For each of the past ten years, dozens of bands have descended upon New York City’s Greenwich Village for Winter Jazz Fest in the usually lighter music period of post-New Year’s. For the festival’s tenth anniversary, more than 90 bands came together for the two day marathon portion of the festival over nine different stages.
My evening started by catching a piece of the Ches Smith Trio‘s set at the NYU Law building, a bizarre “venue” if one is to call it that, featuring a litany of paintings on the wall and as someone pointed out to me, felt like the NYU smoking lounge. With that being said, it made for a comfortable place to see jazz and the piano, viola and drums trio filled the room with an uncanny sense of dynamics. From there, I moved the Judson Church to catch some of Roomful of Teeth, an octet of singers, four male and four female, who collectively represent both ends of the harmonic spectrum with everything in between. After about 30 minutes of Inuit Throat Singing and everything else they were doing, it was my time to keep moving.
I then walked through the gradually crowding village to get to Groove, where I encountered my first line of the night to catch a few minutes of the Gary Bartz Quartet. In my brief time at the venue, a place in which one could see more TVs than people on stage, I saw Bartz and Co. run through a Wayne Shorter song before playing the classic, “Is That All There Is.” After being elbowed one too many times at Groove, I shuffled over to (Le) Poisson Rouge for the act I had circled as a “can’t miss” in the duo of Lionel Loueke and Jeff “Tain” Watts.
A quick aside about Loueke, as he once wrote a song entitled “Seventeen,” written in 17/4 time, which was so difficult that Herbie Hancock gave up trying to play it. In this 45 minute set, this guitar and drums duo had the versatility of a trio or a much larger group as Loueke was able to use his guitar to sound like an organ or a bass or a guitar, while Watts held down the low end. This was far and away the best set of the night, and I decided to end my evening on a high note.
For day two, I opted to see more of a smaller collection of groups as opposed to hopping around from venue to venue, though I did plenty of that as well. My evening started once again at the NYU Law building, mostly on account of the fact that it was where the badge pickup was. I caught the tail end of Endangered Blood‘s set. In the short amount of time I was there, I was deeply impressed as their drummer was one of the best I’d seen to date. From there, I walked over to the Judson Church where I caught the final few moments of Henry Threadgill‘s “Ensemble Double-Up” in honor of Lawrence Butch Morris.
After milling about for a bit, I approached the rest of the evening with a far more calculated sense of where to go. I returned to the NYU Law building for Mostly Other People Do The Killing, a high-energy seven piece band with a keen sense of distorting otherwise traditional forms of music (swing, klezmer and blues immediately come to mind).
After their 45 minute set, I got a chance to see EYEBONE, a trio featuring Wilco guitarist Nels Cline with drummer Jim Black and Teddy Klausner on piano. Their set consisted of what appeared to be totally improvised music, which took a variety of twists and turns, rarely settling into a groove; however, when the trio did hit a pocket, they made the best of it, allowing both Black and Cline to display their remarkable chops.
After about 45 minutes, in order to beat the rush even if it was just by a minute or two, I head over to (Le) Poisson Rouge for the end of Big Chief Donald Harrison & Congo Square Nation. This group of seven musicians played in front of a totally packed house, with nary an inch to spare in one of the largest venues in the marathon. After a song entitled “Sandcastle Headhunter,” a song which had a very Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock vibe to it, the band launched into a medley of New Orleans traditionals including “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way.”
After midnight, the band which got me to want to cover this event began. They go by the Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey, a group, which is now a trio including keys player and band leader Brian Haas, guitarist Chris Combs and drummer Josh Raymer. he last time I saw these guys, they were a sextet performing their album the Race Riot Suite. That performance was one of the most transcendant hours of music I have seen to date and I was eagerly anticipating this set as well, though I knew it would be drastically different. The group, celebrating their 20th anniversary, ran through a series of songs reminiscent of The Duo or Medeski, Martin and Wood. Without a bass player, it’s extremely difficult to be a groove trio; however, Haas’ left hand quelled all concerns as his proficiency of the bass keys is remarkable.
All in all, this annual event should be a mainstay of live music fans across New York, whether or not you are a jazz fan, as a remarkably wide range of artists are showcased at this phenomenal event.