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130 Bands In Five Days: Highlights From Winter Jazzfest NYC 2017

This year's Winter Jazzfest, which took place last week in New York City, presented an explicit theme of "Celebrating Social Justice." Conceptually and musically, Winter Jazzfest pushes the genre forward; after taking in as many of the 130-plus acts across many stages in Manhattan and Brooklyn as they could, our team reported back with some of the festival's highlights.

"Stories like forests are subject to seasons."

This line from poet Jeremie Harris struck a particular chord on the first of two marathon nights for music in New York. It comes from pianist Samora Pinderhughes' The Transformations Suite, a set of music and text with yawning ambition. The composer's work painted a sanguine call for awareness of social inequity in America, a frequent refrain heard in this edition of the Winter Jazzfest.

The event is a yearly retort to the story of jazz told as old growth woodland. Fresh blades of creativity live here and grow in the canopy of the music's history. New ambition and a strident photosynthetic transformation is the chief attraction. Hardy winter folk seek and soak in an exhaustive regeneration over two evenings. Warriors sprint through snow and hop around lower Manhattan for brief encounters. Less ambitious but smarter listeners concentrate in small jewel boxes and take in music as concentrate. I chose to do both.

The Transformations Suite followed a festival highlight. Drummer Mike Reed brought many of Chicago's best players for Flesh and Bone, a raw mix of spoken word and music. The whole set of insistent improvisation from saxophonist Greg Ward, trumpeter Ben Lamar Gay and others met a hard charging rhythm that felt like a Charles Mingus workshop in progress — shredding at the seams but maintaining a tight script of acts and tracks.

Also that evening, Dayme Arocena invoked Yemaya and the orishas in a set of Cuban Santeria and soul. Vibraphonist Joel Ross impressed in a solid set from saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Another drummer, Nate Smith, led his Kinfolk project: a series of breakbeats and segues with solos from pianist Jon Cowherd, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw and a launch pad for singer and songwriter Amma Whatt. Inspired by the golden age of instrumental R&B, Kinfolk sounded liked it was ready following two years of care and feeding from its leader.

The second night featured a snowstorm outside and a blazing hot mess of awesome inside Le Poisson Rouge. Michael Leonhart led his orchestra with swagger — from band intros over David Axelrod's "The Edge" to Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom" laced with Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" for a cheeky Valentine's Day song. Donny McCaslin contributed a forceful tenor saxophone solo that commanded attention over nearly 20 other musicians and a stuffed green alien named Bob. More saxophone followed from the U.K.'s Shabaka Hutchings, who brought a coterie of South African musicians in celebration of ancestors.

Nadia Washington performed with Terri Lynne Carrington's new project, Social Science, in a set that included speech excerpts from Assata Shakur, James Baldwin and Angela Davis.
John Rogers / for NPR
for NPR
Nadia Washington performed with Terri Lynne Carrington's new project, Social Science, in a set that included speech excerpts from Assata Shakur, James Baldwin and Angela Davis.

The next stop was S.O.B.'s for drummer Terri Lyne Carrington's new group, Social Science. Carrington led her band, featuring keyboardist and pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Matt Stevens and bassist/saxophonist Morgan Guerin with singer Nadia Washington and DJ VAL adding speech excerpts from Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, Angela Davis and other social activists and thinkers.

Though I left early and begrudgingly, I heard three songs from guitarist Bill Frisell and bassist Thomas Morgan. From the opening refrain of "Old Folks" directly into an abstraction of Fats Domino's "What a Party," this was the quietest and most beautiful music I heard all weekend. It felt like an unintended protest of its own amid the frenzy of Winter Jazzfest.

I finished the marathon at the New School's Glass Box Theater. It may have been the best place to hear bands up close and personal. Unfortunately, many attendees did not have that opportunity. Bands from bassist Ben Allison and saxophonist Ben Wendel drew audiences many times the size of capacity. So the stage crew threw open the doors and allowed everyone to hear the music. Wendel put a coda on the final night, and his set was a stunner. He brought the band from his The Seasons project together for its first performance, and these men sounded like they had been playing together for years. Inspired by Tchaikovsky's piano sonatas, Wendel wrote original music for each of these musicians and made a series of duo performances he filmed for a 2015 project. This night, he brought pianist Aaron Parks, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Eric Harland from that project to play their own dedications. The closing moment was a levitation act with Harland that had jazzbro eyes agog all around the place. It all seemed so intimate and exploratory, like when bodies touch for the first time. This is the season of love. --Josh Jackson

New York City Winter Jazzfest isn't an ordinary music gathering. Because it coincides with APAP –- Association of Performing Arts Presenters -– as one industry insider told me, what occurs this week in Manhattan is "the biggest music happening in the world that the world isn't aware of." NYCWJF is the place where deals get done and new bands are showcased, but perhaps most importantly, inspiration spawns. Every year, there is one musician that shines above rest. They get the honorary designation bestowed by The Checkout --The Jason Lindner Award. This goes to the musician with the most activity during the two day madness. And, naturally, it isn't a coincidence that his year's honoree was also one of the hottest artists to emerge in 2016 — as reflected in our recent NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. It's the guitarist Mary Halvorson. Her festival appearances included Chicago's cellist Tomeka Reid and her Quartet, the Brooklyn-based trombonist Jacob Garchik and his fascination for Fantasia with his three guitar ensemble Ye Olde, New York downtown mainstay Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians and Halvorson's own unruly Octet, as represented on her critically acclaimed recording. As with many of the "buzzed about" happenings at the fest, Halvorson's humble 7:00 p.m. hit in a New School classroom was a scene onto itself with anxious, agitated spectators waiting in asymmetrical lines all the way to elevator growling about not being able to hear some adventurous, cerebral and unclassifiable jazz music. --Simon Rentner

Chris Dave & The Drumhedz performed a ruckus-filled set on the Revive Music stage at Bowery Ballroom.
John Rogers / for NPR
for NPR
Chris Dave & The Drumhedz performed a ruckus-filled set on the Revive Music stage at Bowery Ballroom.

When he's not working with D'Angelo, Robert Glasper or Maxwell, Houstonian drummer Chris Dave is crafting his own beat-driven recordings like Mixtape (2014) and soon-to-be-released Drumhedz Radio Show. He's also honing his band Chris Dave and the Drumhedz. Dave debuted some new material with an expanded Drumhedz band to a jam-packed Bowery Ballroom for the "Revive Music" Stage on Friday night.

Before they blasted off, Dave graciously introduced the band and prefaced the "short attention span" complex of their set to come — we were warned, but we were never ready. At times Dave would leave the kit to cue and lead. With tambourine in hand, a powerful Jermaine Holmes (backing vocalist from D'Angelo's Vanguard band) exclaimed War's "Slippin' into Darkness," which bookended the set. What happened in the middle was a chaotic, messy, fiery but undeniably grooving.

The Drumhedz shined most when they were burning. At one particularly blistering moment mid-set, at a defiantly different pace than the rhythm section, trumpeter Keyon Harrold, along with tenor saxophonists Kebi William and Marcus Strickland, slipped in the "Fall" and "Pinocchio" — both written by Wayne Shorter and appearing on Miles Davis' second quintet, Nefertiti (1967).

Davis' quintet flipped the script with traditional jazz roles and Dave's Drumhedz are advancing that kind of rhythmic-dissonance language to jaw-dropping, "mannequin-challenge" inducing awe. Chris Dave's own challenge in 2017 — he's joining the Blue Note Records roster — will be to rein in the ruckus embedded in his powerful and unlimited passion. --Alex Ariff

Copyright 2022 WBGO. To see more, visit WBGO.

Corrected: January 12, 2017 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous caption on this story incorrectly spelled drummer Allan Mednard's first name as Allen.
Alex Ariff
Simon Rentner
Josh Jackson
Josh Jackson is the associate general manager for content at WRTI in Philadelphia.
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