Winter Jazzfest 2019: Where No Jazzman Has Gone Before

Gary Bartz

It’s the 15th annual Winter Jazzfest. MAGNET’s Mitch Myers discovers that space still is the place. Photos by Dave Kaufman

With Winter Jazzfest celebrating its 15th year running, it must be said that the nine-day celebration (January 4-12) fulfilled its promise and function, delivering a wide range of new-music showcases in variety of downtown venues including its trademark marathon weekend hosting a legion of talented and innovative musicians. The conscious jazz community that presides over this festival does its level best to keep things moving in a positive direction. This year’s artist-in-residence was Meshell Ndegeocello, there was a panel covering the legal realities of being a working musician and another discussing jazz and gender. 

In terms of programming, there certainly was something for everybody. Early in the week, the Bad Plus, Terrance Blanchard and Terri Lyne Carrington played at (Le) Poisson Rouge, and BBC Music Introducing hosted a nightlong showcase of British jazz. While both of those showcases were actually kind of a snooze, Medeski Martin & Wood got it together for a rare and special gig out at Brooklyn Steel with orchestral-jazz collaborator Alarm Will Sound. 

One of the mid-week highlights—and the main show I want to mention—was veteran alto saxophonist Gary Bartz celebrating the 50-year anniversary of his interstellar album Another Earth at (Le) Poisson Rouge. That recording was Bartz’s second LP as a leader and released on the Milestone label. By that time in 1968, Bartz had already played with jazz giants like Charles Mingus, Max Roach, Art Blakey and McCoy Tyner.  Not long after this recording, the dark prince himself Miles Davis drafted Bartz into his touring band and they played at the Isle Of Wight festival in 1970. Recordings of that band live at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., were first released by Davis as Live-Evil in 1971. Check that stuff out for sure.

Anyhow, Bartz’s collaborators on Another Earth included trumpeter Charles Tolliver and fiery saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, as well as pianist Stanley Cowell, bassist Reggie Workman and drummer extraordinaire Freddie Waits. At (Le) Poisson Rouge, Bartz was again joined by Tolliver and Sanders and accompanied by bassist James King, guitarist Bruce Edwards and another drummer extraordinaire: Nasheet Waits (Freddie’s son!). This was an ideal setting for a seasoned pro like Bartz, allowing him to stretch out with old comrades on the blueprint of space-age material they’d mapped out and documented so many decades ago.

Pharoah Sanders

As a prelude to the songs from Another Earth but in keeping with its cosmic theme, Bartz and his rhythm section broke out a swaying samba arrangement of Alexander Courage’s “Theme From Star Trek,” which had been originally titled “Where No Man Has Gone Before.” Bartz’s sharp-edged saxophone was able to thrust and parry around the memorable melody all by himself, but after Tolliver and Sanders finally joined Bartz onstage, they burned through their old album’s lengthy title track, followed by “UFO” and Kurt Weil’s classic “Lost In The Stars.”

Bartz and Sanders (ages 78 and 79, respectively) both evoked the sound of John Coltrane at times, playing their spiritual jazz-and-fire music with Sanders especially ignited and aimed straight at the heavens. Tolliver was facile but more tentative than the two saxophonists, but when the three men converged at center stage, it was a heartwarming, exciting and joyful moment that I don’t think we’ll ever see again. 

After the album’s closing number “Perihelion And Aphelion” the entire band encored with an expanded reprise of “Theme From Star Trek” and all was right with the world, and the universe beyond.

Also a standout was guitarist Miles Okazaki at the SoHo Playhouse on Friday night, performing selections from his amazing solo rendering of the complete Thelonious Monk composition catalog: Work. Okazaki played his entire set without stopping, except when he accidently pulled the cord out of his guitar. Okazaki’s grasp of Monk’s compositions was evident and impressive, and he got deep inside these deceptively playful tunes.

Special Mention: R.I.P. Joseph Jarman—saxophonist, medicine man, Buddhist tone poet and longtime member of the Art Ensemble Of Chicago—who died on Wednesday. His life accomplishments are too numerous to mention here, but look for the many remembrances and testimonials please. 

Ancient to the future!