New York’s annual Winter Jazzfest marathon can be a mad scramble. For two nights in freezing January, dozens of groups in every imaginable style take over various downtown venues. Sets overlap, venues span nearly the whole width of downtown Manhattan from Alphabet City to Soho, crowds can swell to capacity, and if you’re trying to see everything, you might come away vexed.
So for the event’s 15th installment, which took place this past weekend, I made peace early on with the fact that I was only going to catch a fraction of what was going down. I passed up some high-profile sets by artists I’d seen elsewhere recently (including one by justly buzzed-about drummer Makaya McCraven) as well as some (such as the all-star Beatles-tribute round robin) that simply didn’t fit into my overall fest itinerary. And that’s not even counting the many enticing events that went down during the previous week under the WJF umbrella. But I still managed to enjoy a musical feast that ranged from radically abstract to deeply swinging. Here are 10 highlights.
Anteloper’s Electroacoustic Sprawl
Trumpeter Jaimie Branch and drummer Jason Nazary put out a great record last year as Anteloper and live at S.O.B.’s on Saturday — where an MC announced them as “The Antelopers” and Branch stepped in to note that they were in fact “just one Anteloper” — their dark, sprawling electro-jazz felt all the more potent. Each player wielded an array of electronics in addition to their primary instruments, giving the duo an impressive sonic breadth. Branch might play a stripped-down synth vamp while Nazary manipulated a primitive drum machine, summoning a hypnotic tick-tock rhythm. When the drummer focused on the kit itself, pounding out turbulent beats and unleashing massive low tones from the club’s formidable subs with every bass drum stomp, and Branch punctuated the groove with piercing blasts from her horn, the effect was unmistakably electric-Miles–ian — in other words, danceable but also menacing. Among the sets I caught at WJF 2019, this was the peak in terms of sheer live-wire energy.
Billy Hart’s Dynamic Wizardry
Billy Hart started off his quartet’s Le Poisson Rouge set on Saturday with a rifle-like thwack on the snare, accompanied by a sly grin. The 78-year-old drummer — who has worked with Herbie Hancock, Stan Getz, Miles Davis and countless other legends during the past six decades— guided the first piece with rumbling tom rolls that you felt in your gut, punctuating his phrases with more sudden volume spikes. On the next tune, a ballad he wrote called “Song for Balkis,” he fluttered lightly across his cymbals, beautifully framing the plaintive melody. Hart’s enormous dynamic range was just one indication to the WJF crowd that they were in the presence of a true old-school master. Going strong for 15 years, his current working band, with pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street and saxist Dayna Stephens (who subbed in on Saturday for core member Mark Turner), is the perfect showcase for his regal talents.
Nubya Garcia’s Dance Party
Early in her S.O.B.’s set on Friday, saxist Nubya Garcia told the crowd that she wasn’t going to talk too much, in order to leave more time for music. There was plenty of that — exuberant, unfailingly body-moving sounds that exemplify the new wave of London jazz that Garcia has helped to bring to international prominence — but as if to emphasize the core principles that underlie her aesthetic, the leader also spent a healthy amount of stage time shimmying along to the rock-solid four-on-the-floor pulse held down by bassist Dan Casimir and drummer Sam Jones. Keyboardist Joe Armon-Jones burned through live-wire solos as she grooved. When she picked up her horn and made her way to the mic, the party-friendly tunes took on new gravitas: Her big, commanding tenor tone and patient improvisational flow made a contemporary sound feel simultaneously ancient.
The Messthetics and James Brandon Lewis’ Punk-Jazz Miles Tribute
An inspired booking move from Search & Restore‘s Adam Schatz brought Fugazi’s rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty to the Soho Playhouse with guitarist Anthony Pirog, a jazz-steeped shredder and their excellently matched partner in the Messthetics. Drawn mostly from last year’s self-titled debut, the trio’s instrumental set — sometimes blazing and mathy, other times chill and poignant — reached an apex during a cameo by saxophonist James Brandon Lewis, who often welcomes Pirog into his own bands. After a run through one of the Messthetics’ more placid tunes, the quartet segued into a stomping version of “Black Satin,” a hummable riff from Miles’ avant-funk opus On the Corner, with the guitarist and saxist trading fiery lead lines. “That was the first singer we’ve had in a while,” Lally quipped as Lewis exited the stage afterward.
Borderlands Trio and the Iyer/Taborn Duo’s Robot Ballet
Pianist Kris Davis, bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Eric McPherson are all top-flight improvisers, but their collective band, Borderlands Trio, isn’t necessarily about showing off their individual talents. As heard on their memorable 2017 album Asteroidea, the band is at its best when the players are uniting, Voltron-like, into a kind of hive-mind sound machine. At Zinc Bar on Friday, Davis’ prepared-piano patterns interlocked with Crump’s exacting lines and McPherson’s minimal beat cycles to create what sounded like advanced analog electronica. Craig Taborn and Vijay Iyer hinted at something similar during their dual-piano set at Le Poisson Rouge on Saturday. Traversing various approaches and trading off foreground and background roles, the pianists — who share an affinity for electronic music, with Iyer paying tribute to Robert Hood on 2015’s Break Stuff and Taborn skillfully incorporating synthetic textures on 2004’s Junk Magic — at one point settled into their own looped, symbiotic dance. Like in the Borderlands set, it was fascinating to hear an ever-mutable music temporarily embracing robotic rigor.
Fay Victor’s Jazz Mantra
“They’re trying to keep all the brown people out,” vocalist Fay Victor chanted at S.O.B.’s on Saturday over a bottom-heavy groove. Her bandmates Mazz Swift and Jaimie Branch lent their voices to the mix, as did many in the audience, creating a kind of protest-song mantra. Vocal jazz typically takes the form of a singer fronting a band, but this was a collective, participatory experience that, given the context of the words themselves, felt timely and therapeutic. There was a similar kind of group unity at work in a Friday Zinc Bar set by Swiss saxist Maria Grand’s DiaTribe band, which also featured Victor. The set mingled sleek rhythmic science and the leader’s agile lines with dual vocal passages from Grand and Victor that came across like private aphorisms (one riffed on the Rabelais statement that “Science without conscience is but the ruin of the soul”). The two often smiled as they performed these sections in tandem, clearly relishing the solidarity of their song.
Jon Irabagon’s Action-Packed Mini Suites
Conventional jazz form — group theme statements bookending an orderly string of solos — still has its place in the music, and probably always will. But it can be invigorating to hear a bandleader pushing beyond that model. At his Soho Playhouse set on Saturday, Jon Irabagon presented pieces, drawn from his excellent 2018 LP Dr. Quixotic’s Traveling Exotics, that unfolded more like mini-suites than mere tunes. Air-tight unison lines gave way to brief improv statements that segued into new themes and textures — a heavy backbeat section, a sumptuous ballad feel, crackling postbop, roaring free jazz. The cast of A-list players (trumpeter Tim Hagans, keyboardist Luis Perdomo, bassist Chris Lightcap and drummer Rudy Royston, plus Irabagon on tenor sax), tore into the material with ferocious glee. Irabagon has ranged all over the musical map, from the straightforward to the outré; these pieces utilized the full spectrum of his talent and made it all fit.
Lea Bertucci’s Drone Choir
Lea Bertucci took the Soho Playhouse stage early on Saturday, carrying her alto sax and standing in front of a laptop and a table full of electronics. But by about 15 minutes in, she had generated enough sound for a full choir. After an intro of gentle ambient rustling, she began to stack tones on top of one another, layering them via loops à la her 2018 release Metal Aether. The notes subtly clashed and compounded, and the overall sound grew steadily vaster and more enveloping. Listening with eyes closed, it sounded like an army of bagpipes or some sort of mass-scale alien chant. Drones and loops are common tools at this point, but Bertucci’s performance conjured a sense of awe that bordered on the sacred.
The Artifacts Trio’s Effortless Eclecticism
One of Friday’s most magnetic sets went down at the cozy Zinc Bar, where the Chicago-rooted Artifacts Trio — flutist Nicole Mitchell, cellist Tomeka Reid and drummer Mike Reed — waved the flag for pioneering avant-garde collective the AACM. That organization’s communal spirit and borderless aesthetic values came through in the group’s set, which encompassed simmering grooves, searching improv, artfully arranged chamber music and more. Reid’s bow work was outstanding, but the best moments were when she dug into funky pizzicato riffs, with Reed laying down a crisp pulse using extra-thin sticks and a bell laid over his rack tom, and Mitchell layering in dancing lines, rich multiphonics or circular-breathing-assisted flurries. It was classical precision and avant-jazz invention channeled into an earthy back-porch jam.
Jamie Saft’s Timeless Swing
Contemporary jazz often comes at you with an angle, whether it’s cross-genre hybridization or a repertoire of clever covers. But it was the conspicuous lack of any such hook that made a Friday Soho Playhouse set from Jamie Saft’s quartet stand out. The keyboardist (and Bad Brains associate) has a well-documented history of experimentation, whether with the sublime, reggae-centric New Zion Trio or the abrasive noise-drone crew Slobber Pup. With this band, as heard on 2018’s Blue Dream, he just wants to dig in and swing in a bluesy, lyrical, frequently stirring style. He couldn’t have picked better partners in the endeavor: Tenor player Bill McHenry, bassist Brad Jones and drummer Nasheet Waits all played with deep focus and un-showy intensity. The leader’s tunes touched on familiar territory — Coltrane’s classic quartet was one clear touchstone — without tilting into overt tribute. This one was pure class.