Ches Smith
  • Ches Smith

I spent last weekend in New York, where I attended the annual Winter Jazz Festival for the first time. The two-night extravaganza is a mind-melting showcase of contemporary iterations of jazz and improvised music—most of it made in New York—organized by Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz. Having attended South by Southwest for many years, I thought I would be prepared for facing six or seven acts spread out across nine stages, all of them tightly clustered in the heart of Greenwich Village. I was wrong: the bounty of music overwhelmed me.

I eventually got pretty good at soaking in sounds in Austin, moving from club to club (or at least the ones where there wasn’t a long line to get in) sampling numerous acts. I made no effort to do that in New York. I’d heard that Winter Jazz had become so crowded lately that it was almost necessary to pick the spot with the best-looking lineup and just stay there rather than risk getting stuck in a line at another venue. This year such crowding wasn’t a problem, but I did end up remaining mostly in two adjacent venues just because I was into the lineups. The best thing I caught all weekend was a superb trio led by drummer Ches Smith with pianist Craig Taborn and violist Mat Maneri, which expertly infused seductively draggy, narcotic writing with a mixture of brooding melody and rich texture. The band had sheet music, but it seemed to offer a loose road map rather than a strict score.

Sheet music was the only thing directly in front of reedist Henry Threadgill when he conducted a new ensemble called Double Up in one of the most anticipated events of the weekend, performing a new extended piece in honor of cornetist and “conduction” pioneer Lawrence “Butch” Morris. The stellar lineup—pianists Jason Moran and David Virelles, saxophonists Roman Filiu and Curtis MacDonald, drummer Craig Weinrib, tuba player Jose Davila, and cellist Christopher Hoffman—played rippling, churning, stylistically elusive music that carried on the spirit of Threadgill’s work with Zooid, albeit on a larger scale. The acoustics in Judson Church weren’t kind to the music, but the ideas bubbling up from the sonic cauldron were exciting—and a good source who caught a later set of the same music reported that the performance was much sharper there.

I also caught an expanded iteration of trumpeter Nate Wooley‘s drone-oriented Seven Storey Mountain, with two drummers (Chris Corsano and Ryan Sawyer), two vibists (Chris Dingman and Aaron Siegel), violin (C. Spencer Yeh), and analog synthesizer (former Chicagoan Ben Vida) that slowly unspooled lavalike waves of ultrafocused long, shimmering tones. I was also able to catch a few pieces from the a cappella new-music group Roomful of Teeth (they’ll make their Chicago debut at Ravinia’s Bennett Gordon Hall on March 29), a typically seething set from Peter Brötzmann with Chicago heavies Hamid Drake and Jason Adasiewicz, and some fully composed duets from violinist Mark Feldman and pianist Sylvie Courvoisier that sounded closer to Vienna in the 30s than New York in the current decade. I also took a break from Winter Jazz to catch a set from Metal Tongues, a promising new trio featuring three Chicago expats—Elliot Bergman (NOMO, Wild Belle) with Vida, again on analog synth, and drummer Chad Taylor.

On Sunday night I attended Globalfest, which offers the same kind of smorgasbord for world music on three stages in the giant Webster Hall. All of these events are organized to coincide with the annual APAP conference—an industry gathering of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, in which presenters, curators, and programmers talk shop and check out artists who want to be booked or hired by them. Naturally, most of the artists have commerce in mind and have sharpened their act to broaden their appeal, which means the showbiz hokum of the Australian group Bombay Royale—with its jacked-up take on Bollywood brass music—was gag inducing. While the great Romanian brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia has honed its stage show over the years and settled into a somewhat predictable consistency, they still killed it, delivering some the most energetic and fun music I heard all weekend. I also enjoyed the buzzing Mauritanian chants of Noura Mint Seymali and the Caribbean grooves of Kuenta i Tambu (a Dutch group with roots in Curaçao), while Wu-Force—a promising new trio featuring banjo explorer (and Evanston native) Abigail Washburn, Chinese guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei, and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch—either hadn’t gelled yet or hadn’t figured out what it was trying to do, although I’m betting it will with some time.

Today’s playlist:

Staff Benda Bilili, Bouger le Monde (Crammed Discs)
The Ravens, Their Complete National Recordings 1947-1950 (Savoy Jazz)
Various artists, The Soul of Money Records Volume 2 (Kent)
Lage Lund Four, Live at Smalls (Smalls Live)
The Jam, In the City (Polydor)

Peter Margasak writes about jazz every Friday.