Live Review: Winter Jazzfest 2018

It’s another cold January in NYC, but the Winter Jazzfest keeps rolling along. In spite of, or perhaps thanks to, previous missteps, the WJF has endured its growing pains and evolved into a dynamic festival with a wide range of music from accomplished artists young and old. While New York City hosts plenty of jazz 365 days a year, the WJF brings together progressive musicians and multi-generational audiences while staying ahead of the curve on issues like racial justice and gender equality, and continues to illuminate the purpose and place of social protest and civic activism within the arts.

The 2018 festival allowed for a dozen different performance spaces to showcase more than 130 groups burgeoning with talent. This year’s artist-in-residence, Nicole Mitchell, was an insightful choice, and the flautist/composer/bandleader performed several times with different ensembles over the course of this week. The festival also featured all-star tribute concerts celebrating the memory of beloved musicians Geri Allen and Alice Coltrane.

With each venue hosting several groups playing hour-long sets, it was a joyful challenge to pick and choose how to spend your time. Singer José James brought his Bill Withers project to Le Poisson Rouge and seduced the audience with his old-school set. As much fun as it was hearing those soulful classics performed by such a gifted singer, you can imagine James ultimately feeling trapped by such familiar material.

One of the standout performers was undoubtedly singer Jazzmeia Horn, who was powerfully engaging at the New School’s Tishman Auditorium. Drawing material from her album A Social Call, Horn showed poise and chops beyond her years, and she’s clearly one to watch. Ace guitarist Marc Ribot threw a pleasant curveball, performing “Songs Of Resistance” on acoustic guitar and singing his plainspoken social protest in a flat-but-not-inexpressive voice. As with many of the artists at the fest, the unwelcome presence of Donald Trump found its way into Ribot’s bold commentary.

Serving the past, the present and the future, 93-year-old saxophonist Marshall Allen directed the perennial Sun Ra Arkestra as they performed a live score to accompany oddball film Space Is The Place. The 1972 movie starring Sun Ra is corny, cosmic and absurd, but Ra’s vaunted Afrofuturism is not without the timely, ongoing message that black lives do indeed matter. Study up.

Veterans of the old Black Rock Coalition also populated the fest, including bassist Melvin Gibbs, guitarist Brandon Ross and drummer J.T. Lewis in their band Harriet Tubman. Augmented with several additional players, the power trio turned into a “double quartet” with two bassists, two drummers, two saxophonists, guitar and trumpet. By design, the sprawling ensemble tackled the landmark Ornette Coleman performance/composition/collective improvisation from his iconic 1961 album Free Jazz. The results were mixed, but the concept, effort and commitment were still appreciated. Ornette lives!

Far more satisfying was a late-night gig by Jamaaldeen Tacuma’s Brotherzone. In this incarnation, Brotherzone reunited bassist extraordinaire Tacuma with veteran funk/rock guitarist Ronny Drayton and drummer Darryl Burgee. The show at Subculture didn’t start until 1:30 a.m. and featured some special friends, specifically spoken-word soothsayer and original member of the Last Poets Abiodun Oyewole and Last Poets percussionist Baba Donn Babatunde, as well as Brotherzone’s own poet, Wadud Ahmad. With Tacuma’s super bass and Drayton’s keening guitar bringing extra funk to Oyewole’s urgent observations, all was right with the world—and the Winter Jazzfest.

Looking forward to WJF’s closing show tomorrow night featuring progressive indie outliers Deerhoof with their veteran free-jazz trumpeter buddy, the most esteemed Waddada Leo Smith. Consider that one.

—Mitch Myers