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A Winter Jazzfest field guide for the insatiable (and indefatigable)

Kris Davis, Linda May Han Oh, Mary Halvorson and Terri Lyne Carrington during 'New Standards Live,' at the 2023 Winter Jazzfest.
Steven Sussman
Kris Davis, Linda May Han Oh, Mary Halvorson and Terri Lyne Carrington at the 2023 Winter Jazzfest. Carrington and Halvorson are on the lineup in 2024.

Twenty years ago, when the Winter Jazzfest began its auspicious reign, it was possible — if only barely — to sample just about all of the music presented under its banner. The festival was held then at the Knitting Factory, whose three floors hosted just shy of 20 bands over seven hours. A similar formula held for a few more Winter Jazzfests: reviewing the second, Ben Ratliff observed in the New York Times that “at its best it puts before you, non-bumptiously, New York's casual musical internationalism; it puts together different jazz cultures without imposing any theories.”

The festival, founded and still run by Brice Rosenbloom, still pursues that ecumenical ideal, and then some: it has sprawled out and bulked up, becoming not only a New York institution but an annual rite of pilgrimage, for a particular sort of music person. As a member of that cohort myself, I’ve attended almost every edition, filing away bright moments and key insights, including a series of strategies for navigating the field.

Those survival skills may be more critical than ever this year — not because of what we’re being told is a new COVID surge (though be smart out there, folks) but simply due to an overwhelming musical superabundance. The affair kicked off a couple of days ago, with a Tyshawn Sorey concert tribute to Max Roach, on that master drummer’s 100th birth anniversary. But as usual, the centerpiece is a pair of self-described Winter Jazzfest Marathons: one in Manhattan on Friday, and another in Brooklyn on Saturday.

This year, for the first time, those dates coincide with a separate affair presented by Jazz at Lincoln Center at its home, Frederick P. Rose Hall. Featuring marquee names like Chief Adjuah (in the Appel Room on both nights), elders like bassist William Parker (Saturday in the Atrium) and up-and-comers like trumpeter Summer Camargo (Friday at Dizzy’s Club), this event bears a hopeful name — the Unity Jazz Festival — despite an air of counterprogramming. (A handful of Unity headliners are past Winter Jazzfest stalwarts; one, bassist Linda May Han Oh, played one of my favorite sets last year.)

It’s possible that the constituency for the Unity fest overlaps only tangentially with the Winter Jazzfest horde — skewing a bit less restless, a bit more appreciative of good sightlines and seating. In any case, I’ll have a full WJF agenda, and don’t expect to venture farther north than the corner of Bleecker and Sullivan Streets. That’s where my chronological rundown of recommendations begins, at the longtime Winter Jazzfest mainstay (Le) Poisson Rouge. Note that these picks offer just one itinerary, with an intentional range of venues and styles. Remember to wear good walking shoes.


Next Jazz Legacy (6:15 p.m. Friday at LPR)
A program co-piloted by New Music USA and the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, Next Jazz Legacy supports emerging women and non-binary improvisers with an apprenticeship program. The current cohort of mentees includes trumpeter Milena Casado, vocalist Tatiana Ladymay Mayfield and pianist Camila Cortina Bello, who will all perform in an ensemble with their peers. It’s a good chance to hear a generation on the rise, on their terms.

Micah Thomas Trio (7:15 p.m. Friday at Zinc Bar)
The deeply insightful young pianist Micah Thomas has made a fine impression in the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, where he can feel like the deceptively placid eye of a hurricane. His own trio more clearly foregrounds his floating lyricism; an excellent recent album, Reveal, comes by its title honestly.

Bassist Anthony Tidd with poet Ursula Rucker at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Aug. 2022.
Bassist Anthony Tidd with poet Ursula Rucker at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, Aug. 2022.

Anthony Tidd’s Sanity with Ursula Rucker (8:15 p.m. Friday at Nublu)
Part of a full-evening Nublu takeover by Ars Nova Workshop, this set features a group that closer observers of WRTI should recognize. Tidd, a soft-spoken wizard on electric bass, teams up with spoken-word poet Ursula Rucker and others to speak truth over slithery grooves. Philly represent!

Ray Angry and Friends (9:30 p.m. at Racket)
With his recent album Ray Angry Three, this artist offers a solo piano recital of rippling composure, like a sort of jazz-gospel post-impressionist. He’ll have incentive to tap an openhearted hip-hop vein in a tribute to two producers of towering influence (and close affiliation), J Dilla and Amp Fiddler.

Angelika Niescier, Tomeka Reid, Savannah Harris (10:30 p.m. at Zürcher Gallery)
Beyond Dragons, a captivating recent release on the Swiss label Intakt, documents the intense but selfless synergies of this dynamic trio: alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier, who was born in Poland and lives in Germany; cellist Tomeka Reid, a Chicagoan; and drummer Savannah Harris, an adopted New Yorker born in the Bay Area.

The Harvest Time Project (12:30 a.m. at LPR)
Pharoah Sanders’ 1977 album Pharoah, reissued in a special edition last year, is often colloquially known by “Harvest Time,” the title of its 20-minute Side A. This tribute features a veteran of that session, guitarist Tisziji Muñoz, along with Joshua Abrams on bass, Chad Taylor on drums and James Brandon Lewis on tenor saxophone. The conditions are right for a spiritual vibe. (The all-star group also performs at 11:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, with Irreversible Entanglements.)


Julius Rodriguez at The Opera House during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest
David Kaufman
Julius Rodriguez at The Opera House during the 2023 Winter Jazzfest

Steve Lehman Trio with Mark Turner (5:45 p.m. at Superior Ingredients Rooftop)
Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman is always up for a challenge, and here he gets one from Anthony Braxton, whose music he’ll be playing, with an assist from the ever-perceptive tenor saxophonist Mark Turner. (If you’d like to center yourself before the set, arrive early for a 4:30 p.m. sunset meditation led by Laraaji, the ambient zither and mbira maestro.)

Julius Rodriguez (6:30 p.m. at Music Hall of Williamsburg)
At last year’s Winter Jazzfest, pianist Julius Rodriguez performed two showcases that felt like a victory lap, coming on the heels of his major-label debut. He has only grown more assured since then, contributing to recent albums by Meshell Ndegeocello, Joe Farnsworth and Cautious Clay, and touring with SuperBlue. Expect him to raise the roof here.

Anna Webber’s Shimmer Wince (7 p.m. at Loove Labs)
Tenor saxophonist and flutist Anna Webber has a mind for intricate convolution, and she knows how to find the right collaborators to bring her forms to life. Shimmer Wince, her impressive new album, harnesses the ancient tuning system known as Just Intonation, which draws on natural resonances. It might be heady stuff for most, but not for trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, cellist Mariel Roberts, keyboardist Elias Stemeseder and drummer Lesley Mok.

Shabaka, Jason Moran, Carlos Niño, Saul Williams (9 p.m., Music Hall of Williamsburg)
As Winter Jazzfest artist in residence this year, Shabaka Hutchings is appearing in an array of settings, and this one holds special promise. Along with Shabaka on shakuhachi, which recently became his primary instrument, it will feature Moran on piano, Williams on spoken word, and Niño — a crucial figure on André 3000’s left-turn flute record — on percussion (and possibly turntables). Arrive early.

Matana Roberts (9:45 p.m. at Superior Ingredients)
With her interdisciplinary series Coin Coin, which yielded a fifth album last fall, the alto saxophonist, archival forager and spoken-word performer Matana Roberts always pushes toward revelation. The piece is designed for immersive performance, which is surely what this will be.

Zoh Amba, Shahzad Ismaily, Jim White, Steve Gunn (10:45 p.m., Baby’s All Right)
A saxophonist accessing the fire-breathing tradition of free jazz tenors, Zoh Amba has been nothing if not prolific with her collaborative energies over the last few years. She appears out front in an improvising collective otherwise full of well-traveled sorcerers: Ismaily on electric bass (and maybe synths), Gunn on guitar, and White on drums.

A NIGHT AT THE EAST (8 p.m. on Sunday at Crown Hill Theatre)
The East, a community arts and educational center originally in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, served as a hub for Black music in the late 1960s and early '70s. To pay homage and recapture the spirit, journalist Marcus J. Moore curated a lineup featuring two veterans of the scene, alto saxophonist Gary Bartz and drummer Billy Hart, alongside inheritors like Shabaka, Moor Mother and flutist Nicole Mitchell.

Winter Jazzfest runs through Thursday, Jan. 18. Full details at the festival website.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.