chile and Cuba and several women-led ensembles. And given that the festival is easily the best way of taking the pulse of the contemporary jazz and improvised music scenes, it provided evidence of a diverse, eclectic, brilliant and inclusive Ibero-American presence. DB

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January 2024
Samara Joy
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