Exciting Contemporary Jazz at NYC’s Winter Jazzfest

Miguel Zenón at the Zinc Bar

Imagine over 70 bands performing at five different venues in New York City over two nights.  No, it’s not South by Southwest or Coachella, it’s the Winter Jazzfest, now in its eighth year.  The festival is sponsored by BOOM Collective, Search & Restore, and Revive Music Group and looks to “invigorate NYC’s jazz scenes…by promoting and supporting young and deserving new jazz artists while bringing increasingly growing audiences to the music.”  Considering that over 4,000 people attended the festival, myself included, I would have to say, “Mission accomplished.”

Due to a looming thesis deadline, I was only able to attend Friday night’s showcase, but what I saw was a jazz scene in full swing.  My night started at Kenny’s Castaways with Ben Allison performing on bass with Jenny Scheinman (of Mischief & Mayhem, among other groups) on violin and Steve Cardenas on guitar.  The tiny venue was packed so I was pushed to the balcony above the stage where people sat on the floor as well as on stools and couches.  Allison joked that the last time he played at Kenny’s Castaways was in 1986 with a metal band, which was hard to imagine given the melodic, introspective original compositions the group played (one was inspired by Al Green, another by Dick Cheney).  Most of the songs were off of Allison’s latest album, “Think Free,” which features Scheinman and Cardenas in addition to Shane Endsley (Trumpet) and Rudy Royston (Drums), and the crowd ate them up, clapping enthusiastically and puncturing the end of each set with heartfelt “YEAH!’s.”  Don’t be too worried if you missed their performance—they’re headed to Carnegie Hall on February 3!  And if you can’t make that concert, their May 9 performance in NYC with poet Robert Pinsky (who wrote a poem for Vassar’s sesquicentennial birthday) is sure to be interesting as well.

I then headed over to the Zinc Bar to catch the saxophonist Miguel Zenón.  I got there a little early so I caught the end of a performance by Malika Zarra, a Moroccan singer who sweetly sings in Berber, Arabic, French, and English, and her worldly band.  It was a good thing that I arrived so early as the space was quickly overflowing with people who couldn’t even see the stage.  Zenón was playing with Luis Perdomo (piano), Hans Glawischnig (bass), and Henry Cole (drums) and largely featuring songs from his new album “Alma Adento,” which he calls the Puerto Rican Songbook.  Their level of musicianship was incredible and all had plenty of solo time with which to show off—Glawischnig had a lovely solo on “Perfume de Gardenias” and “Silencio” was especially spellbinding.  The night belonged to Zenón’s masterly playing and understated leadership, but Cole’s fiery drum solo was the most memorable moment.  I’m not usually a big fan of drum solos, but even my jaw was on the floor, as my eyes remained riveted on Cole’s pained face.  If you can’t believe that you missed this performance, check them out at Montclair State University in New Jersey on February 4.

After Zenón et al., I traced my footsteps back to Kenny’s Castaways to secure a prime seat for Rudresh Mahanthappa’s midnight set.  I was lucky to hear the last couple songs played by Marika Hughes and her group Bottom Heavy, whose sound can best be described as blues rock meets jazz through Hughes’s soulful voice and genre-bending approach to the cello.  They’re tight, but in a fun and funky way and will be back in NYC on February 21 at Joe’s Pub.  My last show of the night was Mahanthappa on saxophone, Rez Abassi on guitar, Rich Brown on electric bass, and Rudy Royston on drums (who also played on Ben Allison’s latest album).  What do you get when you put together a classically trained African-American drummer, a Pakistani jazz guitarist, a young black bassist from Toronto, and an Indian saxophonist?  Eardrum-blasting, heart-palpitating contemporary jazz that made the somewhat elderly woman sitting next to me squirm with excitement.  Between songs, Mahanthappa revealed a sarcastic sense of humor.  For example, he asked the engineer, “Can we put a little reverb on the horn?  Not Kenny G., just Kenny Garrett.  Don’t even turn the knob, just look at it.”  He dedicated the song “Enhanced Performance” to Olympic athletes who took steroids and “breakfastlunchanddinner” to the Rent is Too Damn High political movement.  The bass and drums worked well to create a tight rhythm section and the guitar and sax often doubled on the melody, which helped inflect the songs with some Indian flavor.  Listening to Puerto Rican-flavored sax then Indian-flavored sax showed the versatility of the instrument and highlighted the differing artistic visions of its performers.  At the end of the set, Manhanthappa told the packed crowd that they could find out more information about the group and future performances by checking out “YouTwitFace” and said, “If you want to ‘poke’ us, come talk to us.”  They will be back in town for a performance at Carnegie Hall on April 21 to play the premiere of the Samdhi suite.

As for me, I went home exhausted but exhilarated with the prospect of new jazz albums to play on repeat.  I’ll feature some on my show this Wednesday, January 11 from 8-9 p.m., but the rest I’ll leave up to you!

-Sarah Scott ’12, Program Director and Jazz Director

To read more check out the New York Times review: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/09/arts/music/winter-jazzfest-with-herculaneum-and-erimaj-review.html?emc=eta1 and what NPR had to say about some of the artists: http://www.npr.org/blogs/ablogsupreme/2012/01/04/144690488/5-bands-to-discover-at-winter-jazzfest.