The Known and the Unknown: Winter Jazzfest marathon, January 11-12, 2019
We are all going in different directions. The simplicity of that statement from John Cage disguises how deep it is, how it runs counter to the trends of human experience. We are individuals insofar as we act as such.
This is true even in the quintessential American art form, jazz. The story of jazz in the 21st century follows that of classical music in the last, when an anarchic, post-WWII explosion of ideas, methods, and styles turned out to be one of the most fruitful and important revolutions in the history of the arts. Jazz is not nearly as old as classical, but old enough to have a vast extended family, packed with second and third cousins, in-laws, step-siblings, and the like.
Jazz DNA is made up of blues, Tin Pan Alley, swing, Dixieland, bebop, hard bop, free, rock, funk, hip hop, and everything else. That jazz is going in different directions is great for the music and, because the music’s agency is too strong, too individual, vexing—still—for many fans, critics, and even musicians. That should not be a surprise to anyone committed to the jazz scene, but in the immediate aftermath of hearing set after driving, fascinating set at this year’s Winter Jazzfest, could not but be perplexing.
Overheard after the final set of the Friday marathon at the SoHo Playhouse: “That was Monk, I guess. I guess he’s got to put his own interpretation on it.” Guitarist Miles Okazaki had just played through a variety of Thelonious Monk’s tunes for a continuous forty or so minutes, an extension of Work, his 2018 release of solo performances of all seventy of Monk’s compositions. As Monk applied modernist ideas about structure to jazz and song forms, so does Okazaki apply classic improvisational structures to Monk.
That’s jazz and fundamentally that’s Monk. What he did brilliantly in his set was make a sort of circular medley, fragments of “Trinkle Trinkle” mixed with a few phrases from “Blue Monk,” and other tunes, all strung together by the opening bars of “Crepescule with Nellie,” which became an orienting marker on the journey. Okazaki took Monk’s own harmonies to modulate from section to section, reinventing Monk in the composer’s own voice. Other than a photographic reproduction of Monk’s playing, nothing could be closer and more sympathetic to the original. But it’s impossible to escape society’s larger need to be spoon-fed and pandered to, to be satisfied with no surprises.
Earlier, guitarist Anthony Pirog’s blistering set with his Messthetics trio, with tenor sax player James Brandon Lewis sitting in for a couple numbers—including “Black Satin” from Miles Davis’s electric period—drove a lot of people away. The Messthetics—Pirog plus Fugazi’s rhythm section of bassist Joe Lally and drummer Brendan Canty—presents as a guitar hero: Pirog plays loud, fast, shreds the strings, lays on the outboard effects. More than that, everything he plays is musical, there’s a meaning and a purpose and most of all a grace in every phrase and gesture. His clarity, logic, and expression made his flurry of notes and quick juxtapositions of ideas—which would be too dense in lesser hands—on prog-fusion workouts like “Serpent Tongue” exhilarating.
The last few tunes from violinist Jenny Scheinman and drummer Allison Miller’s band Parlour Game were as polite and bland as the British spelling of their name implies. Scheinman and Miller were an awkward pair, the former a white-bread antidote for those who find Norah Jones too funky, the latter usually an interesting and swinging player. But the core of the Saturday night sets at SubCulture was the trio of sax and flute player Dave Liebman, percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Adam Rudolph, and drummer Hamid Drake. The utter magic of their set followed the plan of their 2018 album The Unknowable, a kind of abstract, spiritually ecumenical mass. Keeping to a low dynamic, using plenty of space, playing on top of lovely loops that Rudolph built in real time out of pan pipes and small instruments, the three spun a gorgeous feeling of community, a conversation about shared values. And for anyone who didn’t gel to the delicate freedom, there were Drake's tremendous, earthy rhythms and pulses to ride.
The line that connected the Okazaki experience to that of Amina Claudine Myers’s Generation IV's fulfilling set was direct—white audiences that seemed to expect something more performative, more bourgeois, more about them. This was a set of gospel music—old and new, including some originals from Meyers—sung in beautiful four-part harmony by the pianist/leader herself and Pyeng Threadgill, Luna Threadgill Moderbacher, and Richarda Abrams.
This was the Gospel as gospel, music about a sincere belief in God, in its own gentle way confronting an ostensibly liberal audience about what it means to be on the side of African-Americans—it means seeing how African-American culture pervades all of American culture, and how African-American music comes out of a culture that values religion far more than the average NPR listener or New York Times reader. It's all around, not just once a year in the dead of winter.
George Grella is the Rail's music editor.