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Live From New York: The State of Jazz in 2015

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Dispatches from the 11th annual Winter Jazzfest, where more than 100 groups performed over three days

Hindin: The rightful home of the country’s premier jazz festival is New York City—more than tony Newport or even New Orleans, whose “Jazz & Heritage Festival” is nursing an identity crisis (this year’s headliner: Elton John)—and Winter Jazzfest is it.

It’s hard to plug a jazz festival without blushing a little. In his manifesto, “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” Nicholas Payton declared, “People are holding on to an idea that died long ago.” On the contrary, more than 100 performances last weekend, including Payton’s—the emcee who introduced him as the multi-instrumentalist, the polemic ... groped for a third descriptor until one astute crowd member assisted with bad motherfucker—spotlighted a deep bench of forward-thinking musicians unfettered by “jazz,” or really any genre at all. Call the music what you please, but every act I saw was by the end not an act so much as a white-knuckled, life-and-death reveal: This is who I am.

Graham: It used to be pretty easy to demarcate distinct phases in the music: swing and then bop, modal and then free jazz, fusion and the Young Lions. Maybe from the safe distance of 25 years, we’ll be able to distill the sound of the music in 2015, but what I heard was, as you say, a genre-busting buffet. The three best shows of the weekend I saw included a three-guitar gospel band playing A Love Supreme, a set of raucous free jazz from aging titans, and a leading light of 1980s jazz performing, well, I’m not quite sure how to describe it. Yet it all felt very clearly part of the same musical family.

Hindin: The crown jewel of the festival’s 10 venues was Judson Memorial Church, a paint-chippy place with long thin bricks and old wood worn smooth. You could hear the silence padding every note. There, I saw trumpeter Dave Douglas, playing with his quintet and polished flutters, and Ken Vandermark & Nate Wooley, whose difficult music repays those willing to surrender. And yes, those Campbell Brothers! The risk of covering Coltrane in church is an empty prayer, something lifeless and obliged. But this felt indebted, like an honest-to-John devotional. There under the rose window, the cymbals crashed and the steel strings whined, and the whole congregation was chanting: “A love supreme, a love supreme, a love supreme." Amen. (Video of a previous performance of the work is below.)

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