Into the Fire: Winter Jazzfest 2010
New York, New York
January 8-9, 2010
Fast-forward 30 years from the days in the late 1970s and early '80s when the world-weary wisdom that jazz wasn't a living force anymore was whispered to usmaybe you are getting out of jail, maybe waking from a cryogenic sleep. Before this happened, Mingus had just died, and Miles was out of commission. Now, out free in the world again, you soak up what's new. And it is newnot only still around, but still evolving like any living species.
Let's analyze this species as it deployed itself on a sub-freezing weekend in January. The first thing noticeable as we step into Le Poisson Rouge, the flagship venue of Winter Jazzfest New York 2010, is the abundance of human bodies surrounding the underground stage. No, audiences have not diminished. What's more, everyone's getting into the music, even in the standing-room-only conditions.
This was all for the opening actFriday January 8, at 6:20 pmDarcy James Argue's Secret Society, a colossal ensemble that applied its pastel tones to the backdrop of a slowly shifting rock guitar ostinato. Sebastian Noelle was the guitarist, and it was the edge he gave the band that saved it as it veered at times toward blandness. Credit goes to drummer Jon Wikan, too, for his sparse punctuation, which was almost minimalist but came hard on the downbeat at just the right climactic moments.
Two or three things become apparent to the recently freed "incarcerate." First, jazz doesn't swing as hard as a rule. It can get bland. On the positive side, rigid hierarchies are being dismantled. Drums, for example, aren't just there to provide propulsion anymore, they give nuance and texture and stay in conversation with the horns.
The direction this so-called fusion has taken is the most intriguing part. In the '70s, the players in this genre sought to blend jazz and rock in a melting pot to give us a new, homogeneous product. Today's artists, as evidenced by this weekend, take a different route. Strands of bop alternate with a dose of hard rock, then a Latin or Arabic tinge is rounded off, maybe, with some classic swing.
Such eclecticism is not new in itself. What is an advance, is this simultaneous deployment, where one instrument will adopt one style and others, a complementary or contrasting one. This goes hand in hand with the new, more democratic musicianly regime: everyone has a unique role to play. Ellington once said that jazz bands create "utopias." As with all utopias, I would add, some are more equal than others. More to the point, some performances are more memorable than others. What follows are some memories of what struck me most in Winter Jazzfest.
Briggan Krauss' Trio Coordinate, New Bump Quartet
Briggan Krauss led an all-star trio on sax with Kenny Wollesen on drums and Skulli Sverisson on bass. Krauss had a remarkable ability to bring his playing to a near boil then simmer down and pass the pot to Sverisson or Wollasen, who would likewise hint at high-energy stylistics without spilling over the brim. Even more remarkable was the intuitive communication among the artists. Bass, for example, would pick up what sax was doing, take the pattern, translating itreweave it into a new filigree. Or Krauss would take the chords Sverisson was playing on bass and turn them into arpeggios on his sax. Krauss inspired with a tonal mastery that ranges from the liquidity of Jimmy Giuffre to the holy drama of Albert Ayler, styles Krauss deployed in carefully calibrated increments throughout the show.
Later in the evening, drummer Bobby Previte was bound to impress. What some may not have anticipated was the verve and vibrancy of his vibraphonist, Bill Ware. The two other members of the New Bump Quartet, tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin and bassist Brad Jones, were also excellent. But Ware gave us a new kind of music. Employing electronics and distortion pedals, he never let these rule, yet he was able to give a micro symphony, all the while staying under Previte's eye and incorporating the input of Eskelin and Jones.
Marcus Strickland is a disciplined Coltranist with shades of Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson. In the outfit he starred in, the Metta Quintet, he traded fine lines with altoist Mark Gross. In the heads, the pair often played one beat ahead or behind the other. Strickland lives up to the hype bestowed on him. Not just another flashy showman, he shows great restraint and taste, never getting in the way of others and spitting out licks with hard, biting intensity.