Concert review: Winter Jazzfest Marathon (Jan. 10-11, 2014)

This weekend I attended both days of the Winter Jazzfest marathon in Greenwich Village. It’s a festival that has a unique appeal to those of us who are particularly manic about concerts; it’s basically an all-you-can-eat buffet of live music held in a bunch of venues in Greenwich Village. For one relatively low price you can run around and hear as many bands as you can stuff in your ears in the time allotted. Most sets were 45 minutes with a few double-length sets here and there. (I took it relatively easy and caught eleven ensembles plus the “round robin” duo improvisation set.)

This year was the tenth anniversary of Winter Jazzfest and featured a huge amount of bands (more than ninety). It was, of course, impossible to see them all, and there were some tough decisions to be made. We’d been warned by friends about previous years having long lines and big crowds at some venues, so we simplified our schedule a bit and tried to do multiple sets in the same venues as much as we could (without sacrificing the bands we most wanted to see). I spent most of my time in the NYU Law venue and the Judson Memorial Church, which was a pretty cool-looking room:


(That’s Ches Smith on the left and Shahzad Ismaily on the right, during Ceramic Dog’s late-night Saturday set.)

The funny thing was that after I simplified things and tried to make my schedule less ambitious, I somehow ended up seeing MORE bands than I’d planned to – six each night instead of five. You could easily see a lot more, but you’d spend a lot of time running around and missing half of everyone’s set… I wanted to see complete sets. I ended up doing this:

6:45pm Ben Wendel Quartet
8:00pm Ches Smith Trio
9:15pm Nate Wooley’s Seven Storey Mountain
10:00pm Mary Halvorson Septet
11:15pm Peter Brötzmann w/ Hamid Drake and Jason Adasiewicz
12:30am Improvised Round Robin Duets

7:00pm Sylvie Courvoisier – Mark Feldman Duo
8:00pm Endangered Blood
9:15pm Mostly Other People Do The Killing
10:30pm Eyebone
11:45pm Ceramic Dog w/ Mary Halvorson
1:20am Abraxas

I’m going to stick to reviewing the ones I liked the best, since reviewing 12 completely different sets is overkill bordering on masochism. Far and away my favorite set of the first night was the Ches Smith Trio. I’d been jokingly referring to the festival as “Winter Ches Fest” because he was playing in so many ensembles – he was in three of the six sets I saw on the first night. I’d seen him before a bunch of times in various bands but I’d never seen one of his own bands before and didn’t really know what to expect going in. I was really blown away! The trio we saw was rounded out by Mat Maneri on viola and Craig Taborn on piano. I filmed one of the three pieces they played – it’s about 15 minutes long, but if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing, check out the last five minutes for a big drum solo and an amazing dramatic ending.

Nate Wooley‘s Seven Storey Mountain was probably the biggest mistake I made at the festival – I left about 10-15 minutes early to see a band at another venue and I really regret not staying till the end. (The band I left to see is probably someone I will be able to see again, but Seven Storey Mountain isn’t something that’s likely to come to Boston metro. Bad decision.) The performance was one long piece, and the part we saw had two drummers (Chris Corsano, Ryan Sawyer), two vibraphonists (Matt Moran, Chris Dingman), a violinist (C. Spencer Yeh), Nate Wooley on trumpet and Ben Vida playing whatever this thing is:

The part we missed apparently featured three trumpeters and three trombonists, and I’m sorry I missed it, I keep wondering about the parts we didn’t see. What we did see was very interesting, and something I’ll definitely be trying to check out in the future.

The late-night double set of improvised round robin duets was kind of a mixed bag. There were some really good parts and some parts I really could have done without (I question whether anyone really wants to hear an extended solo trombone performance at 2AM after seven full hours of live jazz). I didn’t catch all the names of the performers, either, but some of my favorite improvisers in that segment were Sylvie Courvoisier, Ches Smith, Mat Maneri, Tyshawn Sorey, and Shahzad Ismaily (who gets bonus points for walking onstage in a full-length hooded robe and sunglasses – inexplicable, yet somehow perfect). The format of the round robin is basically like tag-team improvisation. One person starts, and then is joined by a second person (in this case, Sylvie Courvoisier started and was joined by Shahzad Ismaily). Then a third person comes in and basically “tags out” the original performer, then a fourth comes in and replaces the second, and on and on, so it’s a series of evolving duets. It lasted for 90 minutes and, as I said, it had its ups and downs. It’s definitely a fun format, I would love to see something like that done with trios to make things even more challenging.

I found the second night to be more enjoyable all around (probably in large part due to getting ten hours of sleep and evicting the previous day’s migraine). I have a much harder time picking a favorite from that night – partly because there were several really good ones and partly because they were so very different that they’re hard for me to compare.

The first set I went to that night was the Mark Feldman/Sylvie Courvoisier duet. I’ve seen them a number of times playing John Zorn’s music, but this was only the second time I have heard them performing their own music, so it was a real treat for me. They’re both incredible musicians. They played in the Judson Memorial Church, but they played in the audience area because the stage was elaborately set up for Henry Threadgill’s performances at 8 & 10. I stood sort of behind them and off to the side so I could stand up without being in the way of the seated folks (I am not a fan of sitting on hard floors like that). Some of the pieces they played were just breathtaking – I really loved the whole set. The delicacy, the power, the technical mastery. Wow. I took a couple of videos… here is one of them:

I’ll post the other video later, keep an eye on the Concert Manic Facebook page if you want to see it.

Another favorite set that night was Mostly Other People Do the Killing. They did, as is their wont, a set of short, fun jazz pieces named after small towns in Pennsylvania. Pianist Rob Stabinsky did one hilarious and memorable piano intro to one of the songs… running through a dozen or two famous piano intros (anything and everything from Billy Joel to classical to jazz), each time pretending it was a mistake – “Whoops, sheet music was upside down! NOW I’ve got it…” type of thing. It was very funny and musically kind of amazing to hear someone sprinting through that many recognizable pieces, shedding genres left and right. It was a great set all around, really fun.

After MOPDTK, we saw a couple of guitar-centric bands back to back – Eyebone (Nels Cline, Jim Black, Teddy Klausner) and Ceramic Dog (Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, Ches Smith, Shahzad Ismaily). Both very good and exceptionally interesting for the guitar geeks among us. I was unfortunately starting to wear out pretty badly (at some point I think you exhaust your brain’s ability to accept challenging music) so I didn’t get as much out of Eyebone as I would have liked to. I would go see them again if I had the opportunity. I left their set a couple of minutes early in order to get front-row center for Ceramic Dog (you know how much I love that band!). It was not the best Ceramic Dog set I’ve seen – it’s kind of hard to put on a really slamming rock concert in a 45-minute slot in a church – but it was very enjoyable and I especially liked Ches Smith’s drumming on the last piece. Ceramic Dog is embarking on a European tour in a couple of months and will be playing a few gigs in the U.S. as well – you can see their tour dates here. Highly recommended!

After Ceramic Dog’s set was over, I’d been planning on racing over to Subculture to catch the end of Erik Friedlander’s Bonebridge, a band I haven’t seen before and would really like to. But Ceramic Dog ran a few minutes late, and I was dead tired, so I ended up not getting there in time to see that band, which is a shame. But at a festival like this you have to make some tough decisions, there were lots of bands I missed that I would have liked to see. Fortunately, another great band was playing at Subculture right after Bonebridge – Abraxas. They were playing music from their John Zorn Book of Angels album.

Subculture had – oh, bliss! – actual chairs with actual cushioning, and a ventilation system that worked, and it was such a relief after standing and sitting on hardwood floors in stuffy rooms for the previous six hours that I got a second wind that powered me through their heavy-hitting set that lasted until 2AM. The lineup was slightly different than usual – Yoshie Fruchter was playing guitar in place of Aram Bajakian; but otherwise it was the standard lineup: Shanir Blumenkranz on gimbri, Kenny Grohowski on drums, and Eyal Maoz on guitar. It was a really fun set and a great way for me to close out the festival – definitely ending on a high note. I did think it was kind of funny that I ended the jazz festival by seeing two more-or-less-rock bands, but jazz is a big umbrella these days, I guess. I got some nice video of the Abraxas concert:

Overall: two thumbs up for Winter Jazzfest! I’m so glad I was finally able to go this year. I’ll leave you with a little collection of photos that I took during the festival. And stay tuned on my Facebook or Youtube pages for more videos.

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