The Knitting Factory’s former What Is Jazz? festival has resolved its identity crisis, the way the Borg on Star Trek do. As the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival, it has assimilated every musical genre it can get its hands on and expanded its territorial reach to four cities—and in New York, from Central Park to Battery Park. Broadening an audience base is a company’s birthright, though the cobbled character of a Yoko Ono-DJ Spooky-Thurston Moore grouping suggests Michael Dorf might advance his empire less imperiously. But others can nail their 95 Theses to the door of KnitMedia. Rather than detail the muted promise of larger events like Battery Park’s foreshortened Ornette Coleman bash, let’s pray for Production Reformation and hope for a chance to hear the man play again.
Back at ground zero, the Knitting Factory club itself was freed up to luxuriate in the archaism of its former capacity as an avant-garde hotbed. If the Knit used to house intimate alternatives to big mainstream productions, it has increasingly given up that role year-round to Tonic. But this time out, the lavishness of the big festival shows occasioned the irony of KnitMedia’s club presenting an alternative to the operation’s own sprawling excesses. Home base stripped performances down to fighting weight. And with the bigger-ticket crowds over at Dr. John and the Roots, audiences were given a fighting chance to hear music in a more personal space.
Free late-night performances lent the club an open, permissive air that an outdoor setting should but doesn’t necessarily engender. The Tap Bar hosted two sets every night and showcased more emergent talents like the Chris Speed Trio, who were in an especially groove-heavy mood. On June 3, Ed Ratliff’s Rhapsodalia found strong footing in saucy takes on everything from kung fu soundtracks to Middle European melodies. Ori Kaplan’s 4tet built Big Easy horn blowouts out of taut interplay between Kaplan’s alto and Steve Swell’s trombone. The Tap Bar’s noise level makes basic compositional shifts sound minute enough to obscure these groups’ considerable writing and arranging strengths. But the musicians seemed equally comfortable playing music for twentysomethings to hook up by.
Those scant of money but loaded on endurance could also head upstairs to the Main Space for free midnight jams, which drew various performers from each day’s festival shows. Drummer Susie Ibarra’s session played like a Downtown roll call, with guests like Arto Lindsay, Zeena Parkins, poet Steve Dalachinsky, and Tim Berne. The audience gratification award has to go to Meshell Ndegéocello for her compensatory witching-hour set. Her earlier Battery Park show had been canceled when a windstorm struck (an efficient enough clearing of the park followed until some excitable stringer yelled, “Run for your lives!” At which point a mob scene ensued).
The Knit club offered up listening bang for your buck, even if you did lay down $25 or $30 for an evening’s ticket. This outlay could get you James Blood Ulmer followed by the Sun Ra Arkestra in the Main Space, with the chance to intermittently catch one of four Tim Berne groupings down in the Old Office. Another bargain featured the avant piano double bill of Marilyn Crispell and Matt Shipp, both in trio settings. A thoughtful pairing: Crispell’s meditative impressionism nicely juxtaposed Shipp’s cubist expressionism.
Some of the Main Space shows were kicked off with a short film touting Knit artists. This apotheosis of self-promotion was enough to induce nostalgia for last year’s mere aural invasion, the “Welcome to the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival” salute from Darth Vader. Audience jeers stopped the celluloid commercial early the night Roswell Rudd’s Broad Strokes played, and the ruckus set the tone for Rudd’s Catskills shtick: an entertaining mix of scatting duets with Sheila Jordan, songs about dogs, and audacious showmanship. Rudd yelled at the crowd, demanding a standing ovation; it was more fun, though, to watch him lean back and blast through trombone riffs. At one point he avowed, “The acoustical truth still reigns supreme,” but seemed bolstered by Sonic Youth’s electrical guitars, which he only temporarily traded for his cushioning assemblage of horns.
It was well worth leaving the Knit’s confines, though, to head to the Jazz Standard, where pianist Uri Caine was supplied with a Steinway and four nights to stretch out into first his klezmer-and-free-jazz-infused Mahler Project and then the debut of his Goldberg Variations. Caine and his cohorts took on both Mahler and Bach with the nose-thumbing spirit of child prodigies cutting loose on a piecewhen the conductor’s called out of symphony rehearsal. Bach got hooked on gospel and ragtime, traveled down to the equator for a Latin jazz treatment, and coursed through DJ Olive’s audio antics, all without losing continuity.
Back at the Knit, the Art Ensemble of Chicago headlined the festival’s final night in full force, even as a trio without Joseph Jarman and the recently deceased Lester Bowie, to whom they paid tribute. Saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, bassist Malachi Favors, and percussionist Don Moye all play with sound as an end unto itself, invoking a ritualism that necessitates reverent listening—even in Michael Dorf, who sat enraptured with the rest of the crowd, his bare feet dangling from his stool perch. Back in this club setting, the Bill Gates of Downtown music actually bore closer resemblance to another American icon, Huck Finn—scaled back to his river raft, more sure of his terrain, and primed for whatever adventure it held.