Winter Jazzfest is upon us, finally fulfilling the promise of a true “winter squall” that New York’s weather alert system so dramatically texted you about. Though it started days ago with some of its higher profile satellite events, real heads know the heart of the festival isn’t in manageable one-show-per-night events, but rather in the maddening smorgasbord that is THE MARATHON (read: SQUALL).
The Marathon is a dizzying array of must-sees and maybes, set after set of staggered and stacked possibilities that may, like so many objects in the rearview mirror, appear closer than they are. It is both friend and enemy of the passive jazz fan, as it requires action and decisiveness – then again, in many ways, it doesn’t. Winter Jazzfest is many things, but it’s never the same thing for anyone. It is what you make it, so the question is: what kind of Jazzfest are you? You may not have been prepared to completely evaluate yourself, but you have to decide what kind of person you are, tonight. Sorry, but you do.
Now in its 16th year, Winter Jazzfest remains for many a showcase of New York’s avant garde. It is first, though perhaps not foremost, still concerned with what pushes jazz forward, in whatever direction it may go. The ever-expanding festival is a well-curated choose-your-own-adventure map of creative music throughout sort-of-walkable stretches of New York between the West and East Villages – and this year with its own dedicated day in Brooklyn. The quintessential characteristic of Winter Jazzfest is that it is unapologetically adventurous. It doesn’t want you to totally know what you’re going to see. It’s designed to stave off listener complacency. It wants you to stumble into a dimly lit room without knowing what what’s on stage; Winter Jazzfest is most successful as a place between subverted expectations and diverted intensions, where the set you never thought about may end up being your favorite of the festival.
It’s best to address this hard-learned truth upfront: you will miss out on stuff. If “FOMO” is a problem for you, well, then, welcome to the club. It’s a very bad club. You can’t see everything. Though you can definitely try.
This is a guide to help light a path or two, or three or four converging paths. It’s not a guide for everyone. At WJF you can find all kinds of straight ahead jazz, jazz-adjacent, jazz-influenced, hybrids of jazz and soul, R&B, funk, hip-hop and electronic music. That is not the focus of this guide. This essentially a map of the more “out” performances, with a mix of various other styles for an adventurous listener. But the best recommendation for adventurous listening is, of course, to not read any of this and to find your own path through. In that case, you’ve already wasted time.
A couple of tips to start:
-Between the 10-11 venues you might get the sense that it is walkable, as it was in years past. It is not. Not really. A route should be planned, and options with plans A, B, and even C must be at least considered. Busses and cars are options to go east for Webster Hall an
-You can see multiple sets in a block if you’re willing to miss some of each and likely abandon your friends in the interest of expedience, but you need to be aware of the distance between venues.
-WJF has a tool that updates the capacity of each venue: winterjazzfest.com/crowds – this is extremely helpful. Check this before trying to make impossible jumps from venue to venue work, because getting there and not getting in is the cruelest irony of all.
MARATHON NIGHT 1: FRIDAY, 1/10/2020
6PM – Zinc Bar (West Village): Nasheet Waits with Nduduzo Makhathini, Immanuel Wilkins, Rashaan Carter The merging of styles between NYC standouts Nasheet Waits, Immanuel Wilkins, and Rashaan Carter with the South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini is more than intriguing enough to start the night early. Zinc Bar, a classic West Village “jazz hole,” as we like to say, It’s small, has a drink minimum for table service, if you’re not at a table it kind of sucks, and it fills up fast. Sounds great, right?
6PM – The Dance (NoHo): Jure Pukl’s “Broken Circles” with Joel Ross, Charles Altura, Matt Brewer, Kweku Sumbry This Slovenian sax player studied under the great Joe Lovano and has since been playing with a long list of impressive names (Esperanza Spalding to Darius Jones, to give a range). The ensemble for Broken Circles includes some noteworthy young improvisers in the avant garde scene, like talk-of-the-town vibes player Joel Ross.
6:45PM – Mercury Lounge (Lower East Side): Sunny Jain’s ‘Wild Wild East’ As the leader of Red Baraat, celebrated party band blending Indian bhangra with pretty much everything else, few are more suited to try than Sunny Jain to explore the mixing of eastern music with western styles.
7PM – Nublu (East Village): Angela Morris’ Skellettes with Nathaniel Morgan, Jason Ajemian, Booker Stardrum Angela Morris is involved in some of the most creative projects on the fringe of New York scene, and this ensemble is a safe bet for something unexpected.
7:30PM – Zurcher Gallery (NoHo): Kalia Vandever with Theo Walentiny, Lee Meadvin, Nick Dunston, Connor Parks Kalia Vandever is a talented young trombone player making a name for herself in with the new class of vibrant avant garde players. Worth checking out if for no other reason than to see the rarity that is a trombone leading a group.
7:45PM – Le Poisson Rouge (West Village): Steven Bernstein’s [email protected] with vocalist Catherine Russell Slide Trumpeter and master arranger/band leader Steven Bernstein is an absolute must-see performer, and The Millennial Territory Orchestra is one of his most fun-loving projects. MTO twists familiar compositions into brain-busting avant-swing, and features some of the best players in New York City. Even if all the words used to describe it sound like an instant turn-off, you will like it.
8PM – Nublu (East Village): Nate Wooley’s Columbia Icefield with Susan Alcorn, Mary Halvorson, Ryan Sawyer Nate Wooley is far and away one of the most interesting players in new music, constantly challenging listeners with his approach. This ensemble with slide guitarist Susan Alcorn and guitarist Mary Halvorson, who should need no introduction, makes this set unmissable.
8:15PM – Webster Hall (East Village): Ambrose Akinmusire with Sam Harris, Harish Raghavan, Justin Brown Starting a little later but just far enough away from Nublu to catch both sets, Ambrose Akinmusire’s quartet will be hot. Ambrose is a trumpet player everyone has their eye on – which also means this set may be packed. We can tell by its placement at a larger music venue that they’re expecting his popularity to draw a crowd, and because Webster Hall is one of the furthest north, you’ll really need to commit to this.
BREAK FOR FOOD? – You *may* be one of those people that needs to eat for fuel, and didn’t eat dinner before 6pm because you’re not over the age of 70. This may be a good time to eat something.
8:30PM – The Dance (NoHo): Nikara and Black Wall Street The granddaughter of jazz piano great Kenny Barron, vibraphonist Nikara Warren uses the the destruction of black-owned business and massacres of Black Wall Street in 1921 as a reference point to uplift modern black music and culture.
9:30PM – Nublu (East Village): Mary Lattimore (solo harp) Solo harp. Solo harp. Nublu takes the award for most out there venue of the marathon so far, so if traveling back to the west side for Ethiopian grooves doesn’t suit your interests or energy level, Mary Lattimore will be presenting, again, solo harp.
9:45PM – SOBs (West Village) – Hailu Mergia The inclusion Hailu Mergia in this festival is emblematic of the Winter Jazzfest’s varied curatorial tastes. It’s a somewhat rare opportunity to see the legendary Ethiopian accordion/keyboardist, known for the 1970’s “ethiopiques” sound, and largely rediscovered in the last decade. He’ll be playing old tunes and music from his 2018 album, which made Pitchfork’s top albums of the decade list. SOB’s is the furthest west, and for many purposes the most out-of-the-way venue, but it may be worth the travel and whatever else has to be missed to catch this set.
10PM – Zurcher Gallery (NoHo): Ted Poor with Cuong Vu and Kris Davis Ted Poor is adventurous Seattle-based drummer, and this trio with trumpeter Cuong Vu (of the Pat Metheny Group) and the ever-astounding pianist Kris Davis is going to surely be electric. It’s just a real shame that it’s on around the same time as Hailu Megia. It might be worth taking a car, but it’s hard to know if you’ll get there in time to catch any of it.
10:45PM – Nublu (East Village): Mary Halvorson & John Dieterich – Mary Halvorson’s prickly angular avant-garde guitar work has stunned audiences for years and made her something of a “darling,” if ever there was one, in the experimental scene. Her collaborative work with John Dieterich (of the influential avant-rock band Deefhoof) – well-described in the title of their recent album “a tangle of stars” – is one that combines their styles into intriguing patterns and layered sound.
11PM – The Dance (NoHo): Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog with Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily – There is really nothing like this band. Marc Ribot is a guitar legend and an icon of experimental music and independent ethos, and both Ches Smith and Shahzad Ismaily bring total originality to their playing. The best thing I can say is that when they played WJF a previous year, I recommended friends who had never heard of them to see it while I, who has seen them many times before, saw a different set. Afterwards they raved about it so intensely, saying it was the best set of the whole festival, that missing it became my biggest regret – in life, ever, to this very day!
11:15PM – Zurcher Gallery (NoHo): Todd Sickafoose’s ‘Bear Proof’ It may be possible, due to the close proximity of these venues, to dip in and out of catch the first half and second half of these sets. I would warn that Ceramic Dog will be hard to tear yourself away from, but this project Todd Sickafoose described as “a wordless, somewhat genreless meditational epic” for his Tiny Resistors band sounds like a contender for my attention. Performing this epic along with Sickafoose will be his Tiny Resistors group, including: Jenny Scheinman, Ben Goldberg, Kirk Knuffke, Carmen Staaf, Liam Robinson, Kyle Sanna, and Allison Miller. If the sheer talent in this band says anything – and it says everything – it will be good.
12AM – The Dance (NoHo): Jaimie Branch’s Fly Or Die with Lester St. Louis, Jason Ajemian, Chad Taylor Jaimie Branch’s Fly or Die one of best working free jazz ensembles playing right now. She just released the follow-up to the first Fly or Die album, this one entitled Fly or Die II: bird dogs of paradise, and much like the first volume it is one of the top albums of the year. Jaimie’s attitude is deeply cool in her music but her playing suggests measured aggression, and she achieves a coolness and a chaos that harkens back to the height of 70’s jazz exploration. This is an exciting band with rousing new material to explore – not to be missed.
12AM – Nublu (East Village): Blacks Myths (Luke Stewart and Warren Crudup III) One of the great frustrations of Winter Jazz Fest is when two great sets are in direct conflict, as we have here. Luke Stewart is the kind of bass player that keeps you interested and guessing, and this duo with D.C. drummer Warren Crudup III – described as “pulsing, hypnotic,” and “expanding the idea of a rhythm section into something both ancient and futuristic” sounds like it was written basic on a algorithm made for my interests. Luke Stewart performed last year with the political free jazz unit Irreversible Entanglements, an unrelenting musical assault, and it sounds as if this set will display a different side of his playing.
If you’re still standing by now, there’s a lot to be made of the after hours possibilities, including seeing sets you maybe would skip in favor of something more in your wheelhouse, or choose purely based on the vibe of the space. For instance, Madison McFerrin, daughter of Bobby McFerrin who has followed in his vocal footsteps, at the Mercury Lounge. Or head back west to the Zinc Bar for italian pianist Simona Premazzi. The ambiance of Zinc at 1 AM kind of makes you feel cool, but you may feel even cooler at Nublu. Nublu will be hosting a guaranteed good time late night jam session led by Jay Rodriguez, a versatile NYC sax player from Groove Collective, but it being Nublu do not count on it starting on time. And for the latest of the late-nighters, The Dance will keep the electronic after party going late with “Singularity Jam Session” hosted by keyboardist Jason Lindner of electro-jazz fusion band NowVsNow and singer Sasha Masakowski.
If you aren’t sleeping the entire next afternoon, be sure to check out the different talks presented.
This post is a collaboration with @NewYork_is_Now, follow on instagram for up to date content from Winter Jazz Fest.