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Dan Ouellette’s Jazz Notes: January Is Jazz Month Marked by the Winter Jazzfest: The Best NYC Festival for Jazz in the Entire Year

Photo: ICP Orchestra, to perform Fri. Jan. 9 at Le Poisson Rouge

By Dan Ouellette.
Senior Editor Jazz
January 5, 2015

What started eleven years ago as an inspired goal of giving voice to the plethora of relatively unknown but immensely talented jazz musicians toiling in the multitude of the New York’s tiny and obscure clubs, the NYC Winter Jazzfest has become hands down the best festival for jazz in the entire year in a city where improvised music never sleeps.

Think the brutal cold and sometimes snow or freezing rain of New York in January can keep musicians and crowds off the streets and huddled under blankets at home? Think again. In fact, the highly anticipated annual fest has found a vital life in one of the darkest and bleakest months of the year. The two-night Jazzfest marathon this year officially launches on Friday, Jan. 9th and continues on Sat., Jan. 10th at eleven different venues in and around Greenwich Village. More than one hundred different groups comprising four hundred musicians take the various stages and play for broke. (Festival passes for one evening or both are available through a ticket link at winterjazzfest.com.)

Plus, on Thursday, Jan. 8, there are two additional Winterfest all-star shows that get the jazz juices flowing: the BLUE NOTE NOW! show at Le Poisson Rouge that features the legendary label’s young crowd including the Robert Glasper Trio, José James (singing Billie Holiday tunes in his soulful style), Derrick Hodge and the Kendrick Scott Oracle; and the Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride NYC benefit concert at the Quaker’s Friends Meeting House on 15 Rutherford Place featuring Brad Mehldau, Benny Golson, Harold Mabern, Ron Carter, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, Russell Malone and more (disabilitypridenyc.com).

In New York, jazz is one of the bustling city’s treasures and one of its most cherished art forms. Still, jazz can be a hard sell. In past years I’ve taken friends to shows with a variety of different responses. I’ve invited two friends at different times to see the Mingus Big Band on their weekly Monday night residency at the Jazz Standard and both were blown away by the energy and spirit. Then again, I took a friend to a show (can’t remember what group or where) who was visibly angry later for having to put up with an hour-long set of music that he didn’t understand. An old SF friend who was transplanted in England came to town and sought the J. Even though he’s a bona fide jazz fan with Dexter Gordon as his hero, I took a chance for something more adventurous: a show by Bill Frisell (one of my favorites) at Joe’s Pub that didn’t appeal to him at all. After, we took a train uptown to see an organ trio at Smoke, and he was in heaven.

All of this is to say that the Winter Jazzfest largely has something for everyone (except smooth jazz), ranging from the extraordinary Dutch ensemble ICP Orchestra that paints outside the jazz lines with glee and humor to the one of the leading stars of the Latin jazz community in New York, Arturo O’Farill with his Boss Level Septet. There are straight-ahead jazz acts to the avant garde. While the multiple stages and variety of acts can be a bit overwhelming leading to a daunting jazz experience (think the North Sea Jazz Festival in Rotterdam, Holland in July where there are over a dozen stages with music at the same time to choose from), you can either sample acts for a short spell before walking down the street to another venue or save a seat for yourself in one club for all the sets and avoid the lines outside. For a complete schedule, visit winterjazzfest.com.

Undergirding the launch of the festival was the fact that the Arts Presenters Conference (APAP), an international gathering of jazz presenters at festival and event centers, hold their annual meeting in January in New York. Expect to see “scouts” from these presenting organizations looking to book buzzed-about artists as well as exciting unknown acts. So, the rest of New York’s clubs join in the action, piggybacking onto the Winter Jazzfest’s mission by putting on shows by a variety of different acts for APAP folks to seek out.

Record labels also make their presence and rosters very visible during APAP. Prime example: Motéma, founded in 2003 in the San Francisco Bay Area, but located in Harlem since 2005. One of the label’s acts is featured at Jazzfest (Kellylee Evans at Zinc Bar on Jan. 10), but Motéma has several of its artists performing elsewhere around the city, including Dizzy’s Club, Joe’s Pub and Jazz Standard, where Omer Avital has a CD release event on Jan. 13-14. Motéma has also set up a showcase site for bands to perform on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 11 at the Harlem Suite, on the fourth floor of the Hilton Hotel where APAP members stay during the convention. Likewise artist manager Gail Boyd has a large presenting space in the Hilton in Regent Parlor on the second floor for several of her artists to perform the same day.

All of which makes New York a winter wonderland of jazz in the second weekend of January. Join in.

THREE DOT DRUM LOUNGE: On an entirely different note, jazz drumming has taken a surprising central role in two major films of 2014, Birdman and Whiplash, both of which have been nominated for SAG and Golden Globe awards…in Birdman, starring Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone and Naomi Watts, the soundtrack is almost entirely improvised drumming recorded by Grammy Award-winning Antonio Sánchez, a member of Pat Metheny’s Unity Group…Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu uses the drum-heavy backdrop to move action as well as sketch character…director Damien Chazelle uses the drum kit in Whiplash as the key setting for an aspiring drummer (Miles Teller who learned how to drum in the Buddy Rich style for the role) confronting his abusive music school instructor, played dramatically by J.K. Simmons…as these films vie for Academy Award nods, this will be the first time in jazz history where drumming dominates.


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