The five-year-old festival, which coincides with the annual convention of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters, has a strange feel, half way between that of a miniature rock festival and a music industry gathering. Previously held in the Knitting Factory, which is currently hibernating until it reopens in Williamsburg, this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest was spread across three venues, Le Poisson Rouge, Sullivan Hall, and Kenny’s Castaways.
Le Poisson Rouge staged the acts with the biggest draw. The area in front of the stage quickly became the seated section, with audience members cross-legged on the floor amidst piles of coats and scarves. Seated members were treated to the best sound quality while those of us in the standing throngs had difficulty hearing the piano, which had to contend with booming bass.
I managed to catch the last two songs by Jason Moran, whose trio included drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tarus Mateen. Moran’s Thelonious Monk-like approach, with his wiry phrases and contemplative mood, represented the best of what was a common feature at the festival, and of modern experimental jazz in general. After Moran’s demonstration of lines and harmonic spaces that combine melancholy and uncertainty, much of the following music seemed like a slew of modern jazz mannerisms.
Drummer Dafnis Prieto followed, with his all-star horn section of Ralph Alessi on trumpet, and saxophonists David Binney and Peter Apfelbaum. Prieto’s snaking contrapuntal arrangements and intense drumming inspired rapid-fire lines from the soloists, their melodies deliberately non-lyrical, more focused on rhythmic drive than emotional expression.
In a different context, this group, which also included bassist Charles Flores and pianist Manuel Valera, might have been exciting and energizing, balancing experimental jazz with rousing Cuban rhythms. But wedged between the muted sounds of Moran’s trio and clarinetist Don Byron’s group (of which Moran was also a member), Prieto’s music sounded like percussive overkill.
Overwhelmed, I wandered across the street, through the wet coldness, to Kenny’s Castaways, where pianist Lafayette Gilchrist was pounding out quirky and gritty funk with his trio, featuring drummer Nathan Reynolds and bassist Anthony “Blue” Jenkins. The group’s playful attitude fit the setting, with audience members' feet dangling above the dance floor.
Gilchrist’s music could have benefited from the attention of another audience. Had the group been performing for boozy, dancing revelers, perhaps the show would have been varied and fun. Perhaps the trio got carried away with the idea that they were performing in an experimental jazz festival for an audience comprising promoters and presenters, because the music seemed to be a static exercise in off-kilt groove.
Back in Le Poisson Rouge, the highlights of Byron’s Ivey-Divey trio were Jason Moran and drummer Billy Hart, who came up as a guest on the second tune, but ended up replacing Eric Harland for the rest of the set. Byron sounded as though he hadn’t warmed up, flubbing notes and occasionally squeaking, his tone lacking its usual warmth. His playing on tenor saxophone, which he brought out for ‘Body and Soul,’ was a welcome respite. While Moran expertly toyed with drama and tension, and Hart made beauty of simplicity, Byron’s lines were more desultory than artfully unpredictable, and didn’t seem to commit to any mood.
The festival’s headliner was Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’ group featuring trumpeter Terence Blanchard, bassist Christian McBride, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who emerged out of a shroud of mystery, as the saxophonist listed was Prometheus Jenkins, a name that renders no informative Google results.
The group’s powerful set was the most rooted to tradition out of any others, sometimes genuinely, in the case of the blues “Brecky with Drecky,” and sometimes facetiously, in the case of “Dancin’ 4 Chicken,” which Watts explained was inspired by the concept of “Uncle Tom.”
Blanchard and Marsalis riffed on the theme of the evening, delivering angular and non-lyrical melodic phrases with aggressive conviction. McBride’s solos put horn players to shame. His virtuosic bebop lines stood out as some of the least experimental and most exciting of the evening.
Read about the 2010 Winter JazzFest: