Last weekend I stumbled around Manhattan trying to take in the bonanza of the annual Winter Jazzfest. The event has expanded from two days to six, but its heart remains a two-night marathon spanning Friday and Saturday. This year more than 150 first-rate groups performed downtown at more than a dozen venues. Winter Jazzfest takes place during the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, where curators and programmers talk shop and check out artists who want the organization’s members to book or hire them. This can make the Winter Jazzfest function something like a bazaar, where browsing is encouraged—sets are sometimes disrupted by crowds entering or exiting during the music. On the plus side, though, there are few other opportunities anywhere in the world to hear so many groups in such a short time.
I generally hunkered down in one of three venues in the New School, though two of the best sets I caught happened elsewhere. I ended my night on Friday, January 6, at Subculture, where I watched remarkable tenor saxophone quartet Battle Trance play their second album, Blade of Love (New Amsterdam/NNA Tapes). Led by Travis Laplante and featuring Jeremy Viner, Matt Nelson, and Patrick Breiner, the group has internalized Laplante’s fully notated concert-length works, which unfold like thrilling journeys that travel through spiky counterpoint, extended techniques, hair-raising firepower, and meditative serenity.
Ideally, Battle Trance play without microphones or amplification, and their music is best experienced in an intimate space that can foreground the natural overtones of the horns and the low-volume effects of the players use, including vocalizing through the saxophones and whistling into their mouthpieces. At Subculture, the bustle and murmur of the crowd competed with the beauty and power of the music but couldn’t diminish it.
I ended Saturday night with a very different set from Marc Ribot‘s raucous Young Philadelphians at SOBs. The guitarist’s group features electric bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston, Philly natives who were key members of Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time as teenagers in the mid-70s. The band also earn their name with their repertoire, which consists of material adapted from or influenced by the Gamble-Huff productions at Philly International Records—classic soul records by the likes of MFSB, Trammps, and Peoples Choice (as well as non-Philly folks such as the Ohio Players and Van McCoy). The lineup also features guitarist Mary Halvorson and a three-piece string section, which plays the distinctive and vital arrangements that distinguished that strain of dance-oriented soul in the 70s.
Ribot is hardly a singer, and his squawked lyrics seem to be his way of guaranteeing that this searing combo doesn’t sound like a nostalgia act. Even without his vocals, though, nobody could reasonably make that assumption—the Young Philadelphians play with walloping drive, searing tonal fury, and nonstop rhythmic intensity. Their set was far and away the most fun I had all weekend. Below you can check out the group’s version of “Love Rollercoaster,” from the 2016 album Live in Tokyo (Yellowbird).
The set that felt most special was on Friday night, by the duo of tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Cyrille, who turned 77 in November, is one of the most important figures in modern jazz history—he’s played in a groundbreaking group with pianist Cecil Taylor, worked extensively with the likes David S. Ware, David Murray, and James Newton, and demonstrated sustained late-career vitality in Trio 3 with reedist Oliver Lake and bassist Reggie Workman. This past year he released a great quartet album for ECM, and his set with McHenry allowed his stunning touch, tonal precision, and melodic sensibility to emerge with even greater clarity. McHenry himself is criminally overlooked—he tends to work in relatively straight-ahead contexts, and has formed important relationships with brilliant drummer Paul Motian and trumpeter John McNeil. McHenry and Cyrille released a terrific album in 2016 called Proximity (Sunnyside), and the set drew heavily upon it.
The intimacy between McHenry and Cyrille was striking, even in a space as large as the 700-capacity Tishman Auditorium at the New School. Both players operated with sophisticated simplicity, foregrounding subtle interactions rather than grandstanding or hollow intensity. On the piece “Fabula,” written by Chicago percussionist Don Moye, their connection suggests the easygoing rapport between Sonny Rollins and Shelly Manne on the classic “I’m an Old Cowhand.” Cyrille’s adaptation of the Leadbelly song “Green Corn” (titled “Drum Song for Leadbelly”) highlighted his refined melodic sensibility, as he teased a full kit’s variety of sounds out of the rim of his snare. On the album’s tender title track, Cyrille’s masterful brushwork was so subtle it was almost inaudible—for a while, his granular swirl almost felt like an extension of McHenry’s lyrical, gorgeously restrained, slow-moving lines. (You can listen to the studio version of the piece below.)
It’d be specious for me to make optimistic proclamations about the state of jazz based solely on the crowds that swarmed so many Winter Jazzfest events, but all weekend I saw inspiring enthusiasm from fans and musicians alike—even when snow turned Manhattan into a shitshow on Saturday night.
Rokia Traoré, Né So (Nonesuch)
Julien Desprez/Benjamin Duboc/Julien Loutelier, Tournesol (Dark Tree)
Good Willsmith, Things Our Bodies Used to Have (Umor Rex)
International Contemporary Ensemble, Aesopica: Music of Marcos Balter (Tundra/New Focus)
Ingrid Laubrock Octet, Zürich Concert (Intakt)