Review: A Jazzfest Marathon Where Voices Lead the Way to Resistance and Renewal

Posted January 17, 2018 6:59 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — The NYC Winter Jazzfest Marathon presented more than 100 sets at 11 locations across two nights last weekend. I saw more than two dozen of those. That sounds like a small fraction, but I probably should have done less.

Now in its 14th year, the festival is a broad and generous sampler of jazz’s new specialty dishes: Everyone from oft-neglected elders to rising voices gets their due. Typically, if you only hear a fragment of every set, that’s OK. You’re just there to get a taste.

But this year was different, for a few reasons. Somehow, despite the expanding attendance (nearly 9,000 visitors across two nights), there were rarely any lines outside a show. And once you were inside, the listening experiences were better; crowds appeared less put-upon and more engaged. This was the first year that it seemed like a good idea to stay where you were for a long period of time — or, at most, walk to one of the venues within a close distance. There were trade-offs: The festival these days has an outsize footprint, extending all the way from the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side to the New School on 13th Street, nearly a half-hour away on foot. At some point, you were likely to throw up your hands and accept that you were just going to miss that act you thought you had to see. But these are good problems.

If you did bounce around, you found happy resonances. Some artists presented multiple projects at different stages (something that hasn’t happened in years past), and headliners often reappeared as side musicians in other people’s bands. That’s something Winter Jazzfest does beautifully: It shows you the interwoven, recombinant flow that has always given jazz its messy social coherence, even in today’s unboxable age.

The British tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings had performed with the Comet Is Coming at Winter Jazzfest’s opening night last Wednesday (outside of the marathon, the festival features nightly concerts through Wednesday), and on Night 1 of the marathon he blasted through a set with Sons of Kemet, a quartet featuring two drummers and a tuba, played by Theon Cross. Hutchings scraped his way skyward as Cross took hold of a beat located somewhere between the Balkans and the Middle East, raising the tension as the drummers chafed against him in a stutter-step pattern.

At Nublu, the drummer Susie Ibarra played lovely, wandering music from “Perception,” her new album, accompanied by cello, violin, guitar, voice, bass, Fender Rhodes and electronics. At one point, she hunkered down and focused on the toms and cymbals, playing with alert, custodial care, hitting them with one hand and quickly muting them with the other. Later, as the cello and violin plucked bluesy, hurrying phrases — like cinematic balladry and romanticism and Ray Nance all run together — Ibarra put down her sticks and played with only her hands and feet, smacking a drumhead with her palm and thumping the kick drum.

There was so much going on in Ibarra’s set, Claudia Acuña’s voice was only one element in a humid swarm. By that point, partway into Saturday night, I was sensing a subtle theme: The role of the voice in jazz is going through a process of liberation these days. It’s tied to a lot of things — the upending of gender stereotypes; a re-engagement with social questions; a willingness to loosen up on the self-policing instinct that has hemmed in a lot of jazz activity, from the mainstream to the stylistic outskirts — and at Winter Jazzfest it delivered some welcome surprises.

At Subculture on Friday, the vocalist Kavita Shah and the bassist Francois Moutin performed selections from a new disc of duets, “Interplay.” This is one of the great underutilized instrumentations in jazz, and I’ve never heard it rendered quite like this. Shah served as the ballast, hitting notes squarely and staying comfortably buckled to a variety of swing feels (on originals, jazz standards and French pop classics), while Moutin played with a fierce, lunging intensity, jittering and thwacking and cajoling the bass. The vocalist Sara Serpa, best known for her nonverbal excursions, made words a priority on Friday night at the New School. Presenting her suite titled “Recognition,” she read an account of Queen Nzinga, a shrewd Southern African monarch who governed in the early years of colonialism. The harpist Zeena Parkins responded to Serpa’s spoken inflections with brilliant splatters of notes. Then, as the tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock wove small, asymmetrical patterns around her, Serpa started to sing, using no words but maintaining the sense of inquiry and rectitude that her reading had established.

Farther downtown, at the Bowery Ballroom, the R&B singer Nick Hakim guested with the Onyx Collective, a group of young avant-spiritualists from Brooklyn. Over Isaiah Barr’s warbling tenor saxophone and a minor, downward crawl from the bassist Walter Stinson, Hakim was whispery and coy, suggesting both innocence and fiendishness. He didn’t use words either, and his voice — with debts to Bilal, D’Angelo and Bobby McFerrin — was nothing less or more than an instrument.

One of the more startling sets of the festival was also one of the less experimental, at least on its face: The vocalist Jazzmeia Horn — an exponent of Betty Carter’s style of rugged, piqued hard-bop — drove her six band mates into a controlled frenzy. She wrung a surprising amount of life out of the Gershwin standard “Summertime” (rapping a freestyle about the manifold threats of life under President Donald Trump) before lighting into a squalling rendition of “People Make the World Go Round.”

Her horn players all have a few years on her, but as they conjured a cloud of rugged dissonance, they seemed to know who they were answering to. Soon the audience did too: Horn asked the house to rise as she sang a rousing version of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often referred to as the black national anthem, then segued sharply into “Moanin’,” Bobby Timmons’ hard-charging classic.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a festival of pluralistic breadth is also a showcase of standout straight-ahead jazz. Apart from Horn’s set, you were best served on that front at Zinc Bar, the only bona fide jazz club among the festival stages. Friday night there began with a set of bristling original tunes from the trumpeter Josh Lawrence and his band Color Theory, an all-star outfit of musicians from Philadelphia and New York, including the pianist Orrin Evans and the alto saxophonist Caleb Curtis (keep an eye out for Curtis; I’m expecting to see him leading his own band at a Winter Jazzfest soon). Saturday’s opening slot went to Gregory Lewis, playing his “The Breathe Suite,” a stirring work of political lament. Lewis began the piece’s “Eric Garner” movement by tracing out threadbare clouds on the Hammond B3; the guitarist Ron Jackson played high, melting notes as Jeremy Clemons established a molasseslike polyrhythm on the drums. Things rose, reluctantly but deliberately, to a writhing climax. The sound was like psychedelia in photographic negative — not a hallucination of life and color, but a vision of death and erasure. Spiraling upward, the sound grew almost absurd, but the feeling was totally real. By this point, every conversation in the audience had hushed.

“The Breathe Suite” was released on CD last year, but received frustratingly scant attention. It was good to see this music presented here, to a room that was full but not overcrowded, where the audience could tune in, lose track of time, and be stirred.


Additional Information:

Winter Jazzfest continues on Monday night with a tribute to the pianist Geri Allen at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium; on Tuesday at Le Poisson Rouge with a performance by Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble; and on Wednesday with a collaboration between the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the experimental rock band Deerhoof, also at Le Poisson Rouge.