My Friday and Saturday of this New York trip fused unseasonable physical warmth with the warmth of watching communities intersect, share, and watch out for one another.
Hit six sets of the Winter Jazzfest Marathon Friday, trying to dip in on things that had been on my list and bands I had no experience with or expectations for. Three burned cataracts off my eyes, would not let me stay jaded or sit there with folded arms.
I walked into SOB’s – the site of some of the finest R&B performances I’ve ever seen anywhere – smack into the last third of a dazzling performance by The Era, a Chicago footwork crew. The Era blended virtuosic pushing the limits of the body forms with a sense of shared experience, and empathy for their fellow dancers and their community, spoken word, clips of a documentary, and vital social commentary. Solos highlight the artist as an individual but build the greater whole.
For the last few minutes, as The Era introduced each other and took bows, their fellow Chicagoans Hypnotic Brass Ensemble took the stage, with the drummer laying down a beat and the horns – seven of whom are songs of the great ecstatic jazz artist Phil Cohran – coalescing behind them. That sense of community and love set the stage for Hypnotic Brass Ensemble’s righteous, riotous explosion of joy. The finest funk wah-guitar I’ve heard live since Skip Pitts; thick bass lines and an almost unequaled rhythm section hookup set up blow-your-hair-back horns, gang vocals, and the dance party that’s unheard of at 7:30.
Rode that enthusiasm up 6th Ave to check in on one of my favorite bands I hadn’t seen in many years – since the week of my dear friend Mike Gamble’s wedding, I think – Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra. The 20th anniversary of this assemblage of downtown NYC jazzers was a tribute to refining and expanding an approach, to taking what matters to them from the past and never being afraid to fuck with it.
A paean to the joy of approaching standards like “St. Louis Blues” and “Careless Love” simultaneously as though they just heard them last week and taught them to one another and with all the historical knowledge of every great version that’s come before them. Just as strongly, it was another tribute (you’ll see a theme here) to their community. As he introduced every member of the band – including Catherine Russell, a vocalist for whom “special guest” isn’t even close to adequate – Bernstein had a witty story about how they came into each other’s lives and his palpable love for every person on that stage glowed even brighter than the blistering, surprising solos: “Curtis Fowlkes on trombone! I replaced Curtis in the Lounge Lizards, when he left I got that one solo;” “Peter Apfelbaum and I have been playing music since I was 11 – well, we didn’t really start making music till 12, that first year we were bullshitting;” “They told me I’d love [Matt Munisteri, electric guitarist] who played trad banjo; I said I don’t want to meet some motherfucker who plays trad banjo!”
That same sense of communal bond and simultaneous gazes on the past and the future suffused drummer Makaya McCraven’s Chicago-rooted supergroup. McCraven’s been making noise as one of our most exciting drummers who trusts improvisation enough to run it through a cut-up filter and expose it to every other tool at his disposal. I love his heavy, organic records. But I expected nothing to blow me away as much as the live set.
Chicago’s always been one of the principal jazz scenes and they’re having a moment – big records out in the last year from what felt like every member of this Octet, off the top of my head: Junius Paul, Joel Ross, Greg Ward, Brandee Younger, Marquis Hill. This set helped coalesce that coming-out party, extended pieces full of tension and joy, grins exchanged between players but attacking the musical material with an enviable intensity. I texted a friend and said, “This is the kind of awesome, multi-layered groove machine I was led to believe Tortoise would sound like,” but this band doesn’t sound like anything except themselves.
Joel Ross’ machine-gun vibraphone arpeggios took a hi-hat heavy McCraven intro and built a bridge into a volcanic Hill trumpet piece, then subsumed by the whole horn front line at once. The entire band gathered around Brandee Younger as her harp washed over all of us. Ward and the tenor player (I apologize, he was spectacular, I just can’t read my damn handwriting – someone post in the comments so I can correct?) bubbling up uncanny harmonies between their horns. Every few bars brought a wholly surprising and perfectly right turn after turn. Friends and peers who built this language together, like the Yehuda Amichai poem, that baked in the same sun and froze in the same cold, lighting a path straight to the future.
Saturday, both plays I saw were excellent but salt stuck with me and resonating in time with everything else of these two days. Written by Selina Thompson and performed brilliantly by Rochelle Rose with razor-sharp direction from Dawn Walton, salt traces a journey into Thompson’s family history as an adopted black woman grown up in Birmingham, England.
That journey back to Jamaica and to Ghana excavates old wounds and finds new wellsprings of joy. Ugly slights and horrific mistreatment but also putting her story in the world’s context at large. Better than any performance I think I’ve ever seen, salt understands the crushing repetition of oppression, the way the boring and the horrific take each other as eager dance partners. And, though most of 2019’s year-end list for me dealt with why do we live and what we owe each other, nothing I’ve ever seen has done it better than Thompson, Rose, and Walton do it here. I walked out into the sunlight a blithering idiot (okay, more of).
Later that night, one of my favorite APAP adjacent showcases, Secret Planet, took over one of my favorite clubs, Drom, for the best version of it I’ve ever seen. Cochemea – who I knew best from his sideman duties with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – kicked us into a frenzy with instrumental soul, his variety of reeds backed by a band almost entirely composed of percussionists. Seven or eight people building riffs into surging tidal waves and delighting in the sense of play with one another.
That thread got picked up and danced with by Sunny Jain’s (from Red Baraat) new band Wild Wild East, merging featuring Jain at a trap drum kit instead of his usual dhol, fusing spaghetti western tunes, Indian pop, and thick ‘70s psychedelia with a band of sax, guitar, sousaphone, and dueling man-woman vocals. A tribute to exploration and migration wrapped up in a wild party.
Alba and the Mighty Lions turned up the psychedelic salsa elements for giant, catchy songs in a rhythmically intense, barbed, rocking package. I didn’t stick around for the whole set only because I realized not eating in 7 hours and running on dancing and whiskey would go badly but I’d watch them again and again.
Another full day I’m walking into, to badly paraphrase the Andrew Hudgins poem, “As if I’ll only – fat chance – live it once.”