Dreaming Of A Not-White Winter Jazzfestby Daniel Gold
For those who had been dreaming of a white 2017 Winter Jazzfest (I certainly hadn’t), that dream came true Saturday, January 7, the second and final marathon day of this annual festival. As a steadfast Rail reporter, my creed encapsulated my mission: neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night would stay my swift coverage of the evening’s jazz offerings: more than sixty groups across twelve different venues. Triple-layered, double-socked, and lip-balmed, I trudged over to the ECM Records showcase at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium to see double-bassist and composer Michael Formanek’s quartet—his eighteen-piece Ensemble Kolossus kicked off last year’s Saturday marathon on the ECM stage.
Formanek did not disappoint. For one, the quartet was pleasantly loud, perhaps louder even than the mighty Kolossus had been, which, given Formanek’s penchant for minimalist lines and clever voicing, made the performance an especially immersive experience. A firm pluck of his low E string sent arena-like vibrations through the plush auditorium seats, and whether it was the room’s acoustics or simply the sound system, the steady patter of Gerald Cleaver’s drums, stage left, seemed omnidirectional.
The group, which also features Tim Berne on alto saxophone and Craig Taborn on piano, opened with “Pong,” from their 2012 ECM album, Small Places. The song began with a call and response of ascending ostinatos traded between the piano and bass, which followed the same line, and Berne’s ethereal sax. As the repetitions built and branched off, they gave way to a more open and exploratory middle section—a preview of the free but driving jazz of Small Places’s titular track, which came later in the set. The finale was from the quartet’s “The Rub and Spare Change” (ECM, 2010), a silky number led by a twenty-three-beat ostinato on piano overlaid by Berne’s runs up, down, and around the Persian scale. Formanek hadn’t announced the piece, and as he was packing up, I approached the stage to ask him its name. A sound tech told me to buzz off; I persisted: neither snow nor rain nor heat … nor pesky sound techs … “‘Twenty-Three Neo,’” Formanek said. I tipped my hat to the tech and headed downtown to (le) poisson rouge.
In the vestibule at LPR, hanging over the stairs leading to the main space, was a large fish tank, canted in mock precariousness. Below that, on the wall at the first turn of the stairs, was a piece from an art exhibition, an LED light box of someone covered in purple amniotic goo, as if just birthed from a glow stick. And below that, by the bar outside the main space, wafted the sticky scent of weed, as kids jumped on leather benches and raced each other to the bathrooms. I forgot it was only 7:15 in the evening.
I asked the doorman about the illicit scent and he smiled at me. “Why do you want to know where it’s coming from?” he said. “Probably the green room—it’s some sour shit.” Indeed it was, and if indeed it was coming from the green room, it didn’t seem to calm Shabaka and the Ancestors, who began their set of sax- and chant-driven grooves from their album Wisdom of Elders, released in September 2016 on Brownswood Recordings, with anxious energy. Tumi Mogorosi, frenzied on drums, lost his stick twice in the first two songs, and the design of swells and solos showed their seams. But anxious energy is still energy, of which Shabaka and the Ancestors had an abundance. Bolstered by the exquisite alto saxmanship of Mthunzi Mvubu, the sheer charisma of singer Siyabonga Mthembu, and the competent thump of Ariel Zomonsky on double bass, the group charmed the crowd from the start. Once Shabaka, on tenor sax, found firm footing in the third song and laid himself bare with a searing solo, synching dynamics with Mogorosi, the crowd was captivated. “We need new hymns, we need new songs, we need new hymns,” sang Mthembu. If this claim meshes with Shabaka and the Ancestors’ ambition, they are on the right track.
Around the corner at SOB’s, I saw the premier of Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Science, an eclectic funk, jazz, and neo-soul outfit, which embodied the festival’s theme of social justice and protest. Following an impassioned rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Love,” which was punched up by Carrington’s light touch and precision, and Nadia Washington’s forceful vocals, the group provided a soundtrack to a collage of recordings of civil rights activists, writers, and scholars—among them, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and Michelle Alexander. If the tone of the performance was at times solemn, it was more sober than dire, and Carrington & Social Science conveyed a strong sense of solidarity. They concluded with a new song inspired by recent homophobic comments made by preacher Kim Burrell. “She said to ‘pray the gay away,’” repeated Washington, as the band grooved over a boom-bap beat, employing the absurdity of such a prescription for a welcome release.
I ended my night at Zinc Bar, which was at capacity when I arrived. An untouched orange and a half-smoked cigarette were left on a standpipe next to my place in line—the result of frustration, or perhaps a show of hospitality, from whoever previously held my place. I had come to see the George Burton Quintet, but by the time I was let in, their set was half-finished. Stuck near the entrance, with the stage at the far end of the narrow room, I followed a young woman saying “excuse me” with crowd-parting conviction and slipped into an alcove across from the bar. From my new vantage, I could assess Burton as he guided the quintet on piano through tight-knit melodic lines and bop ramblings. Eavesdropping, I discovered I was standing next to Andy Bianco, a guitarist in George Burton’s Group 5. He “evokes fire, passion, and a singularly ferocious harmonic identity,” Bianco said of Burton. Even in our alcove, in the steamy sardine tin that was Zinc Bar that night, something of this fire and ferocity came across.
DANIEL GOLD is a fiction writer and contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.