Winter Jazzfest Gilded with Guitarists and Vocalists

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Ron Affif (left) and Mark Whitfield perform with Strings Attached at Zinc Bar as a part of Winter JazzFest

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

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.

Every Monday night at the Zinc Bar in the heart of Greenwich Village, four superbly swinging guitarists meet to showcase their respective chops, along with the art of playing together. Collectively known as Strings Attached, the core consists of veteran guitarist Jack Wilkins, longtime Zinc regular Ron Affif, Vic Juris and Mark Whitfield backed by a rhythm section. A new fifth guest guitarist is added every week. That regular Monday guitar hang, organized by promoter and longtime champion of guitar Charles Carlini, was transported to Saturday night at the Zinc with the four regular six-stringers backed by a swinging rhythm tandem of bassist Harvie S. and drummer Mike Clark. Wilkins, the presumptive leader and elder of the group at 73, was playing a Fender Telecaster, rather than his signature Benedetto jazz box—a rare sight indeed. But that didn’t prevent him from swinging in typically brilliant fashion on Kenny Dorham’s “Short Story” and Benny Golson’s “Stablemates.”

Affif, who has been playing Monday nights at Zinc since 1996, is a aggressive player and extroverted stylist who particularly thrives in uptempo settings, as he demonstrated on “Stablemates.” Whitfield, who may have injected some new-school technology into the proceedings with his wah-filter pedal, was no less swinging than his six-string colleagues. Affif and Whitfield paired off for a romp through Cole Porter’s “It’s Alright With Me” that had them throwing sparks in succession. Juris, who might be the most technically accomplished of the four, turned in a veritable master class on string skipping, false harmonics and chord melody playing on his solo rendition of “Black Orpheus.” Wilkins also explored false harmonics on his masterful rendition of the ballad “My Foolish Heart,” accompanied only by bassist S. and drummer Clark. In the tradition of Great Guitars (a ‘70s guitar ensemble featuring Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd), Strings Attached gave six-string aficionados plenty to cheer about during this Saturday night set at the Zinc Bar.

Other highlights seen on the scene: a powerful set from by flutist-composer Jamie Baum’s septet, featuring some particularly strong trumpet playing from Amir ElSaffar on new material from the group’s upcoming album Bridges on Sunnyside Records, which explores Maqam, South Asian and Jewish influences in a modern jazz setting; a thunderous, expansive set by Harriett Tubman led by bassist Melvin Gibbs with guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer JT Lewis, augmented by drummer Warren Trae Crudup III, bassist Luke Stewart and a frontline of horns consisting of alto saxophonist Darius Jones, tenor saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, trumpeter Jaimie Branch (who also fronted her own Fly Or Die quartet at NUBLU), exploring material from Ornette Coleman’s classic double quartet recording, Free Jazz; Bassist Bill Laswell lending his subharmonic dub tones, singing fretless lines and wah-inflected/echo-laden skronking to a rousing set by Peter Apfelbaum’s Sparkler, a flexible septet that morphed easily from Afrobeat-flavored jams to gnawan grooves to Zappaesque operatic flights, earthy funk, feedback squalls and King Crimson-like discipline. DB

For more from the festival, including commentary on Greg Lewis and Rez Abbasi, see our previous coverage HERE.

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