Now an annual tradition in its 12th year, the NYC Winter Jazz Fest rallies with progressive programming, overseen by producers Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz, who set the festival apart by keeping its focus and music modern and forward looking while giving its audience a quintessential New York jazz experience — it’s easily the coolest, hippest and most authentic music fest out there. You have to hoof it to a dozen venues surrounding Washington Square Park to catch as many gigs as you can starting at 6 pm and continuing until early morning.
Expertly curated to appeal to tastes across the jazz spectrum, I darted here and there and left most performances happy and satisfied. These were a few of my favorite experiences.
1. Jazz Legends Concert for Disability Pride — Quaker Friends Meeting Hall
The Meetinghouse served as swing-central for a traditionally-minded but exuberant three hours of music led by top-tier talent. Concert organizer and pianist Mike LeDonne kicked off with “On Green Dolphin Street.” A rare and intimate set by Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Joe Farnsworth and pianist Dan Nimmer sparkled from the trumpeter’s easy charisma on a smooth, laid back version of “Embraceable You.” From Bill Charlap’s trio and sets from Monty Alexander and Harold Mabern to saxophonist Vincent Herring, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and tenor titan Joe Lovano, filling in for an ailing Benny Golson, this mini festival flowed straight-ahead post-bop and quick cast changes. There was a time constraint — the hall had to be emptied and convert to a homeless shelter at 9:30 pm — but LeDonne pushed for the finale. Legendary saxophonist George Coleman, his body feeble and eyesight weakened, was led to and sat on the edge of the stage while his band set up. The lighting guy flashed a spotlight on him as Coleman picked up his horn to play a solo rendition of “But Beautiful.” His sonorous tone was majestic and hushed the room, and in that unexpected, improvised moment, the darkened hall felt alive with a magic realism.
2. ECM @ Winter Jazz Fest —The New School’s Tishman Auditorium
For more than 40 years, the ECM label has fashioned a brand and identifiable sound as vivid and recognizable than any label other than Blue Note of the 50s and 60s. Under the direction of founder and producer Manfred Eicher, the European label’s more recent artist signings have a distinctively American flair — saxophonists Chris Potter, Mark Turner and trumpeter Ralph Alessi are among those representing the current vanguard.
In the state-of-the-art Tishman Auditorium, more than 800 WJF attendees filled seats for two evenings of hour-long sets by fourteen of ECM’s artists and musicians. Out of those, the Mark Turner Quartet, with trumpeter Avishai Cohen, bassist Joe Martin and drummer Marcus Gilmore, dazzled with a fresh and contemporary set list, playing new tunes and tracks off his current album, Lathe Of Heaven. Spirited improvisers all, the group benefitted from a superlative sound mix so you could easily follow precise, individual lines, themes and solos. Gilmore, the grandson of Roy Haynes, is preternatural in his agility and creativity, careening through imaginative time signatures, underscoring the band with dramatic yet subtle rhythms. The tunes remained at once, exploratory, cohesive and gleefully thrilling.
Pianist Craig Taborn delivered an improvised solo that began with a series of delicate measures and evolved into a sequence of sturdy percussive motifs. Taborn was a driver of ideas and his masterful set twisted and swerved before ending in chordal fireworks.
3. Jose James / GoGo Penguin — Le Poisson Rouge
Blue Note Records hosted singer/songwriter Jose James at LPR on Bleecker Street with James trying out new tunes and firing up the sold out crowd with soul-stirring faves. The set was all about the message — the band launched into a cover of Dead Prez’s “Police State,” a pitched protest song with a seething, provocative rap verse. James was at his best in this setting, which was confirmed from the adoring, vocal sold-out crowd. Coming off his smoky, after-hours Billie Holiday tribute record, this electrifying version of James was a welcome return to form. The gig wrapped with GoGo Penguin, a youthful British outfit about to release their first US record, an electrifying trio that fuses The Bad Plus, E.S.T. and Radiohead as the leaping off point for modern jazz tunes with big beats, buzzing bass lines and percussive, deeply rhythmic piano excursions.
4. Kris Bowers — Judson Church
Pianist Kris Bowers, who had a strong debut on Concord Records a couple of years ago, has worked with Kanye West and Jay Z, just scored the soundtrack to a new documentary on Norman Lear and has recorded with Jose James and various hip artists. The cacophonous set he brought to Judson Church was a rapid-fire, electrified presentation that mixed churning, sampled keyboards over live bass and drums with a music-triggered video screen display. It wasn’t perfect — the space is grand and acoustically appropriate, and the techs did their best to keep up with the electronics and video requirements. Dodgy or not, listening to Bowers you knew you were watching a trendsetter in action.
5. Dave King with Adam Schatz — The New School Fifth Floor Theater
Perhaps my favorite moment was the smallest event — an interview by NY musician Adam Schatz with The Bad Plus and Happy Apple drummer Dave King. A natural raconteur and storyteller, King was utterly uninhibited and candid about his musical career. In a small music room with a dozen of us gathered, King combined intimate accounts about his highly successful YouTube channel (Rational Funk, where he lectures abut music and proselytizes about life, playing an alternate version of himself), with whimsical stories of his family, growing up in Minneapolis, Prince and Husker Du. Better than being a fly on the wall, King conversed without a filter and despite being enthralling, hilarious and entertaining, it was as fitting and musically-minded as the rest of 2016 Winter Jazz Fest.
Photo of Wynton Marsalis courtesy of Bart Babinski.