For improvising musicians across New York, Winter Jazzfest’s return to live stages this month might have brought a whiff of near normalcy — not to mention more than 100 packed gigs — to a much-beleaguered scene in the span of just over a week. For audiences, it would have been a moment to dive back in at the deep end: skipping around, from clubs to theaters to makeshift stages, hearing how jazz’s creative winds have shifted over the past two years.
That wasn’t in the cards. With the Omicron variant surging, organizers tabled the festival’s live portion, and instead threw together an impressive series of digital broadcasts that chase the event’s now 18-year-old mission: checking in on jazz’s myriad state-of-affairs at the top of each calendar year. (There are rumblings of a possible summer edition of the festival; so far just one show has been announced, a Pino Palladino and Blake Mills gig on July 30.)
Ultimately, over 30 groups played at digital events spread across nine nights, including four straight “marathon” shows that approximated the live festival’s signature event. Rather than fanning out at venues across Lower Manhattan, the festival featured 20-minute recordings that artists had independently captured in studios and venues all over New York — and beyond.
The marathon sets exposed one false assumption that live Winter Jazzfests tend to encourage: that it’s all a reflection of the New York scene. Musicians who otherwise would have traveled to New York to play instead sent in high-quality video from where they were: the clarinetist Oran Etkin in São Paulo, the pianist Nduduzo Makhathini in Johannesburg, the trumpeter Amir ElSaffar at a retreat in Sarasota, Fla.
There were constant technical quirks in the introductions and transitions between sets, but the performances themselves were the high-quality part, as you’d hope. The festival, which booked women and men as bandleaders in roughly equal numbers, also included a three-day series of panels on gender politics and coalition-building in jazz, under the banner This Is a Movement. (These Zoom talks were not immediately publicly archived; if they become available, the Jan. 16 conversation on questions of community was particularly rewarding.)
Here are five performance highlights you can still stream from the 2022 Winter Jazzfest, which wrapped up this weekend.
Melanie Charles (Virtual Marathon Night 1)
With her playful-serious “Make Jazz Trill Again” tagline, Melanie Charles has assigned herself a tough job: treating jazz, a Black music genre with a particularly stark history of white exploitation, as redeemable. So she first has to define what the genre means to her — something we know she’s done, from her love affair with the Betty Carter staple “Jazz (Ain’t Nothing But Soul),” which she remixed on her latest album, “Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women.” Her choice of accomplices is as significant: her brother, the promising young alto saxophonist Rogerst Charles; the bassist Jonathan Michel, who, like Charles, is a Haitian American New Yorker; the keyboardist Axel Tosca Lagarde; and the drummer Savannah Harris. The music of Melanie Charles can be heavy on quick shifts in dynamic and volume; it feels like an extension of her background as a beatsmith and remixer, and it allowed her to cover a lot of ground in 25 minutes of music (filmed at a HighBreed Music Recording Lounge that had been lit and draped in textiles by the designer Laura Fernandez). But the set ended in a moment when the groove almost had time to sink in fully: on Charles’s original “The Dilemma,” where she sings over an ’80s soul-indebted groove, “We be dimmin’ our light/But we still shine bright.”
Angel Bat Dawid (Artist in Residence)
Guileless. Hyper-powered. Focused. Changing. Relentless. Angel Bat Dawid, the festival’s artist-in-residence, gave an epic of a performance, two hours of futuristic gospel and in-the-circle catharsis with the Cosmic Mythological Ensemble, a large group she convenes regularly in Chicago. Rough and untempered, it had the makings of worship: ritual and repertoire and a mass of voices in collective motion. Connecting back to institutions like the Sun Ra Arkestra, Horace Tapscott’s Union of God’s Musicians and Amiri Baraka’s Spirit House Movers, Dawid is reaching for an aesthetic of Black creative gathering that was mostly left on the ground somewhere back in the 1970s. She started the set, at the Co-Prosperity Sphere venue (a welcoming home for it, though not ideal for recording a performance like this), with a slow, spirit-calling procession, full of shaken percussion and singing. What followed included a wide range of improvised and loosely orchestrated music for over a dozen musicians; readings of Baraka, Robert Farris Thompson and 100-year-old reports bearing news of Southern lynchings; and spurts of energetic dancing.
Lakecia Benjamin (Virtual Marathon Night 3)
Not every marathon performance — even some successful ones — raised the energy level in the recording studio so much you could really feel it in your room. Without live, in-studio audiences, it was hard. But the alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin had no trouble. Leading a hard-driving quartet that crossed generations — Zaccai Curtis on (upright) piano, Lonnie Plaxico on bass and E.J. Strickland on drums — she played music from her recently released tribute to jazz’s holy family, Alice and John Coltrane, leaning into the blues foundation and the effusive power of his up-tempo swinger “Liberia,” and playing a laggy, hip-hop-infused version of “Syeeda’s Song Flute.”
Amir ElSaffar (Virtual Marathon Night 4)
On the porch at a beachside artist’s retreat in Sarasota, Amir ElSaffar — a multi-instrumentalist who draws jazz and other experimental methods into conversation with Arab music’s maqam modes — played the trumpet into a microphone laced with echo, facing toward the gulf. He tuned in to the long horizon before him, letting his array of analog synths build an increasingly coherent rhythm, and sometimes sang.
Mahogany L. Browne, Samara Joy and Makaya McCraven (Closing Night)
The final night of the festival began with the words of Mahogany L. Browne, a poet with a musical and triumphant style, who read a poem proposing “a belief system with its water as its minister,” and calling each being’s body its own “country of water.” She was followed by Samara Joy, a young vocalist with a low alto as rich as custard — at different moments, Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone come to mind — and a devotion, at least for now, to a classic cool-jazz sound. The night’s culminating set was the only one without words, featuring the drummer and beatmaker Makaya McCraven and a squad of longtime collaborators — Marquis Hill on trumpet, Matt Gold on guitar and Junius Paul on bass — playing grooves from his most recent album. On the LP, “Deciphering the Message,” the band weaves its way into samples that he’s pulled from the classic Blue Note Records catalog. At the festival, the group performed their additions without the backbone samples; it was a different experience entirely from the record — a reminder of what we’ve been missing onstage, if not really a substitute.