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What We Loved At Winter Jazzfest 2016

Like any music, jazz has its revolutions; its sudden incidents in infrastructure; its disruptive presences of unprecedented sound. Mostly it's slower than that, though, with years and generations of accretions before it seems to call for new vocabulary. That's one way to look at Winter Jazzfest, whose latest incarnation occupied a dozen or so venues in downtown New York City last weekend. In a decade and a half of steady growth, a one-night showcase oriented toward industry insiders has become nearly a weeklong landmark of the city's cultural calendar.

Winter Jazzfest's expansion has changed its aftertaste somewhat — this year's significantly greater geographic distribution spread out the festival's crowds across a wider swath of territory — but its model remains the same: more music than you can possibly see, by more musicians than you've possibly heard of, in one general vicinity. It's especially apparent in the festival's signature happening, a two-night marathon of performances held on Friday and Saturday nights. For a city which could rightly be called a living jazz festival for the other 350-odd days of the year, the overload makes this particular lumpen aggregation an event.

Obscure and established, taproot and offshoot branch, the Winter Jazzfest shines a broad spotlight. To represent that big tent, we asked several regular festivalgoers to pick one performance from the marathon that stuck with them. They're accompanied by photos of still more performances, shot by roaming photographer John Rogers. Here's what we took in at this year's festival.

Charenee Wade

An instructor at Queens College's Aaron Copland School of Music, Charenee Wade put on her own fanfare for the common man with a blistering 45-minute set on Friday night. Showcasing her propulsive voice, her sextet paid tribute to the legacy of Gil Scott-Heron (as recorded on a 2015 album titled Offering). Her group featured standout solos from vibraphonist Nikara Warren (granddaughter of pianist Kenny Barron) and saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, the perfect foils to Wade's bright and crisp voice — the ultimate blend of Betty Carter and Roberta Flack. And the audience, one of the few this weekend that skewed toward older African Americans, often shouted and whooped in delight. It all confirmed that jazz singing is safe for the millennial generation as long as Charenee Wade has a microphone in her hand. —Derrick Lucas

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet

We're drawn to the arts because they create new worlds inside us: They trigger sensations, experiences and perspectives we did not know existed before. The Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet did exactly that last Friday at Subculture. The band's rhythm section — Shai Maestro on piano, Chris Morrissey on bass and Guiliana on drums — was clearly one of the strongest in my experience at the festival. With simple but powerful melodic lines, saxophonist Jason Rigby also turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. Overall, the quartet alternated wild swing-style beats with slower, more haunting tunes. Guiliana, who played on David Bowie's last album Blackstar, led his band in a way which exuded a contemplative, ethereal quality reminiscent of the rock legend's lyricism. As a tribute to Bowie, the drummer performed his composition "2014," from the quartet's album Family First. —Emilie Pons

Terrace Martin is best known as a hip-hop producer, but his first major musical outlet was jazz saxophone. He presented a group at Winter Jazzfest.
/ John Rogers for NPR
Terrace Martin is best known as a hip-hop producer, but his first major musical outlet was jazz saxophone. He presented a group at Winter Jazzfest.

Terrace Martin

Terrace Martin's quintet helped pack The Bitter End to the rafters early Friday evening, and it was easy to understand why: Who doesn't want to bask in the presence of a producer who helped Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly blossom? Those are big "pop" credentials, and with Kamasi Washington's late withdrawal due to injury, this was the only Winter Jazzfest opportunity to check in on the jazz side of L.A.'s current musical renaissance. The performance, Martin's New York debut as a bandleader, juxtaposed the different sounds of his hometown's current musical landscape. A single, earthbound alto chorus of "Wade In The Water" gave way to a short, noisy astral freakout (high marks to guitarist Andrew Renfroe and drummer Jonathan Barber) before settling into a set of electronic soul-jazz, with Martin leading from a Yamaha synth and vocoder more than his saxophone. It was relatively smooth sailing till the end, when he brought on "my secret weapon," vocalist Latonya "Tone" Geneva Givens, for a spellbinding reading of James Brown's "It's A Man's Man's Man's World." What was already an excellent cabaret'n'B take on the tune suddenly hit overdrive, as Givens' vocal improvisations took her out into a more operatic atmosphere, and the music's possibilities became boundless once more. —Piotr Orlov

Tim Berne's Sideshow

Alto saxophonist Tim Berne arrived at the beautiful, cavernous ECM Records stage on Saturday with Sideshow, a new band that looked something like a conventional bebop quintet at first blush. But Berne, trumpeter Ralph Alessi, pianist Matt Mitchell, bassist John Hébert and drummer Dan Weiss tore that surface impression to bits in an instant. They hit peak intensity from note one, grabbing steady footing as they dealt with Berne's erratic rhythms and sawtooth melodic lines. As in much of Berne's work, there were constant shifts between cohesion and fragmentation, the written and unwritten. Instruments broke into varied combinations for ethereal free improvisation and demanding unison passages, often unfolding in a spontaneous counterpoint. Mitchell, the sole holdover from Berne's previous group Snakeoil, sounded glorious in the 800-seat room. And Weiss, Mitchell's frequent bandmate, went at the music with wild zigzagging funk and palpable hunger. —David R. Adler

Gregorio Uribe Big Band

Once a month, the Colombian singer and button accordionist Gregorio Uribe fronts a big band in a cozy basement space called the Zinc Bar. Like many New York jazz clubs, it's a bit cramped with 16 musicians and their dapper-dressed frontman, but it's even more so during the deoxygenated human crush of Winter Jazzfest. (Your correspondent backed himself into a literal corner, flanked by intoxicated jazzbros.) But sometime around midnight, Uribe ignited the packed house with the things that drive packed houses wild: danceable cumbia, horn blasts, charismatic singing and so forth. You'd need more than the allotted 40-ish minutes to fully unpack the precise combination of clarinet and accordion and cross-currents of percussion that set this apart from other Afro-Latin bands treading this territory; you might start with the 2015 album Cumbia Universal. But he certainly got the energy channeling correct. One tune, Uribe announced, was called "Gracias Nueva York," and that felt apropos. Where else does one regularly merge specificities like Colombian dance rhythms and jazz big band in a way that feels, well, universal? —Patrick Jarenwattananon

Each of its members exhibited an individual project at Winter Jazzfest, so The Bad Plus assembled for a "surprise" show.
/ John Rogers for NPR
Each of its members exhibited an individual project at Winter Jazzfest, so The Bad Plus assembled for a "surprise" show.

The Bad Plus

A popup midnight show by The Bad Plus set the tone for me at this year's Winter Jazzfest. The trio, originally from the Upper Midwest, began to combine jazz with rock energy at underground New York clubs in the early 2000s. Now it presides over a festival whose sprawling, shape-shifting creativity is firmly above ground, and continues to grow. "Our timeshare in Omaha fell through," bassist Reid Anderson joked, to explain why the globetrotting group hasn't been to the festival in recent years. (He lives in Barcelona.) Other festival sets showcased band members' side projects: drummer Dave King's Trucking Company, Happy Apple and Vector Families; Anderson's electronica; and pianist Ethan Iverson duetting with saxophonist Mark Turner. The band's unannounced set Friday night — listed only as "super secret special guests" — was short and sassy, with originals by all three members. Like Winter Jazzfest itself, it was surprising, irreverent, erudite, hip, wonky and, above all else, fun. —Tim Wilkins

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