New York's Winter Jazzfest Shows What Jazz Looks Like Now, With Thundercat, Georgia Anne Muldrow and More

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Jati Lindsay
Georgia Anne Muldrow performs at the 2019 Winter Jazzfest in New York City.

Winter Jazzfest took over lower Manhattan for the 15th time last week, and per usual was an excellent, entirely overwhelming survey of the state of the music at its most forward-looking. An array of venues -- 12 in total during the weekend’s “marathon” portion, with separate events throughout the week for those daunted by the prospect of trekking crosstown in below-freezing temperatures -- alleviate the pressure of having an A-list headliner, allowing the festival to lend out different stages to various niche labels and curators.

The result is a range of music to suit nearly every listener, appeasing audiences seeking the deeply abstract, the deeply funky, and the deeply swinging -- sometimes all at once. At Le Poisson Rouge, saxophonist Gary Bartz led a phenomenal band of veterans that easily illustrated the latter while celebrating the 50th anniversary of his album Another Earth. The group, which included fellow saxophone legend Pharaoh Sanders, performed with the kind of urgency and acuity that sometimes seems like it might be confined to jazz’s past; most importantly, it seemed like they were having the time of their lives pushing and pulling (musically) on one another.

One of the weekend marathon’s hippest stages was hosted by Chicago label International Anthem, who’ve recently made waves in the jazz world with releases from drummer Makaya McCraven. At East Village boite NuBlu, they presented two nights of Chicago artists that included truly remarkable sets from drummer Mikel Patrick Avery and trumpet player Ben LaMar Gay.

Avery’s experimental quartet had relatively conventional instrumentation -- saxophone, bass, drums, trumpet -- but threw a number of performance-art-esque wrenches into his set. At one point, he brought out a second drumset with electric toothbrushes taped to their heads; when he turned them on, a robotic hum filled the room. The band played over it, conducted by the drummer and eventually, he turned off the toothbrushes -- demonstrating exactly how he sought to cut through the contemporary world’s oft-lamented noise.

Gay supplemented his trumpet with a MIDI keyboard and an array of electronic effects, as well as his own voice and a melodica. The effect was funky but still entirely unexpected; deconstructed renditions of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and what sounded like Nat King Cole’s “Sweet Lorraine” provided a fresh spin on jazz’s long tradition of exposing American pop music’s raw core.

Across town, one could almost imagine being across the pond hearing saxophonist Nubya Garcia, whose muscular improvisations have become one of the London scene’s most exciting exports. The packed crowd at her set demanded an encore, unusual at a festival when most attendees are constantly running to try to catch the next set.

One common thread, if Winter Jazzfest can be used as a barometer for the direction of the music -- which, given that its lineup includes over 100 artists, doesn’t seem like much of a stretch -- is the general embrace of static harmonies over danceable grooves, a departure from the academic, technically complex composition that has for so long been in vogue. Richmond, Virginia band Butcher Brown just completed a stint opening for jazz’s recent crossover star Kamasi Washington. At Mercury Lounge, they had a capacity crowd bopping along to songs that sounded like they might have been as at home backing a chorus by D’Angelo as they were supporting sprawling, virtuosic solos.

Even more outre sets were heavier on rhythmic intensity than head-spinning chord changes -- another Chicago group, Irreversible Entanglements, combined spoken word courtesy of Moor Mother (a.k.a. Camae Ayewa) with dense free jazz improvisation. They first performed together at an event protesting the death of Akai Gurley at the hands of the NYPD; at Winter Jazzfest, she repeated “Enough,” over and over atop a storm of whirlwind melodic lines and pulsing cymbals to visceral effect.

The jams continued at the Revive Music stage at Bowery Ballroom, where drummer Justin Brown led his band Nyeusi alongside guest vocalist Georgia Anne Muldrow. Combined, they created something on the spectrum of Funkadelic, Jimi Hendrix, and Herbie Hancock; Muldrow’s screams carried the echo of James Brown. It was somehow both messy and polished -- the band sounded like they had been touring together for years, even though it was something of a one-off collaboration.

Winter Jazzfest concluded with a late-night performance from drummer Chris Dave and his band the Drumhedz, who were joined by Thundercat. Before he hit the stage, though, the band performed Robert Glasper’s 2007 composition “J Dillalude,” one of the jazz jams that, in retrospect, was part of a sea change in the music. If Winter Jazzfest is any indication, jazz has found a new way into its dancefloor roots -- one that transcends whether the music is major label, independent, pop or avant-garde. Throughout the festival, it was easy to hear music you could feel.