Diary of a Mad Composer
I want to get the facts out of the way first: the New York City Winter Jazzfest is one of the finest festivals of its kind. It’s the jazz event that this city—the center of the jazz universe—deserves: it expands across the history of the music, from trad to free to fusion, and when it reaches outside of jazz it ignores smooth pop and diluted rock, blues, and folk in favor of musicians who work with improvisation: Colin Stetson, Bill Laswell, the Ex, Dither, Kaki King. Jazz is not commercial music, and the non-jazz in the festival is in no way commercial filler.
In and around the Village (more spread out this year, with many events at the New School’s facilities on 13th and 12th streets and a few venues south of Houston), the experience of the festival is as close as anyone will ever get to the pinnacle of jazz as popular music, from the 1930s to the mid-1950s. It’s not 52nd street, but when you’re at the festival you are not only deep in the city but also within strolling distance of what seems like a dozen simultaneous sets. Contemporary jazz being ridiculously capacious, it’s appropriately impossible to get a grip on all the music.
The marquee feature this year was the ECM showcase at the New School Auditorium. The move to the New School was a welcome change, the performing spaces were ideal for the music, able to accommodate big crowds and provide good, if at times quirky, sound. ECM is arguably the predominant jazz record label of the past forty years, and one of the most well-known labels in the world.
There is an intimacy and interiority about the ECM engineering aesthetic, a vein running through the label’s catalogue of music that makes everything feel like it was made for each listener, in their living rooms or headphones, a private and individuated conversation. That, if anything, is the ECM sound.
With that in mind, the auditorium often felt too big. Too reverberant, of course, but it also felt like the space between musicians and audience was too wide, only occasionally bridged in the way one would experience in a smaller hall or a nightclub. This is no criticism of the music, which was exceptional, a seemingly perpetual rotation of the leading figures in contemporary jazz, all of whom either had a record released on ECM in the past year or so (David Torn’s only sky, David Virelles’ M´bọ`kọ´, You’ve Been Watching Me from Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, and Mark Turner’s Lathe of Heaven are some of the best jazz releases of the last eighteen months), or had new or upcoming releases on the label. From the latter, there was music from Ches Smith’s exceptional The Bell, and sets from Avishai Cohen, Michael Formanek, Craig Taborn, and Theo Bleckmann that hinted at things to come.
Chris Potter’s set bridged the gap and filled the space, and I’m already salivating for his next record. After a series of compositionally ambitious and ambivalently successful records, he came out with a quartet—pianist Virelles, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Marcus Gilmore—playing new material. And he played with power, excitement, a flow of imaginative ideas. He is arguably the strongest player in all of the contemporary mainstream, and it was a pleasure to hear him blow.
My deepest pleasures, though, came through a series of sets on Friday that were tremendous, each one better than the last, each deep, beautiful, humane, sociable, and musically and intellectually impressive.
It all started at Zinc Bar, fairly early in the evening, with James Brandon Lewis’s trio: tenor sax, electric bass player Luke Stewart, and Warren “Trae” Crudup on the drums. Lewis put out a terrific album in 2015, Days of FreeMan, and he is making exciting, muscular jazz, smart music with the appeal of funk. Lewis plays like a man who grew up hearing funk, rock, and hip hop, and has made this a seamless part of his musical personality: a free man making his own music, unlimited by commercial expectations.
His phrases could come out of the mouths of rappers, but he doesn’t confine himself to a four-to-the-bar neatness. The way he connects them and expands the music in a creative and logical stream could only be jazz, and there’s a sense as he spirals upwards in a solo that he’s making a connection between Coltrane and Carnatic music.
He’s also laying out a particular and attractive set of values. Yes, he plays “Able Souls Dig Planets,” and you hear jazz being made by a guy with a kid’s memories of hip hop in his head. But he also played Don Cherry’s “Bamako Love,” from Cherry’s wonderful 1985 Home Boy album. Playing “Bamako Love,” Lewis laid his cards on the table, and pointed out that Cherry’s record was hip hop, old school. Lewis played it slow, with the moving weight of a soul ballad, and it brought together the vast richness of African-American popular music, how essential it is to America, and how it has always held an avant-garde edge both more daring and more naturalistic than anything in white commercial music.
Lately, a jazz musician who has some mainstream popularity and thus commercial success has been given the opportunity in general interest publications (which mistake quantity for quality) to explain to other jazz musicians what they are doing wrong, how they are not with the times. For this particular player, being with the times means playing his own version of contemporary pop hits. He seems to be unaware of what so many jazz musicians before him have done, and what so many of his peers are doing. He also seems unaware that nothing gets stale faster than today’s hits. Apparently, he’s never listened to Home Boy—thankfully James Brandon Lewis has.
After Lewis, in the company of Steve Dalachinksy, I caught James “Blood” Ulmer playing the blues, solo. This was a set I didn’t want to end. Ulmer is such a fluid performer. His take on the blues is that it is both ancient and fresh, and he brings a coherent, appropriately personal freedom to the music.
Up at the New School music building, in their black box theater on the fifth floor, I caught consecutive sets from Charenee Wade and Marc Cary’s Indigenous People. It was some of the finest music making I’ve experienced this century; lyrical, melodically gorgeous, rhythmically funky, with the excitement and power that hits the body when great bands are cooking live. The experience was like being on a roller coaster that kept going up and that you knew would never go down.
Wade presented her 2015 album, Offering, her arrangements of a set of songs by Gil Scott-Heron. How was it this album was ignored? Straight-ahead modern jazz, great singing and playing, great songs, producing no interest—strange. Scott-Heron is someone jazz culture still seems not to have figured out.
Listen to his records and you hear the sheer beauty of the music and the brilliance and bite of his lyrics. His work does show how little jazz has done to be politically and socially relevant, and maybe that has produced resentment. If Wade’s album doesn’t change people’s minds, nothing will.
Offering manages to get beyond the enormous feel of Scott-Heron’s personality to the songs themselves, which are finely made and continue to be meaningful. Hearing them through Wade’s voice, the songs have direct and universal appeal.
Live, they were amazing. Sheerly on playing, the musicians working together and hitting everything, Wade’s set was fantastic. Her band differed appreciably from the personnel on her album, and it was nice to see her leading a group that was predominately women, with Mimi Jones on bass, Nikara Warren playing the vibes, and Lakecia Benjamin playing strong, tight funk on the alto sax. Darrell Green was at the drum kit, and her pianist was Oscar Perez, who built stirring solos, each phrase leading logically to another in a solid edifice.
Ultra-smart music that rocked the soul and feet, the crowd—mixed by age and race, with a good amount of aging hippies—went wild with each song and solo. Wade turned “Superman” into a sing-along, and for a moment it felt like justice was possible, and that it would be hip to the max.
Wade’s band was smooth and tight; Cary’s was larger and looser, but not ramshackle. He ran things from the keyboard with a quick and firm hand. He also had two bass players, Rashaan Carter, something of a Thundercat III, and the astounding Tarus Mateen, who laid down a insanely funky pulse. On top of that, the horns (two trumpets, two saxes, and violin) had room to make their own elastic statements.
Cary didn’t really solo, beyond playing some brief phrases and runs that were so perfect for the moment, so idiomatic to whatever style was whipping by—jazz, soul, world music—that you loved them both for what they said and also for how they fulfilled expectations shaped by decades of listening to Lee Morgan, Stevie Wonder, even Cameo.
What made the set the best one I caught at the Jazzfest was the polyglot nature of the music. This was not just jazz, but African-American music, with emphasis on “American.” When I interviewed Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran for the Rail a year or so back, Threadgill said something, with a smile and a laugh, that I’ll never forget: “African-Americans! We’re the latest thing on the planet!” A people taken from one place and forced to find a way to make a life in another place that is for the most part indifferent to them at best and more often dangerously hostile.
The music that comes out of this experience has features of a search for consoling beauty, an assertion of basic humanity and dignity, the poise to convey the simplest pleasures with a panache of showmanship. That last is important. It sets the performer in an important, protected social position with sympathetic audiences, and also marks them as ethically, socially, and morally superior with unsympathetic (racist) audiences.
There’s more to this panache than wearing a suit and playing it cool. For Cary, it was mixing together the best of jazz, pop, and world music with poise and punch. Spices of funk and North African music were all over his arrangement of Harold Mabern’s “Beehive,” which the band hit hard with hellacious soul.
He had vocalist Shon “Chance” Miller with him to add color and sing Cary’s setting of Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred.” I’m sure there are many who want to hear their Hughes set as art song, but I’ll go with Cary’s contemporary R&B approach, which grabs the heart and head via the body, carried by the excellent, idiomatic edge of Miller’s singing. The depth of feeling of Cary’s set, the excitement that made you want to embrace your neighbor like you were in church—that’s what music-making is all about.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.