Reflections on Winter and Jazz in New York

January and therefore jazz time in New York – Winter Jazz is swinging the city for 2 days of marathon concert events and other shows around these and it is the time when the Jazz Connect Conference is happening with more showcases (as well as in connection with APAP) and panel discussions on the state of jazz today. I came into town for lots of meetings and to moderate the panel at Jazz Connect on Israel – an introduction into this market and its musicians – one of the international aspects of the Conference, which I cover now since a few years. It is always great to meet friends and colleagues at Jazz Connect and this year was no difference, and then of course, it is always great to go out and hear some music … as long as the weather is not getting too crazy. This year the winter said HELLO with cold winds and snow, but all acceptable and not disrupting the festival or my plans on what to check out.

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Choice is the word if you want to describe New York and what happens when you want to go out to hear some jazz – especially during Winter Jazz, but as well in general. I arrived on the 4th and took it easy, but on the 5th I had to see something – originally I wanted to see Jonatha Brooke performing new material at the City Winery, but in the end, as our dinner took a bit longer than expected, Kurt Elling and I decided to go and see John Beasley’s MONK’estra at Dizzy’s – great arrangements of Monk’s tunes performed by an amazing big band and some guests, which that night included harmonica player Gregoire Maret and the wonderful Dianne Reeves. Perfect music after a day of meetings! I heard as well a few tracks of young singer Vuyo Sotashe, who followed the orchestra on stage and he again proved to be a unique talent with lots of control and great songs.

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The so called jazz marathon started on January 6th and the first gig I went to was the Rachel Z and Omar Hakim band, performing at the Zinc Bar, one of the many venues in the Bleecker Street area hosting the festival. Sandro Albert on guitar and Jonathan Toscan on e-bass completed the band, which played some new tracks of contemporary fusion, with power and beautiful little melodies.

From there I took a quick trip up to the Jazz Standard to see Regina Carter with her band playing songs connected to Ella Fitzgerald – some of the famous songs were performed, some less known, but incredibly beautiful ones like Artie Glenn’s CRYING IN THE CHAPEL. Regina is a master on her instrument and these great songs are perfect material for her improvising skills.

Next up was SOMI, who presented some of her new songs at a packed Subculture. As I arrived early I had a chance to hear a bit of the group before her Jacob Garchik’s Ye Olde, featuring Jacob on trombone, Ava Mendoza, Mary Halvorson and Jonathan Goldberger on guitars and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – jazz and rock and power and subtle playing all perfectly done. Unusual – and really great!! Then Somi came on stage and presented her new songs, from the album Petite Afrique which will be released end of March. Somi is the essential story teller and these beautiful songs are no exception and the band played them wonderful, carrying the emotions and stories she wants to communicate perfectly. Liberty Ellman on guitar, Tory Dodo and piano, Michael Olatuja and Nate Smith managed to make a great singer sound even better. She is one of the best today and her mix of jazz, soul, R&B and African grooves is unique and catchy. A very special show, with a very special talent.

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After a short walk through the wintery and freezing cold NYC I arrived at The Bitter End just in time to see Nir Felder starting his set. The young guitar player was accompanied by Matt Penman on bass and Jimmy MacBride on drums and for me the set was really amazing – Nir seemed to be much more relaxed and less focused on the song format than on the essence of the song and simply let fly … with incredible technique and power. Since I saw him the last time about a year ago, this young man definitely has improved a lot. Glad I made it to that gig.

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Day 2 of the jazz marathon I started with the Michael Leonhart Orchestra – Michael had asked me to come and see his orchestra and I had no idea what to expect – surprise, surprise!!!  He had 26 musicians on the stage of the Poisson Rouge and used these musicians to create some very impressive music! There was no limit to what these guys were able to do under Leonhart’s direction – from arrangements of music to Charlie Browns Christmas to a newly arranged Wu Tang Clan song. He seems to have the history of Big Band jazz within the orchestra, but at the same time is very unique thanks to his compelling arrangements: powerful, deep, thoughtful and emotional at the same time. A very impressive orchestra, under an immensely creative leader. I am looking forward to hear more of them in the near future. My show of the festival and after the usual 40 minutes all bands do in Winter Jazz, this one left me duly wanting for more.

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From there it was a short walk in the snow to the Zinc Bar for Claudia Acuña’s set. She performed with her Chilean Connection band featuring Pablo Vergara – piano,  Pablo Menares – bass, Yayo Serka – drums and Juancho Herrera – guitar and as usually she was best when singing in Spanish. Claudia is a great singer and I always enjoyed listening to her – this show was no exception to that.

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At the same venue I listened then to The Baylor Project, as I had heard some good things about them – and I wasn’t to be disappointed: Jean Baylor and Marcus Baylor together with Shedrick Mitchell on piano and organ, Yasushi Nakamura on bass, Keith Loftis on saxes and Freddie Hendrix on trumpet and flugelhorn delivered a grooving set, supporting the beautiful vocals of Jean Baylor perfectly. Outstanding their rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. One act to watch.

Then off to see the duo of Bill Frisell and bass player Thomas Morgan – another gig that was much too short for my liking, but it gave the audience a taste of their forthcoming album (touching communication on beautiful themes and impressive improvisations from both artists), which will be out in spring this year. A must have.

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I intended to end the night with Marc Ribot and the Young Philadelphians, featuring my friend Jamaaladeen Tacuma. I had seen this project already in Madrid last year, but enjoyed it so much that I wanted to hear them again …. Unfortunately quite a few people had the same idea and the SOB’s was packed to the limit … and waiting outside in the snow at – 9 degrees Celsius wasn’t really what I had in mind …. So I just had a little whiskey at the hotel and got some sleep.

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Winter Jazz again proved to be what the name promised – winter and lots of jazz in New York. Looking forward to next year already.

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