Every year we have writers comb through the countless shows at Winter JazzFest without much of a prompting to see what they make it to and what new up-and-coming music they can find as well as which of their favorites puts on the best shows. Check out one of our writer’s walk through Winter JazzFest2013!
At Le Poisson Rouge on Friday night was the legendary Monty Alexander. For 50 minutes he gave the crowd there music of the type which the Winter Jazzfest aims to capture and expand upon. This performance was centered round his latest release called Harlem – Kingston Express, a live concert album that bears his stamp of fusing jazz with reggae. Anyone who has seen him before has an idea of what to expect: you better be ready to jam to his music. The night started with his trio consisting of him, Hassan Shakur on bass and Obed Calvaire as the drummer. This first part was a bit more focused on the Harlem connection, demonstrating the dynamic between the three of them. The touch on standards like “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Things Ain’t What They Used to be” were done with care and virtuosity that only veterans could possess.
In the second half of the set came a funky band that highlighted Mr. Alexander’s origins in Kingston, changing personnel to feature keyboardist Earl Appleton, guitarist Andy Bassford, electric bassist Joshua Thomas and Karl Wright on drums. This is where you heard the full display of his bridging jazz to Jamaica, and if you haven’t experienced anything like it before you will be taken in by it. His rendition of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” had the audience singing along, with Stephen Suckaire of the group New Kingston helping out. It was music that embodies Mr. Alexander’s roots, a staple of seeing one of his shows.
In theory we honor our fallen by taking the lessons from our journey with them, and move forward armed with this knowledge. On Friday evening playing for concertgoers was a demonstration of this, the Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson Re-visioned band. This is a project that views the works of Mr. Scott-Heron and Mr. Jackson through a contemporary lens, and reimagines their legacy in a modern setting. To explore this influence and how it bridges generations is more creative and feasible than trying to recreate the magic of the two, and with Mr. Jackson at the helm along with Ron Holloway and Robert Gordon of the Midnight Band it was guaranteed it would connect with the musical greatness of works like Pieces of a Man and Winter in America. Other members of past and present genre bending groups like Mike Clark of the Headhunters, Will Calhoun of Living Colour, Juma Sultan of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Sanga of the Valley from the Baba Olatunji Ensemble and former member of the Roots’ Martin Luther also took part in this.
Delving into works like “Liberation Song,” “Alien” and “Guerilla,” the new versions added the innovations of neo-soul and hip-hop to the palette while retaining some of the original essence. M1 of Dead Prez seemed to serve more as a master of the ceremony though and would let the ensemble lead the way, making it more about the entire group rather than individuals. Mr. Holloway had several blazing solos on the saxophone though, and a show stealing moment came when singer Maimouna Youssef surprised the crowd with a rhyme of her own that made everyone at Le Poisson Rouge take note. Ultimately the age spanning, conceptual workings of the evening delved into a side of Mr. Scott-Heron and Mr. Jackson’s legacy that is often understated. Words were part of what made them legendary, but their music was no less important a piece to their artistic vision and that’s was what was on display here.
This may have been one of the underrated sets of the festival. First conceptualized when Francisco Mora-Catlett was with the Sun Ra Arkestra in the ’70s, Afro Horn is a compelling project that bridges Mr. Mora-Catlett’s Mexican heritage with Latin, African-American and African music, folklore and poetry. This third version of the group brings together veteran Detroiters who play with a spiritual sense that seems to bind them to something ancestral. Duties of the horn section during this show went to Salim Washington, Alex Harding and Bruce Williams, with pianist Aruan Ortiz, bassist Rahssaan Carter and percussionists Roman Diaz and Andrew Daniels alongside Mr. Mora-Catlett on drums. JD Allen played on the last album, Afro Horn MX, but was not part of the lineup for this outing.
On numbers like “Saints at Congo Square,” which takes from Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints go Marching in,” and “Blues People,” a long musical history from the lineage of those who came to this continent enslaved was being encompassed in all that the band was playing. What was heard here is rare in the genre these days, and was unlikely to be found by attendees elsewhere during the rest of the weekend. Well worth staying up late to catch, one desires that there will be more shows from them in the future. Here is to hoping that this time it will continue on and not require a fourth incarnation.
The Somi set at Sullivan Hall proved to be a hot ticket as the venue crowded up quickly for the enchanting performance. It was elbow to elbow when she hit the stage, and concertgoers continued to pack the place during the duration of her time live. It’s no wonder why when you listen to her work, and as evident by the Live at Standard Jazz album she sounds just as great in a venue setting. Drummer Otis Brown III was pulling double duty that night as his set followed hers, and other members of the band consisted of Toru Dodo on piano, Liberty Ellman playing guitar, Michael Olatuja on bass and Alicia Olatuja and Ayanna George providing additional vocals.
Somi’s deep and powerful voice can be commanding when holding a note, or when whispering a few words. The jazz and blues honed, African influenced style she is known for makes for a lot of things at work in any given song she does. One example is the take on Fela Kuti’s “Lady” that flips the gender notions of the original on its head and becomes a celebration of African women. Even with the hard to resist rhythm at play in the song, her presence took control of the interpretation. Mr. Dodo had a nice solo during the piece and drew the audience into her performance even more with a loud round of applause. Other works like the bare boned number she used to open, “Juju,” lets one appreciate her singing to the fullest extent. A delightful show, indeed.
Otis Brown III is stepping out on his own as a bandleader after playing a more supportive role for some time, and judging by what he has been working on there will be much to look forward to. Taking his new band, the Sound Doctrine, for a spin, he gave many at the Winter Jazzfest a sample of some of his work for the first time. Much of the music had an air of etherealness with what appeared to be some In a Silent Way overtures, but the group is distinctly of this era with their approach. Their take on Joe Lovano’s “Blackwell’s Message” sounded like the group got sucked into a space of dark matter, transforming the number to give it more of a Hip-Hop edge. (You know what it reminded me of? What Big L rhymed over in what is now known as the 98 freestyle. See what I mean here.)
What dominated the feel of the set was the sometimes sinister sounding Gerald Clayton on the keys, with John Ellis and Michael Rodriguez on sax and trumpet, respectively, offering illuminating sounds that pierced through the mood. Ben Williams seemed to be in tune with Gerald and added a layer to his direction, and Mr. Brown was essentially the mastermind behind this operation. A ballad tribute to his wife Paula that he unveiled highlighted his taste for minimal yet dense compositions. Much of the material performed was off of the upcoming album he is working on, and with sound effects and clips added to the mix it will be interesting to hear how the finished product takes form. The fact he put all of this together while backing four other groups during the two nights is equally impressive.
Words by Seve Chambers (@SChambersBK)