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Suit Up for Winter Jazzfest, Or Cheer From the Sidelines, with These 10 Must-Hear Picks

John Rogers
Shabaka & The Ancestors, led by tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, at last year's Winter Jazzfest.

The Winter Jazzfest, which descends on New York City every year at this time, is more than a show of superabundance. While it's true that the festival's defining trait is a dizzying sprawl and variety of acts — and this year's edition, the 14th, is no exception — there are other reasons for its claim as the most important jazz event of the year.

Winter Jazzfest has always coincided with the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, which means the festival's programming helps set the agenda for an influential bloc of bookers, presenters and producers from around the world. 

In practical terms, it means that Winter Jazzfest puts a premium on new concepts and fresh sounds, the sort of thing you don't encounter on the scene every day. This year, that rule applies to standalone events like an all-star tribute to Geri Allen (Jan. 15) and a first-time collaboration between the frisky art-rock band Deerhoof and the mighty trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith (Jan. 17). There's also an emphasis on social justice issues, notably in a series of panel discussions next week. 

Whether you're beginning to map out your own festival itinerary or counting on a more vicarious experience, this supersize edition of Take Five is designed to help. Featuring 10 acts that we're really looking forward to (one of them singled out by my colleague Alex Ariff, a producer at Jazz Night in America), it's a smorgasbord of music as diverse as the lineup itself. In true Winter Jazzfest fashion, there's bound to be something you love here, along with something you didn't expect.

Yazz Ahmed  (Jan. 10, 8 p.m., Le Poisson Rouge)

A trumpeter and composer born in Bahrain, Yazz Ahmed has lived since age 9 in London, England, where she now belongs to a vibrant cosmopolitan scene. Her album La Saboteuse, released last May, presents a synthesis of her heritage and her current vantage, with layers of folk rhythm percolating beneath plaintive melody.

Ahmed performs on the first show in the Winter Jazzfest schedule, a British jazz showcase hosted by the influential BBC DJ and Brownswood Records founder Gilles Peterson. Also on the bill: The Comet is Coming, a jazz-electro project of the saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings; another tenor saxophonist, Nubya Garcia; and the guitarist and vocalist Oscar Jerome.

Ches Smith's We All Break  (Jan. 12, 7:40 p.m., New School Fifth Floor Theater)

Ches Smith is a drummer of raw force but meticulous detail, known as the engine in bands led by guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Tim Berne. 

His own projects range from solo percussion experiments to outré chamber jazz, but We All Break celebrates the pull of ceremonial Haitian voodoo music. The band features Daniel Brevil and Markus Schwartz on traditional Haitian percussion and vocals, but there's also a jazz element by way of pianist Matt Mitchell, who makes a strong impression in this track, "An Opening."

Gard Nilssen's Acoustic Unity  (Jan. 12, 8 p.m., The Bitter End)

The Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen released one of the must-hear concert recordings of 2017, a triple album called Live in Europe. It's a showcase for Acoustic Unity, his rough-and-tumble band with André Roligheten on tenor saxophone and Peter Eldh on bass, captured with assorted guests at three different jazz festivals in 2016. The footage below, from a more recent hit, features the trio playing the final track from Disc 3, a Roligheten tune called "Adam's Ale."

Onyx Collective (Jan. 12, 8:40 p.m., Bowery Ballroom)

The Onyx Collective was born in 2014 on the Lower East Side as a genre-fluid, rotating cast of open-minded young improvisational musicians. Since then, they've garnered little notice from the jazz press but love from Fader and Pitchfork

I’m hoping that at this year’s Winter Jazzfest they’ll touch on the goods from their albums The Lower East Side Suite Part One and Part Two. Both are moody and murky avant-garde instrumental mix tapes with distorted schizophrenic sax and found sound tape. The Onyx Collective have no rules, and I love that. 

— Alex Ariff, producer, Jazz Night in America

Stephane Wrembel Band  (Jan. 12, 9:50 p.m., Django at The Roxy Hotel)

Django Reinhardt has been a natural preoccupation for Stephane Wrembel, who honed his craft among gypsy guitarists in the French countryside. 

Wrembel has performed on countless Reinhardt tributes, but his mission isn't strict emulation; consider this version of "Les flots du Danube," which opens in a raga-like mode before shifting into buoyant swing. The track comes from The Django Experiment III, due out on Reinhardt's birthday, Jan. 23. (Note too the name of the club where Wrembel's playing.)

Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition  (Jan. 12, 11:30 p.m., Bowery Ballroom)

I've already weighed in on Agrima, the brilliant recent album by Indo-Pak Coalition, which gives the word "fusion" more than one sort of traction. The band, led by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss, has its own fast metabolism, and must be seen live.

Ranky Tanky  (Jan. 13, 7 :20 p.m., The Bitter End)

The Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands gave us an unexpected gift last year in the form of Ranky Tanky, a soulful new band from Charleston. 

The band's self-titled album is a self-assured melange of acoustic folk, gospel and rhythm and blues, with Quiana Parler's commanding voice out front. But jazz is strong in the mix, too — especially in the trumpet playing of Charlton Singleton, artistic director of the Charleston Jazz Orchestra, and the drumming of Quentin Baxter, a regular sideman to Rene Marie and Freddy Cole. 
Harriet Tubman  (Jan. 13, 9:40 p.m., New School Tishman Auditorium)

Harriet Tubman, a trio with Brandon Ross on guitar,  Melvin Gibbs on bass and JT Lewis on drums, locates the dark sublime within the churn of a groove. 

Consider the psychedelic wallop of "Real Cool Killers," from the recent album Araminta. For its Winter Jazzfest set, Harriet Tubman performs plays "Free Jazz" with some heavyweight reinforcements, including trumpeter Jaimie Branch and saxophonists Darius Jones and James Brandon Lewis. 

Catherine Russell  (Jan. 13, 9:50 p.m., Django at The Roxy Hotel)

Because you can never have enough of Catherine Russell, a scion of jazz royalty who brings authority and depth of feeling to her vintage style. Her most recent album, Harlem on My Mind, was released in 2016; she'll probably draw from it here, while tossing in a few surprises.

Nicole Mitchell  (Jan. 16, 8 p.m., Le Poisson Rouge)

Who was the jazz artist of 2017? Flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell was certainly a leading contender. And she's starting out strong in the new year, as Winter Jazzfest's artist in residence. 

What that means in practical terms is that Mitchell will perform a handful of times during the festival, including one tantalizing set for each Marathon night. But the main spotlight will fall on this standalone concert, featuring the music from her excellent, mind-expanding album Mandorla Awaking II: Emerging Worlds. Opening the show, and very much in sync with Mitchell's imaginative agenda, is the composer and improviser Tyshawn Sorey, performing a solo percussion set.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, and a regular contributor to NPR Music.