New Sounds on the Ground: A Field Guide to the Winter Jazzfest Marathon, in Take Five

Jan 5, 2020

It’s time to start making your plans.

After all, the Winter Jazzfest is right around the corner — and its wild profusion of sounds and scenes can feel totally overwhelming, without a little prep. 

This year’s festival carries a focus on wellness, with an expanded talk series mainly devoted to the subject. (I’ll be co-moderating two panels myself.)

New for 2020 is the Winter Jazzfest Hub at the Moxy NYC East Village, where WBGO will host broadcast live editions of Midday Jazz, Afternoon Jazz and The Checkout. (We’ll also host performances, on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights; stay tuned for more about those.)

There are also standalone concerts, like an all-star showcase for pianist Kris Davis’ album Diatom Ribbons, on Sunday at (Le) Poisson Rouge. But as always, the marquee event during Winter Jazzfest is its two-night Marathon, across a range of venues in Manhattan. There’ll also be a one-night Brooklyn Marathon this year, on Jan. 17 — but for our purposes here, we’ll focus on this weekend’s offerings.

So here are five picks apiece for Friday and Saturday — a mere sliver of suggestion for those drawing up their itineraries, and a small heap of recommended listening for those who may not even be attending, but still want to listen in.

FRIDAY

(See the full schedule for Friday’s Marathon.)

Sunny Jain’s ‘Wild Wild East’

6:45 p.m., Mercury Lounge, 217 East Houston Street

He’s best known as the leader and percussive engine behind Red Baraat, which has logged some memorable hours at Winter Jazzfests past. But Sunny Jain also works as a solo artist, and his latest venture is Wild Wild East, due out on Smithsonian Folkways on Feb. 21. The album, which Jain will preview here, draws from the musical conventions of Bollywood, surf-rock and the spaghetti western in order to make a point about the modern immigrant experience.

Makaya McCraven, ‘In These Times’

9:30 p.m., Webster Hall, 125 East 11th Street

At the present moment, not many jazz musicians are more effective tastemakers than Makaya McCraven, a drummer-bandleader who combines a hip-hop production model with the flickering spark of collective improvisation. 

Last year McCraven played Winter Jazzfest with a version of the group on his acclaimed album Universal Beings; this year he’ll present “In These Times,” a piece commissioned by Le Guess Who? in the Netherlands. This clip from the festival features a front line of Marquis Hill on trumpet and Irvin Pierce on saxophone. (They don’t enter until around 4:00, but it’s worth hearing what happens in the meantime, via McCraven, keyboardist Greg Spero and bassist Junius Paul.)

Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet with Gretchen Parlato

9 p.m., (Le) Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street

Drummer-bandleader Mark Guiliana is Artist In Residence at this year’s Winter Jazzfest, performing in about a half-dozen different settings. Among them is his Jazz Quartet, which made its debut at The Village Vanguard last year.  

Credit Shervin Lainez

Joining them here as a featured guest is Guiliana’s spouse, vocalist Gretchen Parlato. (She has a cowriting credit on “Inter-Are,” from the fine 2017 album Jersey.)

MAE.SUN

9:45 p.m., The Dance, 428 Lafayette Street

Saxophonist and flutist Hailey Niswanger formed MAE.SUN in a glow of spiritual surrender, informed by her studies in Zen. The project, which includes vibraphonist Nikara Warren, guitarist Andrew Renfroe and keyboardist Axel Laugart, recently released its second album, Vol. 2: Into the Flow. For a good taste of its affirmative vibe, lock into a track called “Bond,” which features vocals by Amber Navran of Moonchild, and Niswanger’s soulful ministrations on soprano.

Halvorson & Dieterich

10:45 p.m., Nublu, 151 Avenue C

Mary Halvorson and John Dieterich are both guitarists of spiky and exploratory temperament, though they travel in slightly different orbits — she mainly among avant-garde improvisers, he in an art-rock realm. 


But there’s less daylight between them than you might imagine, and not just because Deerhoof, the band in which Dieterich plays, is one of Halvorson’s faves. Listen to their duo album, A Tangle of Stars, and you’ll hear a deep simpatico, along with a will to find lyricism in oft-unlikely places.

SATURDAY

(See the full schedule for Saturday’s Marathon.)

Steve Lehman Trio + Craig Taborn

6:30 p.m., Zinc Bar, 82 West Third Street

Alto saxophonist Steve Lehman had one of the most critically acclaimed releases of 2019 in The People I Love, which augments his trio with pianist Craig Taborn. 


Part covers album, part self-examination, it’s another example of the hard-charging futurism that is Lehman’s trademark; see for example “Ih Calam and Ynnus,” whose title might seem to suggest a tribute to free-jazz titans Malachi Favors and Sunny Murray (though Lehman informs me that it’s actually a shout out to his kids, age 4 and 7).

Marquis Hill: New Gospel Revisited

6:45 p.m., Mercury Lounge, 217 East Houston Street


Marquis Hill is a trumpeter with mastery of jazz fundamentals, but he’s also determined to meet R&B, soul and gospel on their own terms. Love Tape is his latest statement along these lines; New Gospel, which he’ll revisit here, was his first, released in 2011. 

Amirtha Kidambi & Lea Bertucci 

7 p.m., Nublu, 151 Avenue C


Phase Eclipse is the recent album by this intrepid duo, featuring Kidambi’s shapeshifting vocals and Bertucci’s manual tape manipulation. Meditative but rarely meandering, it’s a meeting of minds that explores the idea of the loop, as well as the promise of spontaneous dialogue. It should be even more engaging in person.

Nduduzo Makhathini

8:30 p.m., Zürcher Gallery, 33 Bleecker Street

Pianist-composer Nduduzo Makhathini recently made news by joining the roster of Blue Note Records — the first South African artist to do so. But he’s hardly a brand-new face, for those who have been tuned to the right frequencies. Here is a clip from the International Jazz Extravaganza in South Africa in Durban, featuring “Amathambo,” the opening track from his 2017 album Ikhambi.

Anna Webber

12:15 a.m., The Dance, 428 Lafayette Street

Flutist and tenor saxophonist Anna Webber had one of the sit-up-and-take-notice albums of 2019 with Clockwise (Pi Recordings), featuring a septet of avant-garde improvisers on the higher end of the skill spectrum. 

Credit Liz Kosack

The album, inspired by the percussion pieces of new-music icons like Stockhausen and Xenakis, brings out the best in those players, including pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer-percussionist Ches Smith.