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Tag: winter jazzfest review

Winter Jazzfest, New York, January 12, 2019: Late Start, Early Departure

The new “luxury” Public Hotel at 215 Chrystie Street in Chinatown was constructed so cheaply that they didn’t even spend the two hundred bucks it would have cost them to put a sink in the men’s latrine.

The exit door swings open to the inside. There are also no paper towels.

Meaning that if you want to leave, you have to use your bare hand to yank something that many other dudes have yanked earlier in the evening, presumably with bare hands as well.

What relevance does this have to night two of the big marathon weekend of Winter Jazzfest 2019? You’ll have to get to the end of this page to find out.

For this blog, the big Saturday night of the increasingly stratified annual event began not in Chinatown but at the eastern edge of the Bleecker Street strip, which has traditionally traded in its cheesiness for a couple of nights of jazz bliss to accommodate the festival. Less so this year.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a band playing spaghetti western rock two nights in a row? It happened this weekend at Winter Jazzfest. Guitarist/singer Markus Nordenstreng, co-leader of the eclectic Tuomo & Markus took an early stab at defusing a potential minefield. “I know we’re pushing the limits of what you can do at a jazz festival. But we’re Finnish, so we don’t have to play by the rules,” he grinned. The group had just slunk their way through a triptych of slow, lurid, Lynchian soundtrack instrumentals in front of an aptly blue velvet backdrop. Trumpeter Verneri Pohjola took centerstage in a mashup of Angelo Badalamenti and late Bob Belden noir, with a couple of departures into Morricone-esque southwestern gothic. After that, Nordenstreng sang a new wave-flavored tribute to Helsinki pirate radio and then took a turn for the worse into Americana.

In past editions of the festival, the thrill of getting into a coveted set has too often been counterbalanced by the failure to do the same: a festival pass doesn’t guarantee admission, considering how small some of the clubs are. Down the block from Zinc Bar, it was heartwarming to see a long line hoping to get in to catch darkly tuneful pianist Guy Mintus with explosive singer Roopa Mahadevan. It was less heartwarming to have to go to plan B.

Which meant hunkering down and holding a seat for the better part of an hour waiting for Jen Shyu to take the stage at the rundown venerable cramped intimate Soho Playhouse. Shyu’s music inhabits a disquieting dreamworld of many Asian languages and musical idioms. She’s a talented dancer, a brilliantly diverse singer and composer. At this rare solo gig, she played more than competently on Taiwanese moon lute, Japanese biwa, Korean gayageum, American Rhodes piano and Korean soribuk drum, among other instruments.

Shyu’s themes are often harrowing and fiercely populist; this show was a chance to see how unselfconsciously and bittersweetly funny she can be, via a retelling of an ancient, scatological Taiwanese parable about the dangers of overreaching. “Cockfighting,” she mused. “You can laugh. It’s a funny word.” It got way, way funnier from there, but a dark undercurrent persisted, fueled by the devastating loss of a couple of Javanese friends in a brutal car crash in 2016.

Back at Subculture, it was just as redemptive to watch Dave Liebman challenge himself and push the envelope throughout a mystical, hypnotic trio set with percussionists Adam Rudolph and Hamid Drake. Liebman’s meticulous, judiciously slashing modal work on soprano sax was everything a packed, similarly veteran house could have wanted. His trilling wood flute, adventures plucking under the piano lid, and unexpectedly emphatic, kinetic tenor sax were more of a surprise from a guy who’s in many ways even more vital than he was forty years ago – and that says a lot. Rudolph wound up the set playing sintir – the magical Moroccan acoustic bass – and looping a catchy gnawa riff as Drake boomed out a hypnotic beat on daf frame drum.

Even better than two successive nights of spaghetti western music was two nights of Carmen Staaf compositions. The poignantly lyrical pianist shared the stage with the similar Ingrid Jensen on Friday night; last night, Staaf was with polymath drummer Allison Miller and their wryly titled Science Fair band with Dayna Stephens on tenor sax, Jason Palmer on trumpet and Matt Penman on bass. Staaf proved a perfect, hard-hitting rhythmic foil throughout Miller’s compositions, which are as restless as Miller’s drumming would have you believe. We’re not just taking A and B and C sections; we’re talking M and N and maybe more, considering how many fleeting ideas were flickering through her metrically glittering tunes. Palmer started out as bad hardbop cop but got lingeringly Romantic, fast; Stephens stayed in balmy mode, more or less. And Miller’s hyperkinetic, constantly counterintuitive accents added both mirth and mystery to Staaf’s methodically plaintive balladry, a richly bluesy Mary Lou Williams homage and a final, broodingly modal latin-tinged anthem.

That’s where the night ended for this blog; much as it could have been fun to watch tenor sax heavyweights JD Allen and David Murray duke it out, or to hear what kind of juju trumpeter Stephanie Richards could have conjured up alongside reedman Oscar Noriega, sometimes you have to watch your health instead.

Now about that bathroom and how that factors into this story. According to the printed festival schedule, there was a whole slate of hot swing jazz scheduled in a downstairs room – hidden behind an unmarked, locked doorway, as it turned out – at the “luxury” Public Hotel. According to a WJF staffer, a last-minute change of venue two train stations to the north was required when the hotel suddenly cancelled because someone had offered them more money to do a wedding there instead. The result was a lot of mass confusion.

And the Public Hotel staff did their best to keep everybody in the dark. None of the support people seemed to have been briefed that such a room existed, let alone that there was any such thing as Winter Jazzfest – notwithstanding that the hotel had been part of the festival less than 24 hours before. Those who knew that there actually was such a room gave out conflicting directions: no surprise, since it’s tucked away in an alcove with no signage.

It is pathetic how many people will not only kiss up to those they view as bosses, but also emulate their most repulsive characteristics. Cornered by a posse of a half dozen of us, the Public Hotel’s front desk people on the second floor wouldn’t make eye contact. Despite repeated entreaties, they pretended we didn’t exist. Entitlement spreads like herpes.

A floor below, the bar manager couldn’t get his story straight. First, there was no way to the downstairs room other than through the locked outside door. Then, woops, it turned out that there was an elevator, but that we weren’t “allowed to use it.” Likewise, he told us that the venue – whose website didn’t list the night – also didn’t have a number we could call for information.

“A Manhattan music venue without a phone, that’s a first,” a veteran in our posse sneered.

The simpering manager finally copped to the fact that there was in fact a phone, “But it’s private.” Would he call it, or get one of his staff to call it for us and find out what the deal was? No.

“The hotel and the venue are separate places,” he confided – and then enumerated the many types of information the two share. What he didn’t share was what would have sent us on our way. And maybe he didn’t have the answer. What was clear was how much he wanted us to abandon our search, and stay and pay for drinks amidst the Eurotrash.

One tireless member of our posse went down into the basement and opened one of many, many doors marked “private.” Behind it was the kitchen. One of the cooks, a personable individual eating a simple plate of what appeared to be Rice-a-Roni, volunteered to help. First, the cook suggested we go up to the front desk and ask. After hearing how all we were getting was the runaround, the cook was still down for finding an answer: “Let me just finish this and I’ll come up with you.”

As welcome as the offer was, one doesn’t drag people away from their dinner…or into a fiasco that clearly was not going to be resolved. But it was reassuring to know that in the belly of the beast, surrounded by Trumpie Wall Street trash and their enablers who mistakenly think they can get ahead by aping them, that good people still exist.

Winter Jazzfest 2015, Night One: More and Less Transcendent Moments

What’s the likelihood of seeing both the ICP Orchestra and Dave Douglas on the same night? If you’re at the Rotterdam Jazz Festival, that’s hardly out of the question. And that’s why, despite its many issues, Winter Jazzfest is always worth coming out for.

“We’re the Instant Composers Pool, from Amsterdam,” bassist Ernst Glerum almost gleefully told the crowd who’d gathered close to the stage yesterday evening at le Poisson Rouge for a rare US appearance by the ten-piece surrealistic swing unit. That pun is intentional: their closest US counterpart is the Microscopic Septet, although where the two groups share an irrepressible wit, the Instant Composers are heftier and a lot trippier, given to absurdist call-and-response, round robin hijinks that can either be deadpan or completely over the top, and long dissociative interludes. There was plenty of that in their all-too-brief, roughly 45-minute set, but there was also a lingering, disquieted, crepuscular quality as well.

When he wasn’t dancing around the stage and directing split-second bursts from the horns and the reeeds, cellist Tristan Honsinger traded incisively airy lines with violinist Mary Oliver. Pianist Uri Caine, subbing for octogenarian legend Misha Mengelberg – chilling back in Holland – stayed pretty much within himself while the horns pulsed and sputtered and then pulled together with a wistfully ambered gleam. Extrovert drummer Han Bennink – who has more than a little Mel Taylor in him – threw elbows and jabs on his toms to keep the audience on their toes, especially in the most trad moments. What distinguishes this crew from the other satirical acts out there is their command of swing, and the gravitas that was in as full effect as the comedic bits. The audience screamed for an encore and were treated to a tantalizingly austere, string-driven miniature.

Douglas is another guy who infuses his music with plenty of wit, if it’s more on the dry side. On a night where a lot of the best acts were off limits, interminable lines stretching down the sidewalk outside several venues, what a treat it was to go up the stairs into Judson Church to see the trumpeter doing his usual mix of melodic splendor along with the pastoral soul that’s become part and parcel for him lately. Pianist Matt Mitchell colored both the Americana and the spiritual-based material with an upper-register, reflecting-pool gleam as Douglas and tenor saxophonist Troy Roberts ranged from homespun reflection to judiciously placed flurries of bop. Both bassist Linda Oh and drummer Rudy Royston kept their cards close to the vest as the rhythms would stray outside and then return to within the lines. And how cool was it to watch Royston feel the room, letting its natural reverb do the heavy lifting throughout his shuffles and spirals? Extremely. The highlight of the set was JFK: The Airport – “Not an endorsement,” Douglas said emphatically – a bristling, hypercaffeinated clave-cinema theme whose understated exasperation, channeled by Douglas and guest trumpeter Avishai Cohen, was characteristically spot-on.

Because Winter Jazzfest has such an embarrasment of riches to choose from, it’s hard not to be greedy: when an enticing set is sold out, as many tend to be, you have to be resourceful and willing to roll with the punches. Marc Ribot’s set with a string section at one of the off-Broadway theatres had a ridiculously long line of hopefuls waiting in vain to get in. But back at the church, Battle Trance were more than an impromptu Plan B. What a revelation the tenor sax quartet – Travis Laplante, Matthew Nelson, Jeremy Viner and Patrick Breiner – turned out to be. Beginning with barely a whisper, negotiating their way calmly and envelopingly through a baroque-tinged, cleverly polyrhythmic, interlocking minimalist sonic lattice, they rose to a mighty exchange of glisses (Coltrane would call them arpeggios), an understated display of extended technique and circular breathing. Throughout their set, they literally breathed as a single entity. In its most vigorous moments, their performance had the same raw power and chops that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson showed off at last year’s festival.

As for the rest of the night, there seemed to be more non-jazz acts than usual on the bill. An ensemble playing a Donald Byrd tribute opened for the ICPs, vamping on a chord or two, one of the jams sounding like a bluesier take on Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig in the Sky. Which wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t jazz either. Up the block, Brandee Younger – who’s made a lot of waves at her recent slate of shows at Minton’s uptown, being heralded as the next Dorothy Ashby – shared the stage with a tightly swinging if generic funk band whose own vamps subsumed the jazz harpist’s tersely ringing, starkly blues-drenched phrasing. There was no small irony in the fact that even such a stereotypically Bleecker Street band would have probably had a hard time getting a gig there under usual circumstances, considering their slightly unorthodox instrumentation. Perish the thought that the Jersey tourists would have to contend with something they’d never heard before. “Is that a hwawp?”

Winter Jazzfest continues tonight, Saturday, Jan 10 starting a little after six PM: ticket pickup starts a half-hour beforehand at Judson Church. If you’re going you’d best get there on time.