The Fourth Annual Williamsburg Jazz Festival, September 10–17by Fred Cisterna
When trumpeter Jesse Selengut first thought of putting on a jazz festival in Williamsburg, he almost gave up before he started. At first, he imagined an outdoor event, but he quickly realized that would mean dealing with liquor permits, stage rentals, possible rain delays, crowd control, and other hassles. “I basically talked myself out of it in about half an hour,” he says. A couple of weeks later, however, Selengut hooked up with Jorge Cruz, a jazz enthusiast, who suggested presenting the festival in various local venues, and in 2001 the first Williamsburg Jazz Festival was launched.
Last month, Selengut and his new partner, trombonist Rick Parker, presented the fourth edition of the now-yearly event, which presents both up-and-coming and well-established artists. The WJF likes to keep things local: More than half of the participating players live in the neighborhood.
When asked if it was daunting to produce a jazz event in New York City, home of so many well-established festivals, Parker says, “That’s actually been an asset to us. This is the center of the jazz universe. Because of that we’re able to get musicians that otherwise, for our budget, we wouldn’t be able to get because they’re in town.” This year’s lineup includes such well-known artists as Jason Lindner, Seamus Blake, and Ralph Alessi.
Parker adds that in the highly competitive arena of New York City, many fine players and composers don’t get the attention they deserve. “We have a strong pool of musicians at the festival that are not major international headliners, but they are people that people want to hear,” he says.
The first thing that comes to mind when you mention Williamsburg and music in the same sentence is indie rock. Does the jazz fest have trouble reaching the hipsters?
“I don’t think the audience has been an issue because the general atmosphere in Williamsburg is that people are searching for new and different things,” says Parker. “That’s the same thing we’re doing. All the artists that we have are exploring.” Selengut points out that the WJF doesn’t focus on straight-ahead jazz. “The music that we’re presenting is not traditional jazz or classic jazz,” he says. “It really is combining a lot of different elements.”
The WJF continues to expand. This year it teamed up with FONT Music (Festival of New Trumpet Music) to present two special concerts. And now the WJF produces smaller events throughout the year. (Check out the website at http://www.fullcircledrumming.com/wjazzfestival for details.) In addition, the festival has a label, WJF Records, which has released two discs, This Is Jazz Noir by Jesse Selengut & NOIR and Finding Space by the Rick Parker Collective.
A Festival Sampling
On September 12, at the Surf Bar, Catherine Sikora & RX played two sets of finely shaped improvisations. Sikora’s statements on tenor and soprano saxophone paid great attention to both silence and sound; her lines were as sharply defined as a strand of carefully spaced gems on a necklace. Pianist Jeremy Bacon sensitively played off his bandmates, crafting composition-on-the-spot passages that were always focused. Tim McLafferty, on drums, set up a number of unusual grooves; I could have listened to one delicious 6/8 pattern all night. This excellent trio has been playing together regularly for a year and it shows. The group is carving out a subtle, non-idiomatic niche—abstract yet warm—that is hard to pin down.
At Spike Hill, a restaurant/bar right around the corner from the Surf Bar, trumpet player Brian Newman led a quintet that riffs on seventies funk-fusion. The template for the group seems to be compositions like Herbie Hancock’s “Chameleon” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition.” The band operates at full-tilt, with Newman making sure the energy never flags and that a party atmosphere prevails. The group’s set featured robust playing throughout; not surprisingly, the closer was “Chameleon” itself.
Later that week, another full-throttle group, a neo-fusion quintet led by Canadian electric bassist Chris Tarry, kicked off a bill featuring four bands at Galapagos. The group featured what fusion fans love: shredding solos, complex rhythms, and pumped-up virtuosity. One composition came off like an unholy marriage of blues and prog-rock, but sometimes the band explored more intriguing turf. And during one piece, it sounded as if the group was wildly playing backwards (and I’m sure they could). Maybe there is such a thing as “out” fusion.
Later, saxophonist Seamus Blake, another Canadian, led what might be called a power-jazz trio. The group mixed electronics, jazz, and rock to create its big sound. Blake and electric bassist Boris Kazlov used a variety of effects on their instruments; at times, it seemed like the tones of an electric violin or a distorted keyboard were emanating from the stage. Surprisingly, for brief stretches, the choppy rhythms and edgy ambience recalled post-punk bands like A Certain Ratio and the Pop Group.
The same night, the back room at Galapagos hosted two Latin-flavored artists, Carlo Vutera & Conjunto and the Edmar Castaneda Trio. Vutera (an Italian singer) and his group combine Neapolitan and Cuban forms. Fronting a band led by Cuban guitarist Octavio Kotan, the singer crooned love songs that displayed the connections and affinities between the two traditions.
Castaneda’s performance late that night was one of the high points of the festival. The Colombian harpist led a trio that is both adventurous and rooted in tradition. The smoking set evoked salsa, jazz, flamenco, and other styles, but the harp—and the music—is defined by its source in the folk music of the Colombian plains known as joropo. Castaneda is an exciting performer: His hypnotic bass lines and multi-colored melodies were dazzling. The band included trombonist Marcus Gilkes, who consistently played taut, compelling solos, and percussionist Dave Silliman, who crafted a variety of infectious grooves.
Friday night’s show at Laila Lounge opened with festival co-director Rick Parker’s group. The quintet’s sound evoked the groups that recorded for Blue Note in the mid-to-late ’60s—artists who focused on composition as much as improvisation. (Miles Davis’s recordings from the same period also come to mind.) But this was not nostalgic music: Several melodies and patterns displayed a much more modern sensibility. All five members were fine players, but Parker, who writes most of the group’s material, stood out. His solos, with their subtly varied tone and attack, were well-crafted stories.
The Ralph Alessi Quartet provided the pleasing nightcap. The group’s somewhat unusual front line consisted of Alessi’s trumpet and Brad Shepik’s electric guitar. The pair played spiky heads in unison (shades of Ornette Coleman) that had a tangy flavor. One piece that featured a deep groove by bassist Scott Colley conjured the dark mood of Miles’ Bitches Brew, but Alessi’s trumpet sound was all his own. Shepik’s slashing interjections and zigzagging runs, and Tyshawn Sorey’s freewheeling drumming, were some of the most thrilling things in the entire festival.
Fred Cisterna is contributing editor for the arts and music journal Yeti.
FRED CISTERNA writes a spoken-word column for Signal to Noise magazine.