Until recently, the Knitting Factory’s annual summer festival was called “What Is Jazz?” The question was whimsically rhetorical, and implied that Downtowners know what they like. But things have changed, and the Bell Atlanticsponsored festival now aims for the Downtowners of the suburbs and the world. Judging by this year’s festival, the “what is” question should be revived, maybe as a cry for help. More and more music is slipping under the big tent of jazz, and in the tradition of the Newport/JVC Festival (which always found a way to include ringers like the Kingston Trio or Led Zeppelin), the Knit festival is now
voracious— almost 200 acts this year. Fact is, jazz alone has never been able to support a large festival in this country. So whether in the spirit of proselytization or greed, jazz festivals now embrace the rock values and spectacles they once fought against.
Audiences have joined in this ecumenical spirit, enjoying the conceit that we no longer label music, and that nothing could be strange enough to surprise us. Yet this hypercosmopolitanism puts a strain on audiences, turning crowds into gatherings scattered to the point of nonrecognition and plagued by nostalgia for a time when an audience formed a community, shared a history, and had knowable standards. Audiences in an alleged age of simulation are themselves becoming simulations, remakes, tributes to what were once real audiences.
The Knit has valiantly tried to keep alive the communal sense of the club. But as things expand, the struggle for affordable performance space in the city guarantees that every year’s festival will have a different character, with new ways of testing an audience’s resolve. Take the Atrium at the South Street Seaport, basically a shopping mall with bad acoustics and a poor excuse for a food court: on “Jazzelectronight,” Friday, June 4, the promising idea was to survey trends in technological music. Synthesizer wizard Don Buchla and saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum opened on an assortment of intriguing homemade instruments. But as in a 1950s hi-fi demonstration, the music came in second to the intrigue. After a 45-minute setup, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer brought the chill of ECM Records to music explored by Jon Hassell long before anyone knew it was acid jazz. Turntablisttabla-ist Talvin Singh was a no-show because of immigration problems, and after another long setup, an ethnically equivalent replacement (Karsh Kales’ Futureproof Meets Jojo Mayer’s Nerve, whew!) was destroyed by the sound system. What’s a techno audience to do in a darkened mall during long dead stretches, or even during the music? Dance? Eat? Engage in some frottage? Most milled, or hung around aimlessly, like the shoppers in Dawn of the Dead. Meanwhile, as if to drive home the awkwardness of the occasion, a convention of the hearing-impaired was visible through the atrium’s floor, oblivious to the music but busily signing like hip-hoppers, seemingly having a good time.
On June 10, “Tropical Night” at the Atrium, just getting there was a trial: you had to weave through an actual energized street audience, dancing and singing along with Domingo Quiñones’s band and Brenda K. Starr out front on Pier 17. But if you made it through, and waited another hour, Conrad Herwig’s Latin jazz group segued in nicely— John Coltrane’s “Un Supremo Amor” worked just fine in Cuban dress. And when Eddie Palmieri— the Cecil Taylor of Latin
music— joined them, he took Coltrane’s “Africa” and “Impressions” out. Marc Ribot’s Arsenio Rodriguez tribute band followed, and got that cheezy sound that ’50s Havana shared with early rock. For a few minutes, they turned the mall into a high school gym.
But is it the mall or the audience that makes the difference? Last Tuesday night, the Deadheads who packed the Seaport to see Gary Lucas and the Bob WeirRob Wasserman Trio managed to warm up the space. Lucas’s solo guitar set ranged from his anthemic “Rise Up and Be” (the seed of Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”) to country-blues slide, and when he later joined Weir and Wasserman the crowd kept whooping. If Deadheads are an anachronism, it’s because they’re still a real audience.
At the Knit’s Main Space, more surprisingly, Steve Coleman also filled the house. He hears music differently from almost everyone else, rhythm determining (some would say overdetermining) melody and harmony— working in a narrow range, sometimes moving sideways, up a slow trajectory, rigorously following his exhaustingly relentless yet infectious logic. When Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Ravi Coltrane joined him at evening’s end, you knew not to expect a garden-variety quartet nostalgia for the lost family of saxophones. Some of the material was simple— vamps spinning off soloists— but on some pieces one horn’s phrase was picked up, swirled and harmonized to a conclusion by the others.
Some big names would have been better served had they played in a more intimate room than the Main Space: Charlie Haden and John Scofield, for example, who performed a charming but not sparking acoustic set. But in the much smaller, sometimes freezing, sometimes sweltering Alterknit Theatre, Trio X held forth brilliantly, their rich textures embracing Joe McPhee, one of the last saxophonists working in the great tradition of vocalized tonality and instrumental storytelling. Likewise at the Alterknit, the Far East Side Band made a music that, in spite of its potential exoticism, could be from nowhere else than New York City. Their performance buzzed, sang, and cried, Jason Kao Hwang’s violin driving against bowed kayagum, frame drums, and tubaist Joe Daily, who turns every group he plays with into something special.
But it was in the Old Office, the basement acoustic room with its own bar, where the club feel could be found. The room was just right for the tight arrangements, full sound, and witty asides of Chico Hamilton’s Euphoria. And it worked well for the much underrated saxophonist Sonny Fortune, who with bassist Santi Debriano and drummer Steve Johns turned in some of the finest musicianship of the festival, each piece a gem of energy and unity. The downside of the room was that the groups playing there were abandoned by management, and forced to introduce themselves and to see to their own sound. But there’s something to be said for the adult authority with which these musicians took control and shaped their own performances, removing the music from the junior high school talent show aesthetic which has for too long dominated and depressed audiences all across the Village.