Sunday, January 13, 2013

Radical convention: Winter Jazzfest 2013

Some quick thoughts about Winter Jazzfest 2013, which is wrapping up as I type this in the wee hours of Sunday, 1/13. This is by no means intended as any sort of comprehensive review of the fest—I'm sure we'll read many smart ones in the coming days—but merely as a distillation of my own (very enjoyable) experience of the event. Some from-the-field impressions can be found on my Twitter page.

I heard a lot of, for lack of a better term, high-tech music at WJF 2013: groups that used samples, groups that focused on proggish, daredevil precision, groups that nodded to funk, hip-hop and electronica, groups that foregrounded their now-ness, their distance from a conventional notion of what jazz is. I enjoyed several of these groups very much; I look forward to hearing more from, e.g., Marcus Strickland's Twi-Life (trombonist Frank Lacy was the MVP here) and Rafiq Bhatia's group.

But my favorite sets at the festival had nothing to do with any of that. They were unadorned, acoustic, lacking in any particular eye-catching hook. They were just about sensitive, in-the-moment interaction; they were about listening; they represented very different aesthetics, but they all, in one way or another, conformed to some relatively well-established, historically proven way of playing jazz.

1) The trio of pianist Kris Davis, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Andrew Cyrille (pictured above) at Zinc Bar on Friday. An extraordinarily sensitive set, that built from a hush to a subtle dance then back to a hush. It seems silly to say that the appeal here was the sound, but that's the only way I can think to put it. All three players were considering the sounds they were producing in relation to the sounds the others were producing. It's an obvious idea, but less commonly illustrated in practice than you'd think. Cyrille, master of timbre and touch dictated the pace (unhurried) and the focus level (extreme), but no one was really the star; or in another sense, everyone was. It was free jazz, but without any of the chest-thumping or catharsis. It was "out," but it was not self-consciously weird. It moved along as it pleased, but with real narrative intrigue. I would love to hear this band again soon. This is a moment for Andrew Cyrille: last year's Bill McHenry and David Virelles records, for example—the first of which Revis also appears on. I very much look forward to seeing Cyrille w/ Virelles at the Vanguard at the end of the month, and hopefully w/ Ethan Iverson, Tim Berne and Sam Newsome at Smalls the week before. (He's also playing a free big-band show at Lincoln Center next Thursday!)

2) The quartet of reedist Andrew D'Angelo, trumpeter Kirk Knuffke, bassist Ben Street and drummer Nasheet Waits, known collectively as Merger, at Culture Project on Saturday. On Twitter, I pegged what this band was playing as freebop. I'm not sure if that's the correct term, but I'm referring to a sort of inside/outside thing, part vanguard mid-’60s Blue Note, part late ’50s / early ’60s Ornette, part ’90s downtown. Jazzy, but also abstract, noise-embracing. Each player has an extremely distinctive voice on their respective instrument, and all those voices came through b/c each player made it his business to complement his bandmates' voices. Again, a "duh" idea, but to see it really happening, live, is special. Super-quiet moments, like a minutely detailed unaccompanied Knuffke solo, and aggressive ones, where D'Angelo was frothing in post-Zorn fashion. The rhythm section knew what to do with all of it, and that didn't necessarily mean rise up and meet the frontline; it just meant, "Find what's complementary, even if it's counterintuitive." Nasheet Waits is a poet of his instrument. He gets me closer to the bliss I get from primo Tony Williams than just about any other living drummer. The tempos are fluid, but the looseness does not signify slackness. There's such authority, whether the beat is explicit or left in the rearview. Nice thematic material in this set too. Merger needs to make a record, probably a live one.

3) The quartet of reedist Don Byron, pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Rudy Royston at Le Poisson Rouge on Friday. I don't know Don Byron's work very well, but I do know that he has a penchant for the conceptual hook, the project devoted to a specific historical repertoire or genre, the kind of thing artists such as Dave Douglas and Ken Vandermark have often engaged in. Nothing against that approach, but this set was so, so not that. I didn't get to see the full performance, but what I did see was capital-J Jazz. Long solos, band swinging incredibly hard, each musician playing with serious flair and flash. No sense of "We need to get past this fossilized format." No. Merely a sense that what we need to do is play our asses off in a well-established mode, a mode that's well-established because it works. This was probably the most conventional set I saw all weekend, and interestingly, because of the context described at the top of this post, it also felt like one of the most radical. (Honorable mention in a similar vein: James Carter's Organ Trio at LPR on Saturday.)

P.S. Almost exactly 10 years ago, I interviewed Andrew Cyrille and wrote this profile.

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