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Every year, I come away from the NYC Winter Jazzfestival galvanized. The relatively inexpensive two-day event at five clubs in the heart of Manhattan's Greenwich Village featured upward of 60 groups this year, offering sets from 6PM until sometime more than nine hours later. I joined 2,000 other jazz fans (happilymost of whom seemed college age or just after) on Saturday night to do my best to catch as much music as I could. But like other festivals, I also set aside some time to hang out with friends, business acquaintances and musicians who were also making the scene even if they weren't playing.
One of the most frustrating things about events like this is that you can't clone yourself, stationing a body at each of the clubs. It would eliminate the whole I just caught this amazing set from blah-blah with so-and-so." But, contrary to beer commercials, cloning isn't to be for some time to come. One solution to this problem is to run around like a madman taking in 10 or 15 minutes of as many sets as possible, but jazz isn't music of quick easy gratificationmore often than not, patience serves you best. This leads to another approach, where you camp out in one particular room for a series of sets. You miss a lot doing this, but what you do see you actually get enjoy as it unfolds.
This latter approach works best for some of the smaller and more popular rooms, where turnover is minimal (leaving you waiting in line in front of the club as the band wails) and good sight lines are hard to come by. This also offers you an opportunity to maybe see a few artists that didn't jump off the page when you scanned the schedule. I ended up camping out at Le Poisson Rouge, which is the biggest room of the festival, for the middle to late segment of the night.
It had been a while since I'd seen guitarist Charlie Hunter. He continues to dazzle with his seven-string guitar playing, sounding like a wicked combination of guitar, bass and Hammond B3 organ. On this night he was joined by his trio Eric Kalb on drums and Michael R. Williams on bass and horns. The band had a good groove to it and Hunter seemed to be in great spirits, smiling at his band members and chatted between songs with the audience. One highlight was when he brought out a tap dancerthis added a nice visual and visceral element to a band that was, with the exception of Williams, sitting down as they played. It also provided an element of the unexpected, which is always appreciated.
Guitarist Nels Cline's Stained Radiance followed with what was the highlight of the night for me. Here Cline (pictured above), who played his standard electric guitar, was joined by painter Norton Wisdom. This isn't the first time Cline has collaborated with non-musicianshe recently worked with poet/producer David Breskin on the album 'Dirty Baby,' which reinterpreted the 'Censor Strip' paintings of Ed Ruscha. Cline spent much of the set creating atmospherics as Wisdom painted upon a backlit piece of glass. It was quite beautiful to watch these visual images evolve along with the music in real time, but it was equally brutal for Wisdom to either take a rag and clear the image or mash the colors there into some new image every minute or two. It's weird because we are used to consuming jazz live and then savoring the memory of the set, but it was unsettling to watch Wisdom as he painted and then destroyed then painted then destroyed for the entire set. It didn't help that Cline's sound sculptures had a sort of sorrowful feel to them. The overall effect was powerful and often transcendent, if a little bittersweet.
Watch Stained Radiance From the 2011 NYC Winter Jazzfestival
Many people were talking about saxophonist Steve Coleman before his set. Coleman's album 'Harvesting Semblances and Affinities' won a lot of good notices in 2010 and his thorny approach to composition seems to find an appreciative ear among fans of post-rock bands like Tortoise as well as fans of jazz innovators along the lines of Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton and Von Freeman. The music from 'Harvesting' was on display for this set, and it sounded even better and more organic than the album. Generally, I don't like singers as sidemen, but Jen Shyu's tonal approach didn't bother me at all.
RedCred, with keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Ben Perowsky and reedist Chris Speed, followed and offered up one of the more upbeat sets of the night. The vibe was straight out of Medeski Martin & Wood, with Medeski and Perowsky locking into different grooves for Speed to solo on top of. Nothing earth-shaking, but it was nonetheless nice to have something for people to dance or bob their head to.
Another highlight happened when I bounced over to The Bitter End to catch Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar leading his band Two Rivers. ElSaffar has found a rich musical vein that draws equally from jazz and Middle Eastern music. His band reflected that, featuring a mix of standard jazz instruments as well as oud and santour. Also featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax, the band held a normally raucous festival crowd entranced with wandering modal melodies and hypnotic rhythms.
After seven strong years, it appears that the NYC Winter Jazzfestival has become a post-New Year's institution for those who live in the area or are visiting for APAP conference (which brings in arts presenters from all over the country). Despite the often inclement weather, crowds turn out to have a great time and to see new and lesser-established players. So many festival bring the biggest names to play big stages, so it's nice to see this modest but innovative event do so well.
I love jazz because anything is possible; it has few rules and the best jazz breaks those ones. I prefer free improv because it doesn't really have any rules at all.
I was first exposed to jazz in my teens (in the late sixties).
The first jazz record I bought was Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis, shortly followed by Extrapolation by John McLaughlin.
My advice to new listeners is to listen as widely as possible and not to make snap judgments--stick with it.