The five-day New York City Winter Jazzfest continues to evolve with more venues, bigger halls rather than clubs or ad hoc performance spaces, secret shows, less chaos, better organization and an increased presence from respected record labels, music veterans and international artists. The 12th edition, which ran from Jan. 13-17, saw most of the action in Greenwich Village on Friday and Saturday nights as more than 120 acts and some 600 musicians performed at a dozen different venues. Launching a festival in the jazz world is no small task, and the growth of the WJF has been slow but steady, overcoming skeptics, logistics, fiscal challenges and artist rebellions.
One reason for the festival’s growth is the reasonably priced wristband that provides access to all of the music marathon’s participating venues, most of which are within walking distance from one another. Such a contemporary showcase strategy has helped draw a younger, more adventurous crowd that's up for new experiences, in addition to the older, dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans. With this newfound balance of concertgoers, the WJF allows for greater exposure of lesser-known artists presented alongside more established players.
Among the "special event" highlights were two consecutive nights at the New School Tishman Auditorium devoted to Germany’s ECM Records and featuring many world-renowned artists as well as honoring label founder, producer and mastermind, Manfred Eicher. Operating since 1969, ECM has released recordings by such celebrated jazz artists as Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, Carla Bley and Charlie Haden, in addition to world music luminaries like Egberto Gismonti, Jan Gabarek, Jon Hassell and Nana Vasconcelos.
Its current roster was also well-represented with performances by the Vijay Iyer Trio, keyboardist Craig Taborn, Israeli trumpeter Avishai Cohen, veteran guitarist David Torn, saxophonists Chris Potter and Tim Berne and singer Theo Bleckmann. One well-hyped ECM set featured American bassist Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus. With nearly twenty all-stars onstage including Tim Berne, Ralph Allesi, Chris Speed and Mary Halvorson, Formanek’s earth-shattering big band performed music from their forthcoming CD The Distance for a hall full of eager critics, musicians, interested listeners and devoted fans.
ECM saxophonist Mark Turner was also a heavy presence at the WJF, showcasing his own quartet as well as performing with the Bad Plus pianist Ethan Iverson and as part of Lebanon-born, French trumpeter Ibrahim Malouff’s outstanding ensemble. Turner spent years working as a sideman and part of the acclaimed collective Fly before reasserting himself as a bandleader. He also overcame a serious injury and devoted time to raising his family, but his latest group scored a clean knockout featuring Avishai Cohen, drummer Marcus Gilmore and bassist Joe Morton. The Mark Turner Quartet performed some new compositions as well as material from their 2014 release, Lathe Of Heaven. As with many of the artists at WJF, Turner is still better known in Europe than here at home, but the man is undoubtedly one of the top saxophonists working on the scene today.
Veteran outré artists helped flesh out the festival, including the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by Marshall Allen with special guest keyboardist Terry Adams (of NRBQ) at the Judson Church, Dutch punk-jazzers The Ex, Bonnaroo favorite Colin Stetson with bassist Bill Laswell and a special secret show by the popular American jazz trio, The Bad Plus.
Trumpeter/bandleader Steven Bernstein was present on Friday night at (le) Poisson Rouge with his Sex Mob quartet celebrating 20 years of improvised music, heavy camaraderie and tomfoolery. As a clear reflection their established New York values, WJF organizer/presenter Adam Schatz said, “Sex Mob makes every day a Bar Mitzvah!” Bernstein also appeared at the New School Auditorium on Saturday, leading blind pianist Henry Butler and The Hot 9 Ensemble through an upbeat set of old-fashioned jazz.
As for the new, the five-day showcase of contemporary artists expanding on improvised and experimental sounds points to a bright future for the genre.