2010 Winter Jazzfest NYC - Night One

2010 Winter Jazzfest (now in its sixth year) began promptly (Le) Poisson Rouge with Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, an 18-member ensemble (by my count) directed by the eponymous leader. Argue’s direction was precise, if not robotic, but the band sounded confident and emphatic.

Argue is certainly an innovative and intelligent composer, a thinking person’s kind of tunesmith. Take, for example, his song “Zeno,”based on Zeno’s Paradox of Motion (that forward motion is an illusion). Anyone who can write a song based on the thinking of an ancient Greek philosopher is alright by me. Here’s the kicker for the execution of this tune: the solo trombonist, (Ryan Keberle?), played haltingly. The solo repeatedly failed to move the composition forward or bring the band along with him. This is either sorrowfully ironic (because the song stumbled) or brilliant (because at least musically, Zeno’s paradox was proven).

And Argue is political too. Jazz and politics, a man after my heart. The next song was dedicated to Erik Prince, founder of Xe, formerly known as Blackwater. The music was dark, sinister, engrossing. It’s nice to have some political jazz out there, a genre that would do well to engage the political world more often to—perhaps—great effect (think of a mess of jazz versions of Flobots, The Coup, K’Naan out there stirring the pot). “Obsidian Flow” with a solo by Erica vonKleist ended the set. vonKleist took a while to get flowing, but by the time she got going, she really let it blow. Would have been nice to let her jam for another 45 seconds, but Argue keeps a tight leash.

A break to the bar to get another round of scotch ($14 a pop) only to overhear a heated discussion on the viability of democracy in Yemen (gotta love New York jazz people).

Jazz vixen Jamie Leonhart was up next. She took the noise level down many notches, but she was hypnotizing. By this time the crowd at LPR had camped out on the floor, looking up to Leonhart as if she were being worshipped. (Note to LPR: get some chairs and tables! Having an audience sit on the floor is so unbecoming of a nice jazz joint). Leonhart’s almost-raspy voice was transfixing. Her lyrics were precise, her intonation measured and controlled, her performance confident. She shines on the slower, softer jams… the gentle swaying of her hips underpinning her singing had me thinking “kinky lullaby.” Her rendition of “Willow Weep for Me” was one of the best I have ever heard. In this she was more animated, seemingly close to bursting out of her skin, only to pull back at climactic moments. Total control.

Next up, Zinc Bar where people lined up outside to hear the Chelsea Baratz Quartet, already halfway through their first groove by the time I muscled my way in. The bar was packed and hot (it took a while for my glasses to de-fog). It was clear the vibe was different from that at LPR, but it didn’t take long for the glow to dull.

CBQ plays with the feel of a quartet that hasn’t found its groove. Chemistry 101 might be a good class to take. Baratz had trouble bringing jams to a close (partly because eye contact between her and bandmates was minimal)—often she brought the sax to her lips, ready to blow and jam, only to put it down again in visible disappointment/annoyance that the rest of the group wasn’t getting the signal. Baratz’s solos, when they did come, were uninspiring—I found her to be wooden and uncharismatic throughout the set.

I wondered if it was me, so I asked the lady at the bar next to me, a jazz drummer, her opinion. “She’s doing her thing… well, she’s getting better with each song,” she qualified. “She’s young, give her time.” A man nearby hypothesized that Baratz had done well to surround herself with talented musicians. I looked around, the crowd had thinned noticeably.

The Jaleel Shaw Quartet followed. Now these guys had chemistry. Going from Baratz to Shaw was like going from sailing on a ship in a bottle to manning the wheel in the America’s Cup. Once again Zinc Bar filled to capacity. Their performance alone was worth the price of admission. Special shout out to bassist Ben Williams whose solos nearly brought tears to my eyes. Someone told me he’s at Julliard. I found him on Myspace. Wherever he is, find him, don’t let him out of your sights, this cat’s going places. Pianist Aaron Goldberg alternated playing from the base of his spine and the top of his head, you could just see the spontaneous inspiration emanating from behind the piano—it sounded gooooooood. Drummer Jonathan Blake was solid, if a bit weak on the solos, but he certainly had style with the sticks, and Shaw himself proved to be a strong leader, maestro on the alto sax, and all-around vibe enhancer.

Full of bounce I headed to Kenny’s Castaways where the crowd snaked down the block. Bobby Previte’s New Bump Quartet didn’t just bump—they practically murdered the air inside the cramped space. Previte masterfully led his entourage with charisma and flawless drumming through a set of new music. His perma-grin let the crowd know that he was having a blast up there. Vibraphonist Bill Ware stole the show, but it wasn’t until the end of the set, when the crowd cleared out a bit, that I realized it was Ware’s electricity and not an electric guitar, that was rocking the crowd—a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder, tumbling downstairs, and hanging off the balcony to get a view of the dynamic performance.

Getting late into the night… midnight the man I had been waiting for all night, Mark Guiliana stepped onto stage. Mark Guiliana’s Beat Music simply melted my face. Jaw dropping psychedelic guitars (two) in combination with some solid bass guitar thumping, were topped with a cherry—Guiliana’s commanding, mathematically precise, wicked drumming. Drum solos were mixed with surprise splashes of guitar explosions that had the crowd turning their heads in pleasant surprise. Oohs and aahs added to the soundtrack. A snapshot of the performance is below. Get this group a vomit bag because they are sick! If I wasn’t stoned before I started Winter Jazzfest, I certainly was after their set. Throughout the night Guiliana had the confident look of, “yea, I got this.” You know what? He does.


The Mantle's music blogger Matthew Young was also at the Jazzfest. Check out his review of night one here.


Shaun Randol founded The Mantle in 2009. Today he is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher. You can email him at shaun [at] themantle.net. Shaun is the co-editor of Gambit: Newer African Writing.