Parameters of jazz now

The Winterjazzfest held at three venues in Greenwich Village last Saturday, a smorgasbord of almost two dozen acts offered up to attendees of the Association of Performing Arts Centers conference, gave a hint of some sounds to be heard around the U.S. in the months to come. What I witnessed was diverse, engaging, virtuosic but not didactic. The musicians seem to know they’ve got to be audience-friendly, or go without. So they’ve tailored their acts for clarity, balancing familiarity and novelty but not dumbing down. 

I couldn’t catch all the bands, of course, but arrived in time for the first music: lusty-voiced singer Claudia Acuna and band at (le) Poisson Rouge, interposing a hip-hop beat on “Gracias a la vida,” the nuevo cancion anthem by Violeta Parra, adopted as repertoire by Joan Baez in the early ’70s. 

Ubiquitous NYC music photographer Jack Vartoogian was already there at work. 

Then I made a short detour, stopping by Terra Blues just down the block — one of NYC’s very few venues devoted to that roots music, to hear Jr. Mack play acoustic guitar and sing some unusual historic repertoire in his fine baritone.

Back to Winterfest, at Kenny’s Castaways, which probably never before had free jazz such as that being advanced by the trio of saxophonist Charles Gayle (on alto), bassist William Parker and drummer Rashid Ali (together, they’re By Any Means Necessary). What was “free” about their sound was the unfettered spilling out of a three-way improvisation, Gayle taking the penetrating high register while Parker throbbed a relentless beat which Ali held close to on his high-hat while skittering all around on his other drums. They didn’t scare anyone from the packed house out the door — free jazz, having been a fact of art for almost 50 years, has earned its place as another variety of American music (and anyway, pianist Lafayette Gilchrist with band, jazz journalist K Leander Williams and Sexmob leader-trumpeter Steve Bernstein — all at the bar — weren’t gonna be scared by music firebrands). But By Any Means Necessary does indeed project intensity that stretches ears and minds.
Around the corner at Sullivan Hall, Earshot Jazz (Seattle) director John Gilbreath introduced keyboardist Jonathan Batiste, who came out blowing a melodica plaintively, then elicited some complex bebop lines on the instrument that’s often regarded as a toy. Those lines were picked up by a guest alto saxophonist — announced as being 15 years old — as Batiste moved behind the grand piano. He’s a tall man with large hands and plays with brio; he has impressive range, comprising Monk themes (“‘Round Midnight”) as well as Joplin’s “The Entertainer,” the New Orleans r&b staple “Oom-pah-pah-doo,” wisps of a Chopin prelude and . . .you get the picture? He mixed it all up in surprising sequences for high contrast and won over a crowd that included many music mavens — I saw Margaret Lawrence, director of programming for Hopkins Center at Darmouth College; Arnie Molina, artistic director of the Flynn Center in Burlington, VT; Lewis Porter, director of the Jazz History and Research program at Rutgers U and Coltrane biographer; frequent Down Beat photographer Bill Douthart;Tim Jackson, producer of the Monterey Jazz Festival, and Bill Bragin, producer of the next nights globalFEST 2009 and director of public programming at Lincoln Center, among others checking out Batiste.
Having missed Jason Moran’s Bandwagon trio and Sexmob, I returned to (le) PR for Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto‘s Sextet, showcasing his compositions from their new album Taking The Soul For A Walk. Prieto is a hard-slashing, precision percussionist, so quick as to introduce a dozen powerful accents in a measure or two of his written scores, which trumpeter Ralph Alessi, saxophonists Dave Binney and Peter Apfelbaum blew as hot as possible, pianist Manuel Valera and bassist Charles Flores grooving behind them. The music room was filled with listeners who’d just plopped down on the floor, stood at the bar or against the back walls — including blogger Hank Shteamer, who also writes for Time Out New York; John Phillips, formerly of George Wein’s Festival Productions and now president of the Live Events division of Festival Network, which produces the JVC Jazz Festivals, among other events; Sara Donnelly, jazz-activist program officer of the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and Philip Bither, senior curator of performing arts at the Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis. 
It was too crowded and we were all too busy running back and forth to share detailed opinions about the music on display — and my mind was buzzed enough, so home I subway’d, thereby missing lots more; read Nate Chinen’s NY Times review for info on bands I didn’t catch. But for the fifth year, Winter Jazzfest demonstrated some of the breadth and depth of urban and urbane improvisation, American-style. Given the influential audience, a few of these musical acts may well be booked somewhere near you in Obama Years One or Two.
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  1. Chris H says

    Thought I saw you over near the stairs during the By Any Means set. I thought the lineup was great, but, imo, the venues were way to crowded to go back and forth and actually be in a position to see anything. Not that jamming everyone into the Knit the last couple years was any better.
    HM: Chris, yeah I was there by the stairs at Kenny’s. Site lines were great if you looked in the wall-mirror. When I got into Sullivan Hall, there was no crowd, so it was easy to hear Batiste from an advantageous position. (le) poisson rouge was too crowded and probably a fire hazard. That place has nice programming ideas, but I’m not impressed with the overall operation. I didn’t make it to globalFEST at Webster Hall on Sunday night, where it was a three-stage circus akin to what the Knit used to have, I gather. I ran into Bill Bragin, its producer, at the APAP conference today and he told me I especially would have enjoyed the Inuit singer and the Iranian/Persian reeds band. He knows my taste, I’m sure he’s right.

  2. says

    Sounds like Batiste’s performance there was similar to one he gave at Jazz Fest last year — very impressive piano playing, audience-friendly, rangy to a fault.
    It was a little too all over the place and showy for me, but others clearly disagreed. It will be interesting to watch what direction this quite gifted musician takes.