Prepared for the 2011 Winter Jazz Festival, on Friday, January 7th and Saturday, the 8th, I showed up and proceeded the stand around. Over the two nights, over 4,000 people showed up. The ticket line outside of Le Poisson Rouge, the hub of the festival, wrapped around the block, and the crowd within was a dense, undulating life form. It spilled out of the doors, creating an impenetrable meniscus.
On Friday night, I attempted to hear saxophonist JD Allen, with VISIONFUGITIVE!, a group featuring two rhythm sections and four secondary saxophonists, and conducted by Butch Morris. I settled for watching the band from the external bar area, where the show was streamed on a flat screen TV.
At Kenny’s Castaways, the swarm was initially more manageable. I had a clear sight line for groups led by trumpeter Shane Endsley and trombonist Jacob Garchik. Endsley’s The Music Band played buoyant grooves and tuneful melodies. What began as simple forms became pulsating thickets.
Garchik’s trio, featuring Jacob Sacks on the Rhodes and Dan Weiss on drums, made me imagine understanding a foreign language through the speaker’s exuberance rather than through his words. The conversations between the three were the highlight of the first night of the festival, and I was glad that of the many bands I heard, they were one of the two or three that I could actually see.
Of the bands I heard but could not see were vocalist Jen Shu’s band Jade Tongue, and bassist Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth. Shyu’s music, which featured David Binney, John Hébert, and Dan Weiss was dark and otherworldly. I heard what sounded like incantations, and got an occasional glimpse of Shyu’s arms weaving about, trailed by a red scarf.
Lightcap’s Bigmouth, featuring saxophonists Jeff Lederer and Chris Cheek, keyboardist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver, surely would have been another highlight of my night had I been able to focus on the music. Instead, I was forced into a corner, my back to the stage, as the restrainedly rambunctious, rock-inflected music wafted by.
After the first night of the 2011 Winter Jazz Festival, it was clear that the crowds would make enjoying the music quite the endeavor. It wasn’t so much the constant chatter of the drunken APAP conference-goers. That’s just an inseparable aspect of the event.
This year, the festival’s popularity was so magnified that it became too big for its britches. While this is a great thing for New York Jazz, it is a problem for the festival, whose charm lies in its frenetic and compressed atmosphere, amidst which fans, musicians, and publicists all come together to celebrate the vivacity of a scene that can sometimes seem infirm. This deliciously unstable atmosphere was struck perfectly last year, but seemed to have combusted, leading to a slight but constant feeling of anxiety.
Among the many shows I attempted to see on the second night of the festival, two were of the sort that managed to distract me from the pressures of the stampede. One was guitarist Miles Okasaki with drummer Damion Reid and saxophonist Guillaume Perret. The musical structures were droning, complex rhythms played in the guitar and drums, which Perret decorated with shadowy echoing effects.
After the trio left the stage at Kenny’s Castaways, Ken Thomson’s Asphalt Orchestra took the stage, only not on the stage. The disheveled marching band lined the balcony, playing rousing music whose thrashing lines melted into each other. At these times and several others, the Winter Jazz Festival was at its peak. Let’s hope the audience keeps growing, and that the festival can grow to accommodate it.