Winter JazzFest is the way that you want to start the year. Your palette is destroyed by New Year’s celebrations. You have socialized with relatives more than is natural. You have heard too many Christmas songs in too short a period.
Along comes an NYC festival of jazz that promotes downtown new music, that is accessible to kids old enough to drink, affordable (day passes for $30-40), and breathes some young lion and old cat life into the tired club circuit. It’s a palette cleanser for the jaded. Kudos to the people who thought about doing this the first weekend of January, when early onset S.A.D. is manifest in the city.
This year’s fest was my first event and I heard a lot on the first night, less on the second night, when I was introducing my 2-year-old-son happily to basement jazz. More on that later. On with events, with thanks to Daniel to pulling info on musicians and bands, and more.
Friday, January 6th
Curtis Hasselbring’s New Mellow Edwards – Le Poisson Rouge
Curtis Hasselbring’s New Mellow Edwards (Curtis Hasselbring – trombone & guitar, Chris Speed -tenor saxophone & clarinet, Mary Halvorson – guitar, Matt Moran – vibraphone, Trevor Dunn – bass, Satoshi Takieshi – drums & percussion, Ches Smith – drums & percussion)
Awesomely brainy jazz-rock from Brooklyn. Notice all the modifiers I used here. My comment to Daniel: “this music could only have been created in your borough (Brooklyn).” His reply: “This music makes me laugh.”
When I was young and naive, I lumped all fusion together. It’s all pop-influenced! Not so. Or yes, but pop is diverse. For example, some pop music is whiter than others.
What made Curtis Hasselbring‘s band super enjoyable was some of the classic features of downtown jazz: tunes actually written based on concepts (this is a hallmark of art), jazz-rock primitivism in the writing and instrumentation, a true improvisatory approach, and great musicianship. I really enjoyed the vibe player Moran’s solos, and Hasselbring’s playing. On the downside – as cerebral music it the was a tougher sell in the early post-dinner slot.
John Medeski (John Medeski – piano, pump organ, & end-blown flute) - Le Poisson Rouge
Medeski’s gig had a rapt, and much larger audience but as a non-fan, I had a harder time accessing the music. Freed from his groove-band confines (that’s a paradox, folks), Medeski seized the opportunity to explore a freer context, playing piano, pump organ, and a convincing flute, and the crowd seemed to be all ears. Truth be told I am not a fan of free playing at all unless it’s exceptional – ie. it has to be good enough to penetrate even a dunderhead like mine.
That’s my excuse anyway. I’m not sure based on this show, whether Medeski is accomplished enough a soloist to capture the attention like a Jarrett. Why should he be? He’s the consummate group player, more collectivist than egoist. To my ears, the ideas weren’t stark or fast-developing enough. The crowd loved the non-piano stuff more than the piano improvisation, which constituted the majority of the gig.
Nels Cline Singers (Nels Cline – guitar, Yuka C. Honda – keyboard, Scott Amendola – drums & electronics, Trevor Dunn – bass) - Le Poisson Rouge
Compelling avante-garde rockish noise from a downtown icon. What makes this jazz, I wondered, peering through a crowd that seemed to have tripled even since the Medeski gig. Dunno. Jazz harmonies, sensibility, primary focus on improvisation?
Michael Blake’s Hellbent (Michael Blake – tenor sax, Steven Bernstein – trumpet, Charlie Burnham – violin, Marcus Rojas – tuba, G Calvin Weston – drums) – Kenny’s Castaways
At this point in my first JazzFest, I was wondering – OK, when is somebody going to swing? That question was not exactly answered by the Michael Blake band at Kenny’s Castaways. Michael Blake’s band, featuring the great Steve Bernstein and Marcus Rojas on the original bass, the tuba, was a raucous, artful downtown ensemble. To me, thoroughly interesting but not quite connecting. Or maybe not sufficiently visceral to penetrate my end of week funk. I have to admit it was great to see a serious jazz band play at Kenny’s, site of many junior rock band gigs. (My first NY gig was at Kenny’s in 1994 with a band called This Way Out.)
Saturday, January 7th
Laurence Hobgood (Laurence Hobgood – piano, Joel Frahm – tenor sax, Todd Bashore – alto sax, Brandon Lee, trumpet, Jared Schonig – drums, Matthew Rybicki – bass) - Le Poisson Rouge
OK, this first gig on Saturday night was what I was waiting for. Full disclosure: my wife and I are lucky enough to be friends of the amazing pianist and composer Laurence Hobgood. But, I still have ears, and this kicked the ass of everthing else I heard that weekend.
Many educated jazz listeners know Grammy-winning Laurence Hodgood through his 15 year + collaboration with Kurt Elling in the KE Quartet. And naturally so, because that’s his major achievement. But Laurence also has some amazing trio records from his early years in Chicago with Paul Wertico, a recent meisterwerk with Charlie Haden, and has taken some of the arranging achievements from the G.R.E.A.T albums Flirting with Twilight and Dedicated to You (for which Laurence earned a Grammy for instrumental arrangement for a vocalist) and written a body of work for sextet that really tore up the audience in the first set on Saturday. Joining him for this gig was a collection of up-and-coming New York cats. A leader in seniority and beatific soloing was tenor player Joel Frahm.
Looking back on this gig, what made it great was not Laurence’s soloing, I am happy to say. At a KE gig, I listen to Laurence for his telepathic rapport with the singer, for his ability to swing, surprise, and take the audience to deeper emotional places. At this sextet gig, he sounded great as a player, but the focus was more on his music expressed through his writing, which took the form of some incredibly dense swinging writing in heads, horn section playing, and arrangement behind the solos. It was extremely swinging and fresh, really the kind of ensemble writing that I love the most, where the writer takes every opportunity to develop an idea through the 6-10 minutes of a tune and takes a lot of care to avoid jazz cliche, playing the changes etc.
The band, I think, only played four songs in 45 minutes but the crowd was totally into it. I saw head bops not evident the night before. The musicians were into it too, giving it their all, and playing the challenging parts with the kind of attention that this level of music deserves. Joel Frahm had a sublime, Buddha-like solo on the song with the Japanese name. He’s a musician who could transform himself from a per-excellence sideman to an iconic soloist if he’s not there already.
Lastly, I have to comment that this Jazzfest gig was made extra special by our bringing our 2-year-old son Ewan, who was bopping around during warmups and dutifully pointing out each instrument (“phone,” “piano,” “trumpet,” “bass”) as it made its appearance. I was triple digging the gig as we were both proud of Laurence’s manifest talent and our son’s ability to hang in the mosh pit with the diehard Six Point drinkers.
Unco Laurence! Piano.
I wouldn’t minimize the importance of playing music that a kid can be excited about; it’s a sign that the music is working, connecting, doing its business and giving us new spirit to face January ordeals.