Brooklyn Marathon Night at Winter Jazzfest 2023
(Various venues in NYC. Review by Dan Bergsagel)
In many aspects of our lives, the pandemic can look like a diminishing dot in the rear-view mirror. Yet the marking of annual milestones has the ability to remind us that we haven’t left COVID as far behind us as we may have thought. Like a birthday, Winter Jazzfest is a happy milestone which is infrequent enough that, when it happens, you notice afresh the previous years of absence. After a glorious 2020 festival, NYC had two fallow years in 2021 and 2022, the winter virus surges at this time of year aligning too closely with the winter jazz schedules. However, in 2023 the Winter Jazzfest is here, a weeklong cross-city event which peaks with two ‘Marathon’ nights, where a wristband will grant you free access to a number of different venues throughout the night. The Saturday night Brooklyn Marathon came with all its delicious hallmarks: a matrix schedule of gigs and venues to carefully plot a path through, the mild panic when moving between gigs that the next location might be full, the brisk shock of the icy sub-zero walk between locations, and the surprise at seeing artists you hadn’t intended to as venue schedules inevitably slipped and the best laid plans of mice and men are eaten by the rats. In my book, the most important hallmark of the Winter Jazzfest marathon nights is the depth and diversity of genre in the musical programme, and this year did not disappoint.
Dayramir Gonzalez is a Cuban pianist building cultural bridges with the US with his music and his charm, and he brought this to National Sawdust with a quartet combining heavy rhythms and playful sensibilities. With Gonzalez sitting behind a grand piano and accompanied by an electric bassist, drummer and percussionist, this was certainly rhythm heavy. As the group moved through takes, different viewpoints of Havana and insists into Gonzalez’s classical training, they hit their stride when focusing on crunchy claves, and fast-paced dual bass and piano lines. Gonzalez promised to keep things “nice and cool and sexy” and proceeded to flirt with the crowd to make sure of it, but it was his high-energy and effortless percussion duo who stole the show.
A few doors down at Loove Labs, Roxana Amed was spinning a storyteller’s set of original compositions, rearrangements of traditional Argentine Zamba and Chacarera, and light scat singing. Throughout her set Amed explored the limits of her vocal range, and it is clear she feels this music deeply. The group often felt most alive when playing not as a singer plus backing trio, but instead as a subset of their number: a piano and vocal duet, or Amed accompanied by piano and drums together, or indeed the back line left to play instrumentally where they were freer to improvise and combine. Amed hints at a varied musical hinterland beyond jazz, so it was interesting that she was one of a number of artists on the evening building directly on Wayne Shorter’s work, here with a series of lyrics set to Virgo.
The approach to stagecraft of Zoh Amba was a world away from Amed and Gonzalez. As Amba silently took to the stage in a duo with drummer Chris Corsano, all the talking was done by the introducing radio DJs – “Get ready, it will make a difference to your life. The shuffling dancing National Sawdust crowd from the start of the night had been replaced three hours later with a largely seated audience ready to receive some avant-garde wisdom. They opened as a tenor sax and percussion pair, with an immediate level of aggression and emotion. From the balcony viewpoint, Amba and Corsano looked like children deeply engrossed in their own individual play, on a stage adorned with the accumulated instrumental detritus from the evening’s previous performers. The impression of individual work is fleeting, as through the blowing Corsano pauses and picks up supporting refrains. On her turns at the piano, Amba’s tonal variations are more muted; The saxophone is such an expressive amplifier whether for soft calm moments or more outlandish squeals, and this perhaps lacks when Amba sits on the stool. Hands can hit keys as the piano hammers hit the strings, but suddenly there seemed less opportunity to insert emotional nuance into the process.
Amba may share aspects of her musical approach with the late Sun Ra – and indeed Amba’s introduction was not dissimilar to the one that the Sun Ra Arkestra received from Gilles Peterson: the Arkestra changed his world. However, the difference in experience from the Amba-Corsano duo to that of the extensive Sun Ra Arkestra at The Opera House was itself almost cosmic. There is visible joy amongst the many faces in the band as they play a set celebrating the 99-year-old Marshall Allan. Allan stands front and centre, sliding up and down his alto and sweeping with his EWI in a strong impression of a clanger. While he may be the band leader in name, it is the stern hand of Knoel Scott on Baritone and the amused grin of Michael Ray that are running the group. It is hard not to love the Arkestra and their robustly rich soundscape, and with Tara Middleton’s fantastic vocal turns acting as a focal point, it is even harder not to be reminded of the debt that contemporary musicians like Kamasi Washington owe to the Arkestra’s musical, spiritual and philosophical developments.
On the night the battle of the big bands was won by the Revive Big Band at Brooklyn Bowl, playing a hard-hitting set and deeply-emotional tribute to the celebrated organizer Meghan Stabile, who died last summer. Stabile can be credited with developing some of the most exciting corners of the East Coast jazz scene where hip-hop meets jazz, and Ingmar Thomas’ leading of the Revive Big Band was a poignant and powerful testament to the talent and drive they gathered together. With at least 20 people on stage at any time, Thomas led the group through beautiful arrangements ranging from Wayne Shorter Speak No Evil to Hiatus Kaiyote’s Melbourne neo-soul-funk of Stone or Lavender, via northern-soul-esque original RPMs.
The key to tying this group together is the energy and excitement, the pure alchemy, that the combination of big band orchestration and hip-hop bring. Meghan Stabile casts a long shadow over this group of people, and through some songs band members had to wipe at their faces instead of play, as events from last year caught up with them. In some ways Stabile shared the limelight with another innovator who died tragically young – J Dilla – another who worked to bring hip-hop and jazz closer together.
When hip-hop was the focus, so was emcee Radar Ellis, partnering the blasting horns and meaty trombones with an irresistible flow. But on Stakes is High it felt like we were listening to more than the sum of their parts. Keep your ears to the ground for wherever this group perform next, but also the much awaited Revive Big Band debut album, due out this year.
There is nothing like a Winter Jazzfest marathon night. In Manhattan they have become finely tuned affairs, but the first 2020 Brooklyn version felt a little stretched between two dipole clusters in Williamsburg and Bushwick, areas sufficiently far apart to limit easy crowd flow. This year the organiser gods have listened and the walking masses were treated to a tighter Williamsburg-focused venue selection. National Sawdust – the multi-layered acoustic black box, survived from the 2020 list – as did the audio-visual excitement of Brooklyn Bowl with its active bowling lanes and grand heavy timber roof truss club space. The rest of the venues, however, were new: the welcome and intimate calm of the brick-lined Loove Labs, with its DIY acoustic baffles and plywood and fabric decor; the cavernous traditional Opera House, which managed to give a delightfully improvised atmosphere with its temporary chairs and bar and sparsely decorated white walls. Club Curious was the only small location outlier with a modest shorter programme, while Superior Ingredients and Baby’s All Right were the venues to continue listening into the early hours.
The geographical intensity is part of the charm, but Winter Jazzfest continues to attract wider attention. It isn’t surprising to have local radio stations WBGO and nearby north-eastern corridor friends WRTI involved in programming, but every year the radio stations with the ‘K’ call sign for west of the Mississippi, here hailing from Washington State and Oregon, joined the party, too, along with ever-present BBC DJ and producer Gilles Peterson, and friends from TSF jazz in Paris. With all these broadcasters present, it was a shame that sound tech struggles appeared to be a recurring theme across venues. Loove Labs struggled with a thin and dry vocal sound, and Brooklyn Bowl had some pretty heart-breaking issues with solo mics not being turned on while musicians visibly poured their heart out, into silence. It was amazing that Sun Ra Arkestra’s Knoel Scott also managed to lead the band with his bellowing bari, as he spent most of the gig running around the stage kicking sound technician’s arses for the near total collapse of the lines on stage, physically lifting band members up by their armpits so that the audience at least had a clear acoustic path from horn to ear. When things go wrong, you realise how much you appreciate the sound tech work when it goes right: they are such an important part of the event.
A few sound struggles were a small blip on what was clearly a successful night – at times almost too successful! – as a line of eager beavers snaked around the corner outside of Superior Ingredients and only heard Makaya McCraven through the stage doors, or the capacity crush in the lobby to see GEORGE at Loove Labs. This is a good problem to have, and is maybe just a lesson to get in early and stake out a spot for the Brooklyn Marathon Winter Jazzfest 2024. See you in the queue!
Categories: Live review