Notes From New York: Winter Jazzfest, John McLaughlin and More

Music Features John McLaughlin
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Notes From New York: Winter Jazzfest, John McLaughlin and More

Welcome to Notes From New York, a monthly jazz column by Bill Milkowski that includes observations on the scene along with interview snippets, gossip and gig information.

WINTER JAZZFEST
Since its inception in 2004, Brice Rosenbloom’s Winter Jazzfest (WJF) has grown from an intimate bar-hopping hang on Bleecker Street in the heart of Greenwich Village to a sprawling circuit of venues that encompasses 14 different stages ranging from The Django in Tribeca to Subculture and Nublu in the East Village, The Bitter End and Le Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village and The New School on the border of Chelsea. WJF, which highlights both rising stars and more revered veterans, has become a destination event for European jazz fans, previously resulting in long lines and overcrowding at some of the original tiny venues. That problem has been alleviated by the addition of the new venues, including the spacious and acoustically brilliant Tishman Auditorium at the New School, where ECM Records again held its label showcase this year. The dizzying array of bands at the 13th annual bash, held from January 5-10, included Craig Harris’s sprawling 31-piece Breathe ensemble, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, trumpeter Steven Bernstein’s new eight-piece Universal Melody Brass Band, guitarist Vernon Reid’s new Band of Gypsies-influenced Zig Zag power trio with bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer Will Calhoun, Marc Ribot’s Young Philadelphians and the Mary Halvorson Octet. Guitarist Bill Frisell premiered an upcoming series of duets with bassist Thomas Morgan (Small Town, scheduled for a May release) while a quartet of bassist Michael Formanek, saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver was a last-minute replacement for Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko, who was unable to fly due to a back injury.

This year’s WJF theme focused on racial and social justice and the role of music, and was addressed in afternoon panel discussions, as well as in sets by the Black Rock Coalition, Craig Harris’ 31-piece Breathe ensemble, David Murray & Class Struggle, Terri Lyne Carrington & Social Justice, LaFrae Sci & Sonic Black, Jaimeo Brown’s Transcendence and Samora Pinderhughes’ Transformation Suite. The festival also celebrated the 100th anniversary of jazz legend Thelonious Monk in several performances, including a recreation of Monk’s classic 1965 album “Solo Monk” at Littlefield in Brooklyn. Artist-in-residence at this year’s WJF was 77-year-old drumming master Andrew Cyrille, a member of the Cecil Taylor Unit of the ‘60s, who performed in a series of bracing duets with tenor saxophonist Bill McHenry (recreating pieces from their recent Sunnyside album “Proximity”) at Tishman Auditorium, in an all-Monk program with soprano saxophonist Sam Newsome at Littlefield, with his band Haitian Fascination, featuring guitarist Alix “Tit” Pascal, saxophonist Alix Ambroise, drummer Jean Guy Rene and bassist Lisle Atkinson, at the New School Auditorium and in a dramatic solo set at Le Poisson Rouge. The only problem with this year’s festival was that it was physically impossible to see it all. But for those looking to sample what’s happening now in jazz, this was definitely the place to be in early January.

MCLAUGHLIN’S FAREWELL TOUR
Guitar legend John McLaughlin, who fueled Miles Davis’ early experiments in electric jazz (1969’s In a Silent Way, 1970’s Bitches Brew, 1971’s Live-Evil and 1972’s On the Corner), and spearheaded the early ‘70s fusion movement with the Mahavishnu Orchestra, has announced that his upcoming 2017 tour will be his last on American soil. Over the course of more than five decades, the revered British guitar hero stunned six-string enthusiasts with his legendary chops. As Frank Zappa once noted of the six-string speed-meister: “The guy has certainly found out how to operate a guitar as if it were a machine gun.” Unfortunately, the guitar great, who turned 75 on January 4, has been suffering from an arthritic condition in his hands over the past few years that makes playing the guitar (particularly at the sheer speed and precision he has demonstrated over the years since his 1969 debut as a leader, Extrapolation) a challenge. Joining McLaughlin on his final tour of the United States will be fellow guitarist Jimmy Herring, a jam-band icon and veteran of such bands as Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Allman Brothers and Widespread Panic. Dubbed The Meeting of the Spirits tour (named for a song on the groundbreaking 1971 album, The Inner Mounting Flame), the multi-city circuit will feature McLaughlin revisiting the music he introduced with his incendiary Mahavishnu Orchestra. McLaughlin will be backed by his current band, the 4th Dimension, which features drummer Ranjit Barot, keyboardist and drummer Gary Husband and electric bassist extraordinaire Etienne M’Bappé. On The Meeting of the Spirits tour, separate sets by Herring and McLaughlin will be followed by a collaborative finale based on classic Mahavishnu material.

McLaughlin was in New York for a special engagement celebrating the 75th birthday of keyboardist (and Return To Forever founder) Chick Corea at the Blue Note in early December. This rare collaboration over four nights began with an intimate duet encounter that had McLaughlin and Corea delivering sublime extrapolations on standards like “My Romance,” “Someday Prince Will Come,” Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and “‘Round Midnight,” Bill Evans’ “Waltz For Debby” and Miles Davis’ “Solar.” The subsequent three nights featured the two fusion figureheads exchanging lightning licks on tunes they had introduced 40 years ago with their respective fusion groups. Corea looked like he was having fun wailing on Mini-Moog throughout the set while McLaughlin grinned ear-to-ear during his fleet-fingered fusillades on Corea’s “Romantic Warrior” and “Captain Señor Mouse” (featuring a cameo appearance from banjo ace Béla Fleck) and his own tunes “A Lotus on Irish Streams” and the energized“Smile of Beyond.” “Chick and I go back 47 years,” he told the audience between songs. “That’s a long time. We were both 27, 28-year-old hippies back then. Nothing wrong with that. We could use more hippie values in this wacky world today.” For an encore, the all-star group, featuring Victor Wooten on electric and acoustic basses and former RTF member Lenny White on drums, was joined by Corea’s wife of 45 years, Gayle Moran, who has the distinction of being the only singer to have performed and recorded with both Return To Forever and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

JOE LOVANO MEETS THE CUBAN JAZZERS
Saxophonist Joe Lovano unveiled his smoking new band co-led by renowned Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes and featuring a smoking Cuban rhythm section of bassist Gaston Joya, percussionist Yardley Abreu Robies and drummer Francisco Mela in a week-long late November engagement at Birdland. Ironically, the night I attended was the very night that Fidel Castro died, precisely during the second set. The Cuban band members were relatively mum after the fact, though parades of celebration erupted in the streets of Miami, which has a significant population of Cuban expatriates. Joy and Robies returned to their home in Havana after the gig. Mela currently lives in the Inwood section of Upper Manhattan and Values resides in Malaga, Spain, and also has homes in Miami and Cuba, where he resided during the heyday of Irakere during the ‘70s. Loving explains that he and Valdes first met back in the ‘80. “I went to Havana with the Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra in 1986, and that’s when I heard Irakere and we met, and I also met Gonzalo Rubalcaba. And that’s when Charlie met Gonzalao for the first time. They ended up doing a trio record with Paul Motion for Soul Note. Anyway, a bunch of stuff started to churn around that time and then Chucho invited me to come down to Havana with my Street Band when I had Viva Caruso, out in 2002. Idris Muhammed came and played drums with us on that gig and then Idris and I ended up playing a little quartet moment on one of Chucho’s concerts, which was totally beautiful. And then shortly after that, Chucho came to the States with his quintet and I did a little tour on the West Coast as a guest with Chucho’s band. And then when Bruce passed (in 2015), Chucho and I played duets at his memorial service at St. Peter’s Church in Midtown Manhattan. And that’s when all of this started to take form about doing a tour and doing stuff together and co-leading a group.” Loving and Valdes recorded three nights (six sets) at Birdland and plan on putting out a self-produced release, label to be determined, sometime in 2017.

REZ ABBASI’s INVOCATION PREMIERE
In a striking example of East-meets-West, Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi led his Invocation sextet for the premiere of Unfiltered Universe at the Asia Society in New York on December 15 and 16, 2016. The third in a trilogy of works exploring the confluence of South Asian musical traditions and jazz—2009’s Things To Come blended Hindustani music with jazz harmonic sensibilities while 2012’s Suno Suno bridged Pakistan devotional music called qawwali with jazz—Unfiltered Universe presented the ancient sound of Carnatic classical music from Southern India through a modern jazz prism.

In a striking example of East-meets-West, Pakistani-born guitarist Rez Abbasi led his Invocation sextet for the premiere of Unfiltered Universe at the Asia Society in New York on December 15 and 16, 2016. The third in a trilogy of works exploring the confluence of South Asian musical traditions and jazz—2009’s Things To Come blended Hindustani music with jazz harmonic sensibilities while 2012’s Suno Suno bridged Pakistan devotional music called qawwali with jazz—Unfiltered Universe presented the ancient sound of Carnatic classical music from Southern India through a modern jazz prism.

Accompanied by a stellar crew featuring longtime colleagues Vijay Iyer on piano and Rudresh Mahanthappa on alto sax, along with Elizabeth Means on cello, Johannes Weidenmeuller on bass and Dan Weiss on drums, Abbasi steered the ship with his commanding, slightly distortion-tinged lines that at times recalled guitarist Pat Martino’s pan-global fusion experiments of the mid-’70s (Joyous Lake, Starbright). Commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Unfiltered Universe was recorded in the studio for an upcoming release on Whirlwind Records. One of the most potent songs of the set was the raga-like “Thin King,” which opened with an unaccompanied solo by Abbasi utilizing a trippy backwards-sounding guitar effect. As the piece developed, each of the principal soloists extrapolated on the angular theme individually, as the baton was passed from Iyer to Mahanthappa to Abbasi. Mahanthappa, one of the brightest lights on the sax scene today, blew with white-hot intensity on this heightened number while Iyer, an acclaimed composer and leader in his own right, was a whirlwind of focused energy on the keys—more Don Pullen than Cecil Taylor. And Abbasi dug deeply into his Martino bag on this number, delivering some blistering speed-picking with a Carnatic edge. Other highlights include the dense “Propensity,” the loping 6/8 “Turn Of Events,” which evolved from a dreamy rubato soundscape to some blistering call-and-response between Mahanthappa and Abbasi that had them pushing each other to some kinetic heights, and the lively closer “Dance Number,” a swaggering Bollywood backbeat tune that had Abbasi pulling out his best Allan Holdsworthian legato licks. This Indo-jazz supergroup is bound to garner much acclaim when it tours in early 2017.

SEEN ON THE SCENE
Bassist-composer Dave Holland premiering new open-ended, jam-oriented material with his dynamic quartet of tenor saxophonist Chris Potter, guitarist Keven Eubanks and drummer Obed Calvaire in a week-long engagement at Birdland, which was documented for an upcoming release on Holland’s Dare2 Records; Vibraphonist and Creative Music Studio founder Karl Berger paying tribute to the late trumpeter Don Cherry 50 years after their famous Cafe Montmartre quartet gig in 1966, with trumpeter Steven Bernstein, cornetist Graham Haynes, tuba player Bob Stewart, saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, vocalist Ingrid Sertso, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Tani Tabbal at the Greenwich House Music School; Brian Lynch performing tunes from his Grammy-nominated Madera Latino, his Latin jazz tribute to trumpet great Woody Shaw with fellow trumpeters Ingrid Jensen and Phillip Dizack, pianist Zaccai Curtis, bassist Ruben Rodriguez, drummer Obed Calvaire and percussionist Little Johnny Rivero at the Jazz Standard; Saxophonist Paul Winter performing his 47th annual Winter Solstice Concert at St John’s Cathedral, with special guest Gary Booker (founder and lead singer of the ‘60s rock band Procol Harum) performing his classics “Conquistador” and “Whiter Shade of Pale.”

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