Like jazz itself, Winter Jazzfest is a big, inclusive idea that finds its glory and purpose in smaller moments.

Since its founding 16 years ago, the festival has grown to be more than New York’s most buzzed-about annual jazz happening, an opportunity to catch up on what’s new in improvised music and to help predict what’s next. By planting the music in rooms that feel both comfortable and alive—and increasingly, by presenting acts that verge into electronica, indie rock and hip-hop—the event has also become an invitation to reconsider what jazz means in the 21st century.

With New York’s real estate market pushing most of the city’s ground-level creatives out of Manhattan, the festival responded this year by expanding into Brooklyn, introducing the borough’s first edition of the Winter Jazzfest Marathon, where ticket holders bounce from venue to venue in adjacent neighbourhoods. (The festival’s typical, Lower Manhattan-based marathon took place over two nights the previous weekend.)

With 20 events across 11 days and more than 150 sets in over a dozen venues, this year’s festival was more spread out than ever—geographically and stylistically. It had a lot to say about the way music gets made in New York today, how it might be listened to and where it’s headed next.

Vocalists are innovating wildly

You can’t put a container around the work that creative vocalists are doing under the loose banner of jazz today. Though a soft barrier has always existed between improvising instrumentalists and vocalists, Winter Jazzfest has served for years as a reminder that some of the boldest new work has to do with singing, storytelling and manipulations of the human voice.

Theo Bleckmann, a German-born vocalist, has spent decades deepening his ideas around historical resonance, compositional complexity and theatrical persuasiveness. Performing at Subculture during the Manhattan Marathon, he capered from a kinetic and pulsing rendition of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” into a take on “Dido’s Lament,” an English aria, using loops and reverb to a Gregorian effect until he flowed seamlessly into a spacious version of Massive Attack’s “Teardrop.”

Next door, at the Zurcher Gallery, Portuguese singer Sara Serpa sang her signature—wordless vocals, perfectly pitched—over a gossamer synth played by Dov Manski; it all blended almost too well with the pastel abstraction of a huge painting that hung behind her. (The gallery was a new addition to the festival this year, and a good one; its mix of coziness and visual life was a welcome change from the bustle of most other spots.)

And J. Hoard, a virtuoso singer with idiosyncratic tastes that lean toward pop, soul and gospel—and whose vocal gifts have more in common with, say, Peabo Bryson’s than with any jazz singer’s—moved between songs by Celine Dion, Thelonious Monk and himself. Looking (and, it’s safe to say, feeling) resplendent in a velvet jumpsuit, backed by a seven-piece band, Hoard sang balladic jazz numbers on his knees, as if worshipping or hanging out alone in his room; on more rousing pieces, he pogo-ed as he sang, sometimes launching off the stage and parading through the crowd.

Jazz is local—across the globe

Though its main mission is to proselytize for the bubbling New York scene, Winter Jazzfest has lately made solidarity with other cities a part of its identity. In 2020, that feels inevitable: To the extent that jazz is experiencing a cultural comeback, it’s largely owed to the work of local musicians and organizers, who often present their own shows and give hometown audiences something to connect with in the flesh.

That’s an old tradition in jazz, as the Jan. 12 concert at Le Poisson Rouge, “From Detroit to the World: Honoring Marcus Belgrave,” showed. More than perhaps any other city beside New York, Detroit incubated the hard-bop sound that became jazz’s trademark in the mid-20th century. Belgrave, a trumpeter who died in 2015, mentored scores of younger musicians there, and performed across the world. His wife, vocalist Joan Belgrave, organized a hero’s celebration that spanned generations, with Detroit elders like Johnny O’Neal and Sheila Jordan sharing the bill with a band of Marcus Belgrave’s protégés, including drummer Karriem Riggins and trumpeter Theo Croker.

A few nights earlier, the same stage had played host to a showcase of young, London-based talent, all of whom are starting to gain a following abroad. Sets from pianist Ashley Henry and drummer Moses Boyd were highlights, and the commonalities between them (the influence of drum-and-bass’ skittering rhythms; the proposal of a different kind of dance-driven jazz, not directly influenced by American hip-hop but instead directly tied to the British rave scene) suggested that jazz moves in collective steps, made by musicians operating in proximity.

There’s no age limit on new directions

Two of the most arresting sets of the festival came from musicians who, decades into their careers, appear to have found new trailheads. Susan Alcorn, a pedal-steel guitarist, began her career in blues and country settings before linking up with some of the New York experimental music world’s luminaries. In recent years, she has started to become one of them. But most of her work in this vein has come in the form of droning solo performances or side-musician work in other people’s bands.

That changed at the Manhattan Marathon, where Alcorn, 66, led a quintet at the Dance, a new venue in the East Village, that showed a glorious, swimming synergy right off the bat. Between Alcorn’s pedal steel, Mark Feldman’s violin and Mary Halvorson’s guitar, it was often hard to tell which instrument was creating what sound—even as each part of the equation remained distinct.

Something similar was at play in the new quartet of Nasheet Waits, 48, a drummer who only rarely steps into a leadership role. His Manhattan Marathon-opening set at an intensely crowded Zinc Bar began with a rubato rumble of group improvising, connecting the John Coltrane Quartet circa “Crescent” with a looser, more wriggling group approach à la Air.

Joined by three musicians a generation his junior or more—fleet and fluid alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, bassist Rashaan Carter and South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, whose own set later that night was a highlight for many festivalgoers—Waits built a group identity that resembled his own drum sound (aerated and unfastened, but deeply enmeshed in tradition) while drawing out the best in a crowd of younger compatriots. Few moments spoke more directly to what jazz is about, as a music and a practice.

© 2019 The New York Times


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