2018 Winter Jazzfest Marathon: 10 Must-See Performances

John Lamparski/Getty Images
Jazzmeia Horn performs during the 26th Annual Jazz Foundation of America Loft Party at Hudson Studios on Oct. 14, 2017 in New York City.  

It’s January in New York City and cold enough that leaving the house is generally inadvisable, which means one thing for the city’s many jazz fans: it's time for the annual Winter Jazzfest, which will take over venues for a week starting Wednesday (Jan. 10). Per usual, the lineup is packed with an overwhelming array of great artists, including some of jazz’s biggest and buzziest names alongside upstart experimentalists.

The most thrilling—and daunting—part of the festival is its two-day marathon. On Jan. 12-13, one wristband equals access to eleven venues across downtown Manhattan, all programmed by the festival from around 5 p.m. into the wee hours. It’s a test of endurance, but an inevitably worthwhile one—there’s no better place in the world to survey the most exciting work in improvised music.

To help guide your journey through the over 130 artists featured at this year’s festival, Billboard has selected a few must-see acts—if you really hustle (and take a few crosstown cabs), you can catch them all.

FRIDAY (Jan. 12)

Sullivan Fortner Trio

Kick off your Jazzfest weekend with one of the most evocative pianists working right now: Sullivan Fortner, who will open Le Poisson Rouge at 6:20 p.m. He’s a virtuoso who never strays too far from his music’s classic, deeply-felt core.

Jaimie Branch’s FLY or DIE

Get to Nublu early to hear Chicago-born trumpet player Jaimie Branch. Responsible for one of 2017’s most acclaimed debut albums, she will inevitably play for one of the weekend’s most packed houses when she takes the stage at 8 p.m. She’ll be joined by Joel Ross, an imaginative and compelling young vibraphonist.

Nicole Mitchell Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks with Jason Moran

Mitchell, a flutist who is also the festival’s artist-in-residence, will pay tribute to poet Gwendolyn Brooks with a multimedia performance at The New School’s Tishman Auditorium — expect dance, spoken word, and plenty of thoughtful improvisation during her 11 p.m. set, including from pianist Jason Moran in his only appearance at the marathon.

Ernest Dawkins’ New Horizons Ensemble feat. Vijay Iyer

Yes, more Chicago — it’s been a big year for the city’s AACM and its creative descendants, which include Dawkins. Performing at Subculture at 1 a.m., the saxophonist and pianist Vijay Iyer will likely present some material from his 2017 album Transient Takes — proof of the transcendence of each artist’s improvisation beyond generation or genre.

Blaque Dynamite with Rache’

Fortify yourself with some Artichoke pizza en route to SOB’s at 1:40 a.m. to see Mike Mitchell, one of the most prodigious drummers of his generation. His project Blaque Dynamite is messy and fun, vibrant and weird — a slightly surreal and danceable way to cap off night one.

SATURDAY (Jan. 13)

Sasha Berliner Quintet

Berliner, a vibraphonist, will be performing where she’s still in school — at the New School’s Jazz Building Second Floor Theater, at 6:40 p.m. Accompanied by Maria Grand, a remarkable young saxophone player, Berliner’s dynamic group will present some version of what jazz’s next generation will look like (hint: there will be a lot more women).

Jazzmeia Horn

Head to the New School’s Tishman Auditorium for a performance by the aptly named Horn, a vocalist whose performances are always equal parts daring and timeless. During her 7:00 p.m. set, you’ll hear a set that takes an almost-spiritual understanding of the classics into a whole new realm of protest music (with a little spoken word mixed in).

Marquis Hill Blacktet

At 8:00 p.m., Chicago trumpet player Marquis Hill will hit back at the Second Floor Theater accompanied by drummer Makaya McCraven, among others. The result? Funky, urgent jazz that sounds familiar, but never boring.

Kate Gentile New Quartet

Gentile, a drummer and composer at the center of another one of 2017’s impressive debut albums, will perform at the same theater at 9:20 p.m. Her aesthetic exists on the edge of jazz’s avant-garde, all centered on a strong sense of rhythm’s ability to drive even the most mind-bending music forward.

Pete Rock & The Soul Brothers

Celebrate a successful jazz marathon with the producer behind A Tribe Called Quest’s “Jazz (We Got)”—hip-hop legend Pete Rock is joining forces with some of hip-hop-inflected jazz’s most reliable improvisers for this 1:40 a.m. set at the Bowery Ballroom. There is no way this won’t be a good time.

Festivals 2018