In her autobiography I Put a Spell on You, Nina Simone recalled the Greenwich Village of the ’50s and ’60s as a scene where beboppers, folkies, blues devotees and bohemians of all stripes would seek out their music in close proximity. Decades later, Winter Jazzfest takes stock of a new historical moment, presenting several dozen bands in six venues located in or near the very area Simone described. By now it’s become an inspiring ritual to kick off the year: a marathon display of monster talent, with players spanning several generations and sounding absolutely nothing alike.
Is it all “jazz”? The term itself is enough to spark heated debate among the initiated, but this festival seems to say: never mind all that. Just listen. What you’ll hear is new, experimental, global in scope. Catching every act over the two nights is a tall order, so here are five suggested pairings to get you started.
1) Yosvany Terry Quintet (Friday, The Bitter End)
Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Gamak (Saturday, Le Poisson Rouge)
Terry is a native of Cuba, Mahanthappa a first-generation Indian-American from Boulder, Colorado. Both play alto saxophone, and their music shares a certain unrelenting rhythmic intensity, as well as a commitment to melding jazz with influences from their respective ethnic traditions. Terry had a standout year in 2012 with the superb Today’s Opinion. Mahanthappa will perform electrifying quartet music from Gamak, due out later this month.
2) The Fringe (Friday, Culture Project Theater)
The Cookers (Saturday, Le Poisson Rouge)
While the fest makes a point of showcasing young artists, they’d be nowhere without the example of masters like tenor saxophonist George Garzone. As co-leader of the Fringe (with bassist John Lockwood and drummer Bob Gullotti) since the early ’70s, Garzone continues to erase distinctions between the mainstream and the avant-garde with every performance. There’s a comparable depth and accrued wisdom in the music of the Cookers, featuring trumpeter David Weiss and saxophonist Craig Handy with a cast of formidable greats (tenorist Billy Harper, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee, drummer Billy Hart).
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3) Revive Big Band led by Igmar Thomas (Friday, Sullivan Hall)
Jason Lindner’s Breeding Ground (Saturday, Culture Project Theater)
The Revive Big Band brings together killer musicians (and guest rappers) who can jump freely between the aesthetics of jazz, hip-hop and DJ culture. In fact, that’s the general vibe of Friday’s entire bill at Sullivan Hall, with sets by Marcus Strickland, Corey King, Brandee Younger and more. Breeding Ground, led by keyboardist Jason Lindner, is a large ensemble of a different sort, built on the foundation of Lindner’s electric-funk trio Now vs. Now but adding strings, horns and the affecting vocals of Jeff Taylor. Improvisation abounds, but Lindner’s meticulous composing and arranging holds it together. The in-demand Lindner has other festival gigs as well, with Omer Avital and Donny McCaslin.
4) Julian Lage & Nels Cline (Friday, The Bitter End)
Dan Tepfer & Lee Konitz (Friday, Zinc Bar)
Guitar freaks will be crowding in to hear Julian Lage–one of the most brilliant players to emerge in the recent years–in a free-flowing duo with West Coast improviser and Wilco member Nels Cline. They’re likely to cover a wide range, from pure and quiet melodies to the densest effects-enhanced abstractions. Around the way, young pianist Dan Tepfer reconvenes with duo partner Lee Konitz, the 85-year-old alto saxophone legend, whose instantly identifiable sound should lure festival-goers like a beacon. The Harlem String Quartet also joins in for a chance-based piece involving computer and four iPhones.
5) Jacob Garchik’s The Heavens (Friday, Bowery Electric)
Brian Carpenter’s Ghost Train Orchestra (Saturday, The Bitter End)
In 2012 Jacob Garchik released The Heavens: The Atheist Gospel Trombone Album, overdubbing as many as eight trombones and other instruments in a wry, beautifully played meditation on science, spirit and the universe. Live, Garchik will bring along seven fellow horn players and a drummer (Kenny Wollesen) to accomplish his task. Trumpeter Brian Carpenter also draws from unlikely, imaginative sources–in his case, quirky chamber-jazz of the 1930s–when leading his nine-piece Ghost Train Orchestra. Bringing a downtownish flair to seldom-explored music by John Kirby, Alec Wilder, Raymond Scott and others, the GTO keeps Winter Jazzfest in touch with a distant but still-relevant past.