NYC Winter Jazz Fest Stuns With Nicole Mitchell, Jaimie Branch, Yazz Ahmed, TEN & Far More

New York’s Winter Jazz Festival, seven nights of concerts with a smorgasbord of club gigs over the weekend, once again served its purpose of shining a light on primarily underground talent deserving wider recognition in jazz, especially for female musicians.

Nicole Mitchell
Jacob Blickenstaff.
– Nicole Mitchell

Presentations from artist-in-residence Nicole Mitchell, the Chicago flutist who performed with four of her bands; the young female trumpeters Jaimie Branch and Yazz Ahmed; and a configuration called TEN of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, bassist-singer Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter-pianist Nicolas Payton demonstrated the broadness of contemporary jazz and a command of instruments, composition and improvisation.

Mitchell, Branch and Ahmed were already high on the must-see list thanks to their albums appearing on numerous critics’ best of 2017 lists; Mitchell’s performance of “Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds” at a packed Le Poisson Rouge was an absolute stunner.

At a “Jazz and Protest” symposium prior to the Jan. 16 show, Mitchell said the piece uses “different languages to speak within their own authenticity.”

She certainly succeeded as her octet drove through a variety of “languages” – Hendrix in the opening passage, swing, gospel and blues, moments of stillness created with Japanese instruments in the fore – in an 80-minute piece that showcased the considerable talents of violinist Renee Baker, guitarist Alex Wing and vocalist Avery R. Young as much as it did Mitchell.

With the festival’s spotlight on works that focus on social justice and female bandleaders, Mitchell and Mandorla Awakening supplied a perfect blend of music and purpose, highly appealing to any programmer looking to go down that road. Mitchell’s final performance was Jan. 17 with her Maroon Cloud on a bill with Deerhoof joined by Wadada Leo Smith.

The festival had a few shifts in its 14th edition – fewer acts, longer sets, more nights – and the biggest concert was the Jan. 15 tribute to the late pianist-composer-educator Geri Allen that featured 10 or so ensembles and more than two dozen musicians.

Pianist Craig Taborn opened a remarkable evening of music associated with Allen, performing an elegant solo piece setting a unique tone for those who would follow him at the keyboard (Vijay Iyer, Kris Davis, Helen Sung and Payton): Rest your own styles aside and instead work in the adventurous yet flowing melodicism that was Allen’s trademark.

Among the highlights: An ensemble of female band leaders – Carrington, Davis, bassist Linda Oh and saxophonist Tia Fuller – delivered an uncommon intensity; Iyer worked in a peppy Latin groove with Oh, Fuller, drummer Kassa Overall and percussionist Mino Cinelu; and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane did a glorious improve-heavy rendition of a piece Allen wrote for his mother, Alice Coltrane.

But it was TEN that demonstrated how jazz can vigorously hold to its traditions and standards and be crowd-pleasing as well. Their two songs went from the rambunctious to the solemn, Spalding playing a starring role with her hard-driving bass and an enticing gentleness in her vocals. Carrington organized the Allen tribute and she has two more tributes planned – Harvard University on Feb. 16-17 and Detroit on March 3 – but this is a trio she’d be smart to keep going beyond the tribute circuit.

If the Allen tribute was a night for veterans, the opening night British Jazz Showcase was a night for the newest arrivals, none more impressive than Yazz Ahmed, the British-Bahraini trumpeter and flugelhornist whose second album La Saboteuse was the focus of her hourlong set at Le Poisson Rouge on Jan. 10. Working with vibes, bass and drums, Ahmed plays with a boldness and clarity, quite often in a meditative fashion as the band provides either chaotic contrast or complementary ambience.

Jaimie Branch, whose debut album Fly or Die made her one of the must-see acts during the Jan. 12 marathon, performed a continuous 50-minute set that was vibrant, disruptive and often rhythmically torrid. It exceeded expectations.

Like any festival with concurrent stages, seeing one promising act means passing on another. Unlike a festival such as SXSW, the WinterFest acts have only a single performance so catching Branch meant passing on recent Impulse Records singing Sons of Kemet prior to their international tour; staying put at Subculture, the smallest of the WinterFest venues, to see Mitchell’s trio with the charming singer Sara Serpa and Luciana Souza’s enchanting Word Strings trio meant missing promising acts such as Cameron Graves,  Greg Lewis’ Organ Monk and the ONYX Collective.

Others weighed in as well. During the two-day marathon, the New York Times was particularly taken by the singer Jazzmeia Horn (“one of the more startling sets of the festival”), drummer Susie Ibarra (“lovely, wandering music from ‘Perception,’ her new album, accompanied by cello, violin, guitar, voice, bass, Fender Rhodes and electronics) and duets by the vocalist Kavita Shah and the bassist Francois Moutin (“Ms. Shah served as the ballast, hitting notes squarely and staying comfortably buckled to a variety of swing feels, while Mr. Moutin played with a fierce, lunging intensity, jittering and thwacking and cajoling the bass.”)