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Past is prologue, thrillingly, as the Winter Jazzfest marks its return

Maurice "Mobetta" Brown with Chelsea Baratz
Jonathan Chimene
Maurice "Mobetta" Brown with Chelsea Baratz at City Winery, during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.

“The past replays itself,” sang Sara Serpa in The Loft at City Winery late Friday night, “Over and over again.” Singing with pinpoint clarity over a desert groove in 7/4 time, Serpa was stating the core message of “Antiquity,” an enthralling new song by Linda May Han Oh.

It arrived some six hours into the 2023 Winter Jazzfest Manhattan Marathon, which must be why that lyrical axiom — while offered in admonishment, as Oh explained before her solo bass intro — stirred such reassuring feelings. Putting aside the perils of historical recurrence, Winter Jazzfest was back, in person and in full, for the first time since the start of our pandemic era. Any resemblance to the untroubled Winter Jazzfests of yore was something to be cherished.

There was plenty to evoke that precedent on Friday and Saturday, in the respective and equally jam-packed Manhattan and Brooklyn marathons. The first such flashback, for me, was a stand by the Donny McCaslin Quartet at (Le) Poisson Rouge, which has functioned as the nerve center of this festival since its move to Greenwich Village in 2009. McCaslin’s quartet — known outside jazz constituencies as the band from David Bowie’s Blackstar, with the leader on tenor saxophone, Jason Lindner on keyboards, Tim Lefebvre on electric bass, and Mark Guiliana on drums — models an ideal of whiplash ferocity and straining endurance, with every output pushing into the red.

“There’s always an element of danger, which I’m totally into,” said McCaslin, grinning, before the band’s bravura closer: “Stadium Jazz,” a vaulting anthem from the more-than-decade-old album Casting For Gravity. In the jostling mass at LPR, its pressing energies felt both in the moment and out of time: an on-demand replay, if not a portal.

Donny McCaslin Quartet
Jonathan Chimene
The Donny McCaslin Quartet, with Jason Lindner, Tim Lefebvre, McCaslin and Mark Guiliana, at the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.

But for every scene that suggested a Winter Jazzfest Classic, there were others that could only have emanated from our present coordinates — meaning not only an au courant musical offering, but also the rebounding of live performance in overcrowded indoor settings. One example: the magnetic pianist Julius Rodriguez, who was all of 21 during the initial COVID lockdown of 2020, played a marathon show that felt like a victory lap at The Opera House in Williamsburg on Saturday night. Rodriguez is now a major-label artist of burgeoning acclaim, and his set — full of clever reformulations like a cha-cha version of the standard “Midnight Sun” and a go-go gloss on Herbie Hancock’s “Actual Proof” — radiated breezy confidence even when its greater design felt glib or undercooked.

Brandee Younger
David Kaufman
Brandee Younger at The Opera House, during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.

Harpist and composer Brandee Younger, who followed Rodriguez on the same stage, balanced old and new, with help from bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Allan Mednard. Opening with “Unrest,” a two-part invention supported by a grant from the Jazz Commission Coalition, Younger went on to unveil something from her forthcoming second Impulse album: a gracefully arpeggiated love song titled “You’re a Girl For One Man Only.” Her trio, responsive and assured, mixed these in with selections from Somewhere Different, released in 2021.

Along with breakout jazz vocal star Samara Joy, Younger and Rodriguez also co-headlined a Verve Music Group showcase on Monday night. That show sold out — as did an opening-night DJ set by Gilles Peterson and an all-star memorial for trumpeter jaimie branch. Such varied offerings underscore the dawning maturity of Winter Jazzfest, which began as an insider’s affair (pitched to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, with whose conference it still coincides) and now resembles a conventional jazz festival, with a mandate to uplift and invigorate the music’s status quo. According to longstanding custom, and the convictions of Winter Jazzfest founder Brice Rosenbloom, the concerts were complemented by Jazz Talks organized around topics of social justice and industry practice. (Full disclosure: I moderated one, ‘The State of Jazz Radio in the Digital Age.’ No compensation was involved, beyond the rich insights shared on the panel.)

My engagement with this year’s Winter Jazzfest focused on the marathons, which spanned 14 stages in total, seven for each borough. Past experience and present considerations led me to sample music at only six of these stages, where I heard a dozen bands. That’s about half as many as I caught in some previous Winter Jazzfests, a reduction partly explained by geography. The Manhattan Marathon, which used to encompass a manageable swatch of the Village, sprawled out this year to almost the entire width of the borough. So rather than pinging around like a pinball, I found myself picking a radius and sticking with it.

This was a calculation: as any Winter Jazzfest veteran will tell you, strategy is a key component of the experience. For me, that also meant eschewing a few surefire highlights, either for the sake of crowd avoidance or because of the benefit of prior exposure. For example, I didn’t seek out Makaya McCraven at Superior Ingredients, or Immanuel Wilkins at LPR. (I was fortunate enough to catch each artist a few times last year.) I also passed on Orrin Evans with an all-star group at Zinc Bar. (I’d just had the pleasure of seeing him in Philadelphia, at Solar Myth.) And I didn’t even try to get into The Jazz Gallery or The Bitter End. (Or Zinc Bar, for that matter.)

Linda May Han Oh
Jonathan Chimene
Linda May Han Oh at The Loft at City Winery, during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.

The upside of this approach was that I heard more full sets than usual at Winter Jazzfest, settling into a natural rhythm. Linda May Han Oh delivered the most illuminating of these, with an exceptionally intuitive band: in addition to Serpa on vocals, it featured Greg Ward on alto saxophone, Matt Mitchell on piano and Obed Calvaire on drums. (This was part of a showcase for Biophilia Records, which should release Oh’s new music in the foreseeable future.)

My second favorite was a rare appearance by vibraphonist Joel Ross’ Parables, drawing from the 2022 Blue Note release The Parable of the Poet. A nine-piece ensemble stocked with first-tier talent — like Wilkins, trumpeter Marquis Hill and trombonist Kalia Vandever — Parables unfurled a shimmering canvas of sound, wholesome in its affect and calmly euphoric in its intention. Toward the middle of the suite, between a pair of uplifting solos by Hill and flutist Gabrielle Garo, I leaned over to a friend with a snap judgment: “It’s like Mingus without the menace.”

I couldn’t have said the same of Irreversible Entanglements, which dropped a spiky depth charge at Superior Ingredients, sounding righteous and raucous. Anchored by the twin-screw propulsion of bassist Luke Stewart and drummer Tcheser Holmes, the group created a dynamic platform for the spoken-word polemics of Moor Mother, the most galvanizing presence I encountered all weekend. “The rhythm is gonna get you,” she intoned late in their set, making that promise sound a lot less festive than Gloria Estefan did back in the day. “Dialogue of the drums,” Moor Mother went on, giving urgent voice to an ancient yet ever-present exchange.

Lakecia Benjamin and E.J. Strickland
Jonathan Chimene
Lakecia Benjamin with E.J. Strickland at City Winery during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.

That dialogue was a defining factor in my Winter Jazzfest experience, never more literally than in an after-hours throw-down by drummer Nate Smith, with Lindner and Lefebvre, at Superior Ingredients. Drummer E.J. Strickland brought similar intensity to a City Winery performance by Lakecia Benjamin, whose gold lamé bodysuit was about as attention-grabbing as her fiery alto saxophone tone. And Blaque Dynamite, aka Mike Mitchell, kept the beat roiling during a subsequent set by trumpeter Maurice “Mobetta” Brown, whose most memorable flourish was a wily mashup of Drake’s “Hotline Bling” and Future’s “Mask Off” — two Top 5 singles by dominant hip-hop artists, enhanced with a sneaky allusion to Roy Hargrove’s Crisol (to be specific, the main riff from “O My Seh Yeh,” a Frank Lacy tune).

Each of these choice moments, and countless others that I missed, spoke to a belief that improvised music is alive and thriving — in the face of ongoing economic insecurities, cultural inequities, and epidemiological hazards. This notion prevailed even in a bittersweet key, as when Louis Cato, the recently installed bandleader on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, punctuated a rousing cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Keep On Pushing” with a shout-out to presenter Meghan Stabile: “Thank you, Meghan.”

Cato was onstage at Brooklyn Bowl as a featured guest of the Revive Big Band, which Stabile helped create with trumpeter-bandleader Igmar Thomas. That concise but heartfelt nod to Stabile, who died last year at 39, was later echoed by Pete Rock, the eminent hip-hop DJ, during his deeply satisfying set with the Soul Brothers.

“She opened a lot of doors for a lot of artists,” Pete Rock said of Stabile, eliciting a wave of cheers and applause. That’s a mission in obvious alignment with the Winter Jazzfest at large, as we’ve seen over nearly two decades now, even when viral conditions compelled a virtual pivot. Opening doors for artists is this event’s original raison d’être. Judging by its return to form this year, that should continue to be the case as it rolls onward — over and over again.

Winter Jazzfest continues through Wednesday, Jan. 18.