Saturday, February 01, 2020

Who Did I See at Winter Jazz Fest? Well.....

Yesterday I penned a report on Jazz Congress for Pittsburgh Current which should be up on their website soon. They asked for 500 words. I delivered about 850. It was that kind of event - hard to sum up in a small space without oversimplifying everything. With that completed, I figured I better talk a bit about the events at Winter Jazz Fest that I was able to check out. Specifically the marathon night that took place in Brooklyn. Luckily for me, everyone I wanted to see was performing at the same venue, the Sultan Room on Starr Street.

Last year, one of my Winter Jazz Fest evenings began with Tim Berne in a trio setting (with Michael Formanek's Very Practical Trio) and the same thing happened this year. And much like last year's show, Berne began the set with a plastic bottle in the bell of his horn. From there, the similarities end. Big Terminal was a whole different sonic dish, with Berne's paison David Torn on guitar and Aurora Nealand on accordion. Dressed in a hoodie for most of the performance, Nealand also seemed to have a microphone mounted on her instrument and added some vocals. She also banged on a few mental cans with a whisk.

Big Terminal's set recalled some of the frenzy of Sun of Goldfinger, the album Torn and Berne did with Ches Smith. After some barbed growls, Berne was playing some rapid lines that recalled his Bloodcount work (a quick listen to the new Snake Oil album features that too). Torn alternated between joining the saxophonist's melodies and mucking it up with his always entrancing effects work. Nealand proved to be a strong contributor to the group. She often supported Berne by shaping the structure with rich drones. At other times she pumped out staccato notes on the keys and rapidly tugged on the bellows with her left. It's not a disservice to say that it was sometimes hard to distinguish her playing from that of Torn. Except when Torn let fly some ear-splitting harmonics. 

Jessica Pavone's Quartet performed their set without amplification. No pickups on the string instruments and no microphones pointed in the direction of the two violins and two violas. Their unfiltered sound of their instruments' wood could be felt in the whole room. The audience was quiet too, save for the clicking cameramen who were omnipresent at the edge of the stage.

Pavone, who came to Pittsburgh in 2008 with Anthony Braxton, lead the group through pieces that were built on simple figures spread out among the players (Pavone and Abby Swindle on viola, Ericka Dicker and Angela Morris on violin). The first piece was built on arpeggios that were repeated and staggered between the players. Sometimes the quartet coalesced and sounded like a droning chorale. But other pieces got too repetitive, relying on sliding notes that didn't have as much of a payoff.

Wayne Horvitz's composed his 2015 album Some Places Are Forever Afternoon inspired by the poems of Richard Hugo. It was an amazing song cycle that included bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck in a group that also included cello, cornet and guitar. Hearing the pianist and the bassoonist together in duo brought back the power of that album during their set. Together they were graceful and lyrical, yet still penetrating at the same time. Any preconceptions about what a bassoon should sound like go out the window when Schoenbeck starts playing. It almost sounded like a bass clarinet, as she could easily go from guttural growls to lighter melodic moments. With Horvitz's strong writing and equally arresting approach to the piano, the duo had the audience sitting on the Sultan Room's concrete floor in rapt attention.

With Neil Peart's passing at the beginning of the year, it made me wonder who young aspiring drummers will admire and emulate in years to come. The answer came with the next set: Dan Weiss. His Starebaby band followed Horvitz and Schoenbeck, with a set that was both heavy and whip smart, in terms of technical facility. Ben Monder (guitar), Matt Mitchell (keyboards) and Trevor Dunn (bass guitar) joined him, introducing a set that leaned heavily on an album coming out this spring on Pi Recordings.

Weiss' knowledge of Indian beat cycles again seems to play a major role in his composing. But the group peeled off the time signatures like they were nothing. Monder and Mitchell added some heavy solos, throughout. The latter player had a voicing that sounded like a clavinet and it worked in a situation like this. The self-titled Starebaby album from 2018 was a tad dark for me. But after this set, I'm looking forward to their next release.

A late dinner kept me from most of the set by Salami Rose Joe Louis, the stage name of keyboardist Lindsay Olsen. Her quartet, who appeared to be in the 20s, played a funky groovy set with vocals, bass, drums and horns. After Starebaby, anything would probably seem anti-climactic but Olsen's set seemed a little closer to a lighter, ambient groove pop. Heads were bobbing in the audience, so the vibe was being felt, but nevertheless, they seemed like an odd addition to Winter Jazz Fest.

Chris Lightcap's SuperBigmouth brought things back around with a group that had to work to get everyone onstage. With two drummers, two guitarists, two tenor saxophones, keyboards and the leader's basses (upright and electric guitar), they brought together both of Lightcap's other bands, Superette and Big Mouth. This music might have had some progressive rock coursing through its veins but there was plenty of room for blowing too. Plus the way Lightcap used the instrumentation made things sound bigger.

The group didn't get on until close to 1:00 AM but once they did it was hard to leave, even though I was feeling dog tired. (Lightcap is pretty much a homeboy, having grown up in Latrobe, and since I never see him in town, I felt like I needed stick it out.) The majestic opening and rolling rubato drums of "False Equivalency" and layered voicings in "Zero Point Five" were worth the effort.

Getting home that night seemed a tide dicey. The L train into Manhattan was only going so far into Brooklyn before heading back to the city, so there were shuttles taking people to that subway stop. That late at night, it felt like we were going all over Hell's half acre - turning left, turning right, turning left again but not necessarily going in a circle. Luckily I wasn't the only one in the same predicament and I finally got on the train.


Saturday night, Winter Jazz Fest was winding down. One week, a lot of subway rides, a bunch of donuts and coffee later, the bus ride home was just around the corner. The Beat Music Improvisations at Nublu didn't seem quite my thing but it featured the festival's artist in residence, drummer Mark Guiliana, who has played with everyone from David Bowie to Brad Mehldau. Considering I missed the Manhattan Marathon, I figured I better check this show out.

When I got to Nublu, on Avenue C, the first set had already started and the room was at capacity. But the doorman said if I went to the room upstairs I could hang out and they'd let us know when space opened up. Good deal.

Upstairs, a tenor trio was playing to about a crowd of at least a dozen and maybe upwards of 20 people. Some were listening, others were in the corner talking. The trio was on fire. When they finished one tune and went immediately into the next, I started to wonder: this guy is doing what JD Allen does. He's also playing off a groove but drawing on some sort of post-Coltrane tenor stylings. Is this JD Allen?

Sure enough, it was. One of the best blankety-blank tenor players in jazz is playing to a room of less than 20 people during a jazz festival. What the hell is up with that? People should be leaning on every not this guy plays. A lot of people. I realized later than night I should have asked if he had CDs for sale because I need to get caught up on his last one or two. But at the time, I felt like the only thing I'd end up saying to him would have been, "Oh my God, you're JD Allen?! Wow, man!" I only caught about 15 minutes of his set before they wrapped up. From the looks of things, they were packing up for the night too. Before long, we were told that we could get in to the lower floor.

A short time later, I was in Nublu with a bunch of other young folks and the band kicked into a heavy 4/4 groove with some samples floating around it. I couldn't see if Guiliana was behind the drum kit, if Nate Smith was or if both of them were playing together. What I could see were Jason Lindner and Big Yuki laying down some ambient sounds while Stu Brooks started a groove going on bass. A lot of heads were wagging along with the beat but it felt more like - and maybe this description shows I'm a little out of touch - a techno show with some live instrumentation. If there was improvisation going on, it wasn't being felt. And it probably wasn't the point either.

Over those last seven days, a wealth of events transpired. The NPR Jazz poll finally came out, and the results favored a number of artists that took music risks, rather than handing the kudos to more traditional performers. At the same time, Rolling Stone unearthed an internal memo from IHeartMedia that discussed massive layoffs from the monolithic broadcast company, again furthering the idea that commercial radio is moving towards a bland, limp landscape.

At Jazz Congress, a panel on the balance of art and commerce leaned more towards the commerce side, without drawing on the imput of, say, ESP-Disk Records - a label that has spent more than half a century releasing wild albums and just happened to be set up around the corner from the panel - or Pi Recordings or Sunnyside, two labels that show up frequently in the NPR poll.

I'm not trying to put down Guiliana and Co for their set. Or anybody. A lot of it could have been the mood I was in by that time of the week. But when JD Allen - no hyperbole here, one of the best in the business - can't draw a big crowd on a Saturday, it kind of makes you wonder about the audience for this music and what they'll really go out of their way to hear.

But, really, I had a good time.

Here's a pic of JD Allen. Take a good look and then go find one of his albums.

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