Photos by Jati Lindsay
The central theme of this year’s NYC Winter Jazzfest was social justice, something that can be done a better job of in this country to say the very least. Throughout the festival’s many, many performances, artists would either opt into the conversation or choose to speak through their music, but as we gear up for a Trump presidency, there was no escaping the prompt. If you believe strongly in things like peace and equality, it’s probably a tough time for you, and this gathering of like-minded intellects acted as a relief with hopeful eyes for the future.
Shabaka & the Ancestors kicked off the music for the festival with the first show at Le Poisson Rouge. “We need new prayers, we need new psalms,” vocalist Siyabonga Mthembu repeated through the set. The saxophone work of rising star Shabaka Hutchings, who stood out during Floating Points’ debut orchestral set some time ago, is fierce. He expertly controls his volume to make you listen carefully and hang on to each note. When he lets loose, just devastating.
Pharoah Sanders headlined that night, a jam-packed opening celebration of jazz music. Both acts have a very spiritual edge to them, and it made for a feel-good evening. Ravi Coltrane joined the legend for nearly an hour, including an absolutely insane rendition of his father’s “Olé.” Watching Sanders trade licks with a Coltrane was an unannounced surprise, and really set the bar for the festival to come.
The marathon nights of festival included hundreds of acts playing at tens of venues over two nights in downtown Manhattan. You really had to pick your battles in terms of what you got to see and miss, but ultimately any path you take would be a good one. On Friday night, the night started with Dave Douglas’ High Risk, which featured beat-maker Shigeto on electronics, Nate Wood on bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums. That quartet was fierce, and playing electronica-tinged hip-hop beats with the jazz mindset took things totally off the hook.
From there we saw the uptempo funk of Butcher Brown, a band that could easily be playing slots before Lettuce on the festival circuit, but has nestled into the NYC jazz scene with their proggy chops. Then Tigue lit the New School Glass Box Theater up! The percussion trio had a guitarist and bassist with them that took their atmospheric, thumping beats to a new level, and since it doesn’t have much anything to do with ‘jazz’ per se, it offered a great differentiation of what would be scene the rest of the night.
Colin Stetson, Greg Fox, and Trevor Dunn played a wild trio set at Bowery Electric, mixing black metal blast beats with baritone saxophone for what can only be described as ‘fucked up.’ You could head bang ferociously at moments, or listen in aw of the cyclic breathing Stetson executes while playing.
Chris Daddy Dave ended the night with an insane Drumhedz set at a packed-out Bowery Ballroom. The crowd must have been six or seven hundred deep as he started his Funkadelic-inspired take on various tunes, from gospel crooners to classics by Miles Davis.
Night two featured a great set from Quantic, live at LPR. The worldly rhythms and tropical vibe helped us to escape the winter briefly there for a moment. Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile offered another take on percussive music, with polyrhythmic grooves that are other-worldly in the best possible way. That music can really get you far out if you let it.
The marathon wasn’t over on Sunday though, with multiple shows left to go. Most fascinatingly was the Monk Talk, a discussion featuring musicians, critics, and Thelonious’ kid himself, T.S. Monk. Hearing the cast talk about the jazz legend, who is celebrating his centennial this year, was just awesome, and I learned a lot not just about Monk’s life, but the landscape of the 50s and 60s scene in general. It felt like I was back at college, taking the courses I’d always hoped I’d have.
With social justice as the core theme of the festival, it would be easy for things to turn into a swirl of negativity. But since music was the vehicle, it was upbeat, and that’s important. While things are fucked up, it’s important to remember that we’re free: free to disagree, free to protest, free to pursue change, free to discuss. Without that freedom, change is not possible, but with it, it is. Through the positive vibrations of music, there is no doubt that NYC Winter Jazzfest helped, even if in the smallest way, to change the world for the better.
Here’s some more photos of performances maybe not mentioned above. Photos by Jati Lindsay.