Winter Jazz Festival Marathon Musings
My 2017 Winter Jazz Festival Marathon began and ended with arguments.
No, they weren’t stylistic or about the nature of social awareness (one of the WJF 2017 themes) and music. The disagreement was more fundamental. It was 9:30 on Friday night and I’d just finished a workday that featured four hours of journalism followed by eight more of retail. My bones and muscles insisted that home, a ten minute walk, was the only option. My ears were just as adamant, the New School buildings, an epicenter for the Marathon, were also a ten minute walk away.
The ears won and off I went toward the New School, where in one venue I heard a program of Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone ably performed. It was motivation to go further west where Mike Reed, a great Chicago based drummer was presenting his Flesh and Bone. There was a poet and wild and cool declamations but the highlight was hearing Reed’s sextet. His sound is a counterfactual. What if the scenes that produced soul greats Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield and bluesy jazz giants Johnny Griffin and Clifford Jordan and the AACM, the musical collective that has nurtured dozens of contemporary music’s leading lights intermingled more than balkanized. As with Reed’s group, People Places and Things, the results with Flesh and Bone are tantalizing. It was telling that many Chicago journalists in town for other events stopped by to hear the hometown hero. Even in a marathon taking place in nearly a dozen venues with more than 100 acts, there couldn’t have been much better going on.
Saturday, with only about six hours of journalism on my shoulders, I was more energetic, though still centered around the New School campus, and for six hours I bounced eagerly between three buildings. The highlights began right away with the quartet of Michael Formanek, Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerlad Cleaver recreating their magic from their ECM recordings of a few years ago. The magic increased with John Herbert’s Rambling Confessions, which featured Jen Shyu tearing up “Alfie” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and making those classics hers. I could have listened to them all night but my friends were eager to run upstairs and catch what we could of the Mary Halvorson Octet. The theater was packed but the organizers left the door cracked and from outside I could hear the complex rhythms and nimble harmonies meld into a charged, intense beauty. One of my pals wanted a dose of something more straight ahead so three minutes later we were in the 12th St. Auditorium watching drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. lead a rip roaring band through tunes like Eric Dolphy’s “Iron Man.” My pals decided that venues on the southern edge of Greemwich Village might satiate their sudden desire for energetic eclecticism. I stayed in the New School area to investigate Adam O’Farrill and he happily lived up to the hype with a quartet named Stranger Days that deftly navigated its way through repertoire by Kenny Dorham and some knotty originals.
There are many moments during WJF where one yearns for the science fiction power to replicate yourself temporarily so that you can be in two places at once. That wish was powerful as 11:00 approached, I was sitting in the Glass Box Theater utterly mesmerized by Ben Allison’s Think Free, a group that was turning minor key blues into finely textured musical weaves with pianist Frank Kimbrough zigzagging through the fabric. My ears wanted to stay. But my ears also wanted to go upstairs to hear another bassist, Chris Lightcap and his group Superette. I went (one of Lightcap’s other group, Bigmouth is one of my favorites), and it was quite the contrast. Lightcap’s group, two guitarist s and a drummer wailed. Someone needs to double bill them with Jenny Scheinman’s aptly named Mischief and Mayhem. Post millennial rocking jazz rock usually has a foreign accent; Lightcap’s group had a powerful twang.
My WJF marathon ended nicely where it had started 27 hours before, in Tishman Auditorium, this time for Nik Bartsch Mobile, a quartet that trafficked in sublime, gently wrought textures and rhythmic lines. It was as if Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians had been written for a European jazz quartet with a pianist, bass clarinetist and two drummers. My ears were eager to trek east for Brandee Younger, but by then I wasn’t only tired but I was hungry so my body won that argument.
For all of that music wonder, the real highlight of the marathon took place outside a concert hall. After Halvorson, I encountered a high school teacher from Long Island with a diverse dozen or so of his students. He told us that he brings a crew to WJF every year; meanwhile his students enthusaistically debated which venue would be next. It was heartening to see the artistry and ambition presented on stage matched by someone in audience development. I had a bunch of hip teachers in high school, but that dude was in a completely different league. I almost envied the students.