Live review

Manhattan Marathon night at Mercury Lounge, Winter JazzFest

Manhattan Marathon night, Winter JazzFest
(Mercury Lounge, NYC, 11 January 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

The Winter JazzFest in New York runs over 11 days in January, but the Manhattan marathon nights over the weekend are what it is known for: 11 clubs across a swathe of Greenwich Village, Noho and the East Village, and wristbands that let you drop in and out of each throughout the evening. It can be exciting and confusing in equal measure as stage times always slip and unexpected queues form.

Sometimes the artists lined up at one venue don’t give you time to leave, and when the crowd evacuated the Mercury Lounge after each set, I stayed put and followed the programming from Matt Fleeger, a radio DJ from Portland, Oregon with a focus on new jazz, and jazz without boundaries. The main menu at the cosy no-nonsense venue was three courses of jazz, with varying levels of hip hop thrown in.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Publicity photo

First up was Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, one of a handful of long-running US brass groups, but one of the more productive and vibrant. Eight of the 11 musicians on stage are brothers (sons of the Chicago Jazz trumpeter Phil Cohran) and the overall effect of a troupe of siblings crowding together wearing matching custom-embroidered white double denim is impactful. If you were to close your eyes it would be equally hard-hitting, as Hypnotic deal in neat horns and funky guitar and bass.

The arrangements are clean and the brass meaty. They’re comfortable on a groove, and happy to sit on it slowly cranking the tempo, the number of horns giving them variations to avoid it getting stale. The set is a mix of muscular older instrumentals – like their choppy interwoven horns and big drop standout hit War – and later tracks like Kryptonite where the brass sets an intense backdrop for two of the brothers rapping through.

They seem to be settling into more feelgood music, with more singing, more rapping, and moving away from the fast-paced brass with a threatening tinge into higher energy party tunes; with so many potential hype men on the stage taking turns with the mike, it makes for a high energy, lighter set. I suspect this is a sign of things to come on their new release Bad Boys of Jazz, out in February. Special mention for new bassist Parker McAllister from Brooklyn who did a sterling job anchoring the brass in front, and is clearly a versatile guy having really excelled in supporting the very different Poppy Ajudha on Thursday at Le Poisson Rouge at the BBC/PRS night.

Kassa Overall and friends dive straight into chunky keys and a speed walking bass line, and when Overall leaves his drum stool to sing he’s joined by two accompanying vocalists, together hitting a dreamy spaced vibe. But the vibe is fascinatingly ever-changing and shifting, with pieces built from layers of sound from Paul Wilson’s laptop drum machines and old school hip hop samples, or Coltrane references from the Mike King’s keys. At times it’s like a much more natural take on Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society moves.

Compared to the longevity of Hypnotic, Overall might look like an industry spring chicken; his debut album Go Get Ice Cream and Listen to Jazz is only a year old, and he’s still reminding us of it with Prison and Pharmaceuticals, where Overall MCs over a classic hip hop beat or clean jazz. But with his next release I Think I’m Good ready to drop at the end of February (on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood records) they’re really here to showcase their new numbers. Overall’s relaxed spoken style on I Know You See Me and his full immersion into Show Me a Prison are testament to his commitment to the project, and his excitement in its development.

What his outfit lack in sheer numbers on stage compared to Hypnotic they make up for in their rotation on instruments and a very fluid approach to ensemble making. It’s a bit of a hot-seat behind the drums, with Wilson and King both taking their turn, and Morgan Guerin constantly flipping between bass and electronic wind. But it’s older brother Carlos Overall who was key for the highlight of the show – combining on Landline with cinematic narrative spoken word from Kassa (dropping into Fitter, Happier Radiohead overlay territory) over Carlos’ soaring film noir bop tenor sax improvisation.

It’s a more fluid transition to the next artist, Theo Croker. Overall has been playing with Croker for years, and Croker guests on I Think I’m Good, too. Overall’s Mike King is still behind the keys, and Overall himself has an MCing cameo about the solar system. It all ties in nicely to some of DJ Fleeger’s earlier between-set musings, that ‘2020 is feeling very cosmic’. And nothing says cosmic like a pair spiral cymbals, flanking banners of spacey intention either side of the drum kit.

Theo Croker’s Star People Nation is a coherent, uninterrupted set of well-organised music. It is haunting, but pressing, and laid out clearly in format to leave space for intricate improvisation from Croker and King. The additional depth from Luisito Quintero on percussion (particularly bongos) is an extra treat, coupled with the natural and varied drum work from Michael Ode.

I’m sure that the rest of the Manhattan Marathon was excellent and varied, but sometimes it seems worth just sticking to what you’ve got instead of trying to see everything at once. Maybe this was what Fleeger meant by an accepting, cosmic start to 2020.

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