Winter Jazzfest Celebrates Expansion, 10th Year in Style
Even in the incessant hustle and bustle of Manhattan, there’s little that compares to the NYC Winter Jazzfest’s musical marathon. The annual musical kaleidoscope involves multiple venues—typically staging back-to-back, 45-minute jazz acts—and a sea of spectators.
There were about 7,500 in attendance for WJF this year, which began on Jan. 7, but the heart of the fest was its weekend showcases, which drew more than 5,000 fans. On Jan. 10–11, the throng of jazz lovers moved among nine venues and caught music from 90-plus artists, all within a few blocks in Greenwich Village.
The fest has enjoyed significant growth. Last year’s event had six venues and 70-plus artists, but 2014 marked WJF’s 10th anniversary, which called for a blowout. Two nights became five. The first three featured singular events, most prominently a Town Hall gala concert for the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records on Jan 8. (For a review of that concert, click here.) Le Poisson Rouge hosted Bobby Previte’s Terminals on Jan. 7 and a WJF10 SummerStage Showcase on Jan. 9 featuring the Wallace Roney Orchestra and the Revive Big Band with Dr. Lonnie Smith and Bilal.
The wet January weather invited a single-venue campout Friday night, Jan. 10, in the elegant lounge of New York University Law School on Washington Square Street. It proved to be a microcosm of the festival, the crowd ebbing and flowing with each change of band.
The turnover could cause problems: The lounge’s first set, by saxophonist Ben Wendel’s quartet, found onlookers sitting on the floor for the surprisingly delicate music, but the throngs for Ches Smith’s trio didn’t get the memo and everyone stayed on their feet. (Not that relaxation was encouraged by the music, with Mat Maneri’s piercing, microtonal viola over Craig Taborn’s dissonant piano vamps and Smith’s dynamic drum work.) Fans sat cross-legged again for sets by trumpeter Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain, bassist Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth and clarinetist Ben Goldberg’s acclaimed Unfold Ordinary Mind ensemble. Wooley was especially riveting, his eerie trumpet expectorations were supplemented by violin, electronics, two vibraphones and two drummers.
The night ended at nearby Judson Church with shifting personnel playing improvised duets. The merger of Wooley and Maneri provided a fine moment, the trumpeter playing lovely half-valved lines and the violist echoing and embellishing them.
The next evening, Jan. 11, called for the venue-hopping approach, starting at The Bitter End for sublime performances by pianist Michele Rosewoman’s New Yor-Uba big band and Howard Johnson’s six-tuba Gravity ensemble. Then came Judson Church for what was the weekend’s most buzzed-about performance: Henry Threadgill’s Ensemble Double-Up, paying tribute to Butch Morris with Threadgill’s composition “Old Locks And Irregular Verbs.” The leader didn’t play—instead he conducted, frequently leaving that position to allow for extended improvisations. It was a cathartic two-movement piece that extended in multiple directions; as always with Threadgill, a polyrhythmic but steady groove (founded in 3/4) held together the band’s wide-ranging wayfaring. The packed house was stunned, then ecstatic, giving sustained, screaming applause.
Another captivating performance occurred later in the evening when saxophonist Donald Harrison hit the stage at Le Poisson Rouge with his Congo Square Nation band. At one point, Harrison’s band simultaneously offered bluesy guitar, jazzy piano and James Brown-flavored funk from the bassist and drummer, as well as percussion and dance from two Mardi Gras Indians. Harrison’s alto sax worked a small miracle in encompassing all those styles in one. The crowd responded with a near-hysterical pitch that forced a 15-minute encore (and a delay of the next act).
Grand as the festival was, its steady growth provokes some worry. Even within large rooms like Le Poisson Rouge, there’s an appealing intimacy to be had with WJF’s short sets and array of venues within walking distance of each other. The fest can’t get much bigger without losing that comfort and accessibility. But WJF hasn’t yet reached that tipping point. The 2014 edition combined small-scale intimacy with large-scale vision and supplied a dazzling panorama of where jazz stands at the dawn of a new year.
—Michael J. West