Live: Winter Jazzfest Breaks Down Boundaries And Confounds Expectations

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See more photos at the 2012 Winter Jazzfest slideshow.
Winter Jazzfest
Friday-Saturday, January 6-7

Better than: Summer Zydeco Fest (assuming such a terror exists).

After a discordant, twisted reimagining of Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary" by his trio Ceramic Dog, guitarist Marc Ribot slyly reminded the audience at Sullivan Hall Friday what they should be encountering. He then followed with a gut-punching interpretation of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," leaving the springy melody intact enough to be ravaged by the chugging furor of a runaway train from hell. It was anything but expected.

The hardly discernable rendition of that classic jazz favorite was one of the few examples of looking back at a festival devoted to new ideas and the performers preoccupied with furthering them. At one point, the biggest names in jazz were obsessed with the future, trying to engender new sounds, techniques, and cascades of cross-cultural movement one session at a time. Festival organizers Brice Rosenbloom and Adam Schatz have, for years, put a curatorial emphasis on spotlighting the best musicians still enraptured by such a mind-set, and without the looming, prehistoric shadow of the genre's most discernable legends and venues, the programming had endless room to breathe. Much more than the concertgoers—4,000 of them gladly crammed into and shuffled between the festival's five venues (Le Poisson Rouge, The Bitter End, Kenny's Castaways, Zinc Bar, and Sullivan Hall), which were always bustling, often beyond capacity. Heads and feet dangled off balconies and stools became risers for audience members desperate for a glimpse.

Those who persisted through the crowds were treated to an endless array of authority, mastery, and most importantly, variety. Pillars of contemporary jazz like Vijay Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, rooted in tradition yet expansive and progressive with their tastes, commanded much attention. Coltrane, filling in for Bill Laswell at the last second, played a powerful, circuitous improvised set that nevertheless felt deeply rehearsed, even didactic. Iyer, always dynamic and revelatory, twisted his sonorous constructional ability on the piano into a sparse, electronic-like dance pulse for "Hood," a tribute to Detroit techno experimentalist Robert Hood. Mahanthappa blazed through tiny Kenny's Castaways with funky dissonance and free jazz absurdity in "Breakfastlunchanddinner," his own homage to crazed politico Jimmy McMillan.

Rock and funk seemed to pervade the programming as much as Bebop and big band. Groups like the aforementioned Ceramic Dog, The Nels Cline Singers, Jenny Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem, Rosetta Trio, Steven Bernstein's MTO, Sifter, and Jerseyband explored prog, post-punk, grunge, surfy garage, and metal. Rosetta Trio, the chamber group of bassist Stephen Crump with dual guitars by Liberty Ellman and Jamie Fox, augmented Crump's meditative, emotionally driven works with passages that sounded like something out of a Nirvana song. A nihilistic, alternatively grating and swooping bass line was as present as the delicate guitar interplay between Ellman and Fox, seamlessly switching between holding the arching melody and rhythmic duties.

Cline expanded his band's sound with the textural keyboard of Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda, playing a more ethereal set than expected with psychedelic folk sections along side the usual sound-twisting guitar hysterics and looping extravaganza. Perhaps he was saving more gas for his next act as part of Scheinman's Mischief and Mayhem, which followed the Singers with possibly the definitive set of the festival. The lyrical interplay between Scheinman and Cline was a rousing conversation, definitely framed by Jim Black's childlike, wondrous drumbeats—inquisitive percussion that could ascend into breakneck, drum and bass rhythms in an instant. Songs like "Mite" and "A Ride with Polly Jean" challenged the audience with, of all things, the power of simplicity.

Scheinman was a familiar face at the festival, and she captured the essence of each different performance she aided. She appeared with bassist Ben Allison, pianist Fabian Almazan (as part of a string quintet), and Allison Miller. Miller, a standout drummer and composer, performed with her BOOM TIC BOOM project, and she shone alongside Scheinman's virtuosic ability and pianist Myra Milford's calm ivory ownership and smile-filled solos, channeling Max Roach with steady, swinging beats that were constantly propelled by smoothly integrated drum fills.

For jazz to continue to stay afloat, it needs to adapt and encourage a dialogue between it and other forms of music. Last weekend those dialogues thrived, with genres being broken down properly and startlingly. Funk from synth wizard Bernie Worrell and Steven Bernstein provided lighthearted party touches, although they too were sufficiently inquisitive. During Bernstein's MTO Ensemble's performance of Sly Stone numbers, the familiar melody of "Everyday People" only emerged after a pastoral opening, full of cacophonous wind polyphonics and anthemic bluster, gave way. It was one of the many times that expectations were met by relinquishing much of what might have been foreseen. In many ways, Winter Jazzfest has become the definitive jazz happening by letting go of genre definitions.

Critical bias: The pizza joints in that section of Bleecker Street are probably the worst in the city.

Overheard: Any number of variations of performers onstage begging presenters to book them in the future.

Random notebook dump: The funniest part of the whole festival? As I walked from one rousing, inspirational set to another, horrific solo acoustic covers of Bon Jovi and John Mayer wafted from the other bars along Bleecker.

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