Review: A Jazzfest Marathon Where Voices Lead the Way to Resistance and Renewal


The NYC Winter Jazzfest Marathon presented over 100 sets at 11 locations across two nights last weekend. I saw more than two dozen of those. That sounds like a small fraction, but I probably should have done less.

Now in its 14th year, the festival is a broad and generous sampler of jazz’s new specialty dishes: Everyone from oft-neglected elders to rising voices gets their due. Typically, if you only hear a fragment of every set, that’s O.K. You’re just there to get a taste.

But this year was different, for a few reasons. Somehow, despite the expanding attendance (nearly 9,000 visitors across two nights), there were rarely any lines outside a show. And once you were inside, the listening experiences were better; crowds appeared less put-upon and more engaged. This was the first year that it seemed like a good idea to stay where you were for a long period of time — or, at most, walk to one of the venues within a close distance.

There were trade-offs: The festival these days has an outsize footprint, extending all the way from the Bowery Ballroom on the Lower East Side to the New School on 13th Street, nearly a half-hour away on foot. At some point, you were likely to throw up your hands and accept that you were just going to miss that act you thought you had to see. But these are good problems.

If you did bounce around, you found happy resonances. Some artists presented multiple projects at different stages (something that hasn’t happened in years past), and headliners often reappeared as side musicians in other people’s bands. That’s something Winter Jazzfest does beautifully: It shows you the interwoven, recombinant flow that has always given jazz its messy social coherence, even in today’s unboxable age.


The tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings performed more than once at Winter Jazzfest, appearing with Sons of Kemet on Night 1 of the marathon. Credit Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times

The British tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings had performed with the Comet Is Coming at Winter Jazzfest’s opening night last Wednesday (outside of the marathon, the festival features nightly concerts through Wednesday), and on Night 1 of the marathon he blasted through a set with Sons of Kemet, a quartet featuring two drummers and a tuba, played by Theon Cross. Mr. Hutchings scraped his way skyward as Mr. Cross took hold of a beat located somewhere between the Balkans and the Middle East, raising the tension as the drummers chafed against him in a stutter-step pattern.


Susie Ibarra led an ensemble at Nublu, playing music from her new album, “Perception.” Credit Jacob Blickenstaff for The New York Times

At Nublu, the drummer Susie Ibarra played lovely, wandering music from “Perception,” her new album, accompanied by cello, violin, guitar, voice, bass, Fender Rhodes and electronics. At one point, she hunkered down and focused on the toms and cymbals, playing with alert, custodial care, hitting them with one hand and quickly muting them with the other. Later, as the cello and violin plucked bluesy, hurrying phrases — like cinematic balladry and Romanticism and Ray Nance all run together — Ms. Ibarra put down her sticks and played with only her hands and feet, smacking a drumhead with her palm and thumping the kick drum.

There was so much going on in Ms. Ibarra’s set, Claudia Acuña’s voice was only one element in a humid swarm. By that point, partway into Saturday night, I was sensing a subtle theme: The role of the voice in jazz is going through a process of liberation these days. It’s tied to a lot of things — the upending of gender stereotypes; a re-engagement with social questions; a willingness to loosen up on the self-policing instinct that has hemmed in a lot of jazz activity, from the mainstream to the stylistic outskirts — and at Winter Jazzfest it delivered some welcome surprises.

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