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Dan Ouellette’s Jazz Notes: A Reflection on This Year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest

January 12, 2014

The black-and-white logo for the NYC Winter Jazzfest on the wall to the left of the stage at Subculture says it all: an iceberg, with its relatively small black tip above the waterline and in stripes below the immense underwater reach of the mammoth mountain at sea. The festival, celebrating its eleventh year January 8-10, traces its genesis to making visible the immense jazz depth that largely goes unseen and too often exists on the fringe in a variety of micro clubs and obscure performance spaces across the city. WJF exists as a celebration of the underworld—the young upstarts exercising their creatively in new voices of improvisation as well as the restless veterans searching for new vistas of expression.

Ultimately WJF triumphs as a showcase of the vitality of jazz, displaying the underexposed and thus underappreciated. It’s not only a rich experience for the multitude of presenters attending the annual Arts Presenters Conference (in many cases scouting the talent previously unknown to them for potential gigs at this summer’s festivals), but also a feast for this year’s 6,500 attendees over the course of three days of nearly nonstop music. The walk-ups to the shows knew something tasty was brewing—and so they took the chance to see something new or settled into following up with their tried-and-true musicians. Looking forward to 2016, WJF can only become bigger and more important to flaming the fire beneath the up-and-comers keeping improvised music alive and well while requiring a willingness in the burgeoning jazz crowd to accept new perspectives.

At this year’s fest, there’s no way to fully grasp what took place. It’s a daunting task to take on the overwhelming amount of music presented. I have a jazz journalist friend in California who for over the past 30 years-plus of attending the Monterey Jazz Festival proudly boasts that each year he sees every act performing, if only for a song or two, at the event’s six stages. He puts on the mileage walking fast from venue to venue, and if truth must be told, he certainly misses out on some high points after he’s left the house to visit another. I doubt if he would commit to such a plan at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Holland, which during its three-day festival in July keeps the music hopping simultaneously in some 12-15 venues. With this said, I became very selective in what I wanted to see and even took in a few surprises—and one disappointment—at WJF on Friday, Jan. 9.

I’ve been a fan of what bandleader/pianist Arturo O’Farrill has been doing with his Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra that performs weekly on Sunday night at Birdland. Actually, I first met Arturo as an aspiring pianist when I interviewed his legendary father Chico O’Farrill in their home in the late ‘90s for a DownBeat feature. The Cuban composer, arranger and conductor, Chico was one of the most important figures in the sophisticated and sizzling birth of Afro-Cuban music and in his later years held forth at Birdland with his big band that included Arturo. After Chico died in 2001, Arturo took over leadership and has keep the spirit of his father alive. In a conversation a few years ago, Arturo, who has risen to be a leader in the Latin jazz community, told me, “We’re going beyond the mambo/Cubop stereotype, which is only a small slice of Latin jazz. Art is not static, and there are many worlds of Latin jazz such as cumbia, bomba and plena to explore.” Like father like son, as Arturo’s son Adam finished as a runner-up in last year’s Thelonious Monk Award competition for trumpeters.

So, I was driven to hear Arturo O’Farrill’s “Boss Level” Septet at Subculture—one of the best rooms for jazz in the city with a comfortable seating arrangement and terrific sight lines and sound—and was pleasantly surprised by the band’s forward-looking music, which was influenced by Latin jazz but also was experimental in its outlook, thanks to Adam’s compositional authority and other son Zack’s drumming propulsion. The music at turns was angular and energetic and quiet-to-explosive in a more rock-styled way, thanks to the soft-toned but spirited guitarist Travis Reuter who engaged in frequent instrumental conversations with Adam and saxophonist Livio Almeida. At times the horns played dissonant harmonies, and the fleet-fingered Arturo played dazzlingly on the keys. Toward the end Arturo announced that the band was going to play some Caribbean Latin jazz, even though he jokingly noted that he wasn’t sure how it would be voiced given that only four of the band members were Latino. The flame was ignited by the drumming duo of Zack with his high-hat rhythms and conguero Carlos Maldanado dynamically driving the tune. The septet ended with what Arturo said was a piece son Adam had written that was “a little confusing.” He added, “People like to put categories on music, but Adam hasn’t learned this yet. This song has New Orleans, hip-hop and even polka march parts.” The tune, named “Industrialistic,” represented the new front of Latin jazz, without a linear movement but full of stylistic pockets and modulating tempos. The piece ended abruptly and unpredictably with a dissonant trumpet-saxophonist period. Impressive new-generation Latin.

I walked the four long blocks to Le Poisson Rouge (walking beneath the hardly noticed sign attached to the building noting that the block used to be home to the heralded Village Gate jazz club where LPR now stands) to catch the last couple of tunes from the exuberant and funky Donald Byrd Acoustic Electric Sessions. This was a surprise, given that I wanted early entrance to the space to enjoy the rare appearance of the Netherland’s top-notch ICP Orchestra, founded by pianist Misha Mengelberg (unable to make the trip because of his health) and drummer Han Bennink. The Byrd tribute, celebrating the late trumpeter’s straight-up to funkified music, climaxed with the 1975 neo-soul number, “Change (Makes You Want to Hustle),” from his 1975 Places and Spaces album on Blue Note. The revved up septet featured top-tier alto saxophonist Donald Harrison and keyboardist Kevin Toney.

Avoiding the potential of a long line for Amsterdam-based ICP show, I stayed put at LPR and witnessed a miraculous 15-minute stage turnaround of instruments between acts, especially impressive given that the orchestra comprises ten players. The ensemble’s set was worth the wait. The band opened with cellist Tristan Honsinger’s animated composition “Arc-Eo” that was a wonderful and humorous jumble of spoken word, beeping horns, fevered fiddling, tumbling piano (played by Mengelberg substitute, the terrific Uri Caine), stop-and-start action. It delivered the perfect intro to ICP’s fractured, off-kilter approach to composition, arrangement and performance navigated in intuition. After another lopsided tune (a broken-down jalopy vibe), the band launched into the highlight of its set, Mengelberg’s eight-part extravaganza, “K Pieces,” where the players moved from scratchy high-velocity speed into shades of string quartet (with bowed violin, cello and bass) followed by a straight-up jazz swing that devolved (or perhaps, better said, evolved) into a dissonance featuring runaway horns and Honsinger’s comic voicings and growls. At heart, a sense of humor with a band of improvisational renegades playing classic avant music that challenges the notion of modern jazz.

I hiked back to Subculture to take in something completely different: pianist Taylor Eigsti’s excellent Free Agency project that features collective interpretations of originals by him as well as his trio of vocalists Becca Stevens, Gretchen Parlato and Alan Hampton. Smart songs, brilliantly rendered (Stevens is one of my favorite vocalists these days) and inspired interplay among the five instrumental players. My next stop was to Zinc Bar to catch rising-star and seemingly omnipresent Allan Harris who was celebrating the release of his new album, Black Bar Jukebox, due to drop January 20. I wanted to get a live preview, but the Zinc space—a long, narrow-as-a-brownstone-building apartment (trust me, I know the dimensions because I live in one in Harlem)—was packed in the sitting room, and I had to watch from a distance next to the bar and try to listen through the chatter. The sound may have been fine in the intimate space up front, but it was nonexistent in back. I called it a night and missed Harris’s set, one of many choice shows at WJF that I didn’t get immersed into. You pay your money and you take your chance. Still, being New York, many of the acts I missed will hopefully be playing around the city in the coming year.


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