New York CityWebster Hall, Le Poisson Rouge, The Dance
January 11, 2020
2020 is hardly off to a promising start; with a possible new global conflict, impeachment, the climate crisis, and economic uncertainty, the world seems daunting. Jazz has always been a music of the issues of the day, and this year’s Winter Jazzfest faced today’s upheaval head-on.
Facing it all, one artist turned to legendary poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron for answers. Scott-Heron’s final record, I’m New Here (XL Recordings, 2010), stared straight into the mirror to confront the demons there. Drummer and producer Makaya McCraven—on the rise since his groundbreaking In The Moment recordings that remixed his own live performances (International Anthem, 2015)—is poised to release a new remix, a reimagining as he calls it, this February of Scott-Heron’s swan song.
Before McCraven’s set at the recently renovated Webster Hall, Dr. Kami Roberts of KIND Counseling implored the assembled listeners to seek help should they need it, and to end the stigma against talking about mental health issues—music, justice, and wellness has been an overall theme of the last two Winter Jazzfest’s. McCraven—his regular band joined by harpist Brandee Younger—continued this thread, starting his set with Scott-Heron’s “Running,” a slowly coalescing groove built on the lyric, “because I always feel like running / not away because there’s no such place / because if there was I would have found it by now. / Because it’s easier to run.” I’m New Here is Scott-Heron confronting his own inner landscape, and opening the set with this line seemed a challenge to the audience to consider what we needed to stop running from.
As the music grew around Scott-Heron’s recorded voice, it began to obscure the second half of “Running,” with a simmering blues-funk motif taking precedence over the recorded sample. This was the tension throughout the set—from (the single) “Where Did The Night Go,” it seemed as though McCraven was composing new music to slip beneath Scott-Heron’s original vocals, yet in live performance, the recording was often buried in the mix. Whether it was McCraven’s intention, or a quirk of the sound system, the effect was often of the sample as a formal element delineating the start and end of each new section, and fading into the background in between. The music built on that foundation was soulful, although occasionally skirting the edge of directionless vamps, and the band at times reached joyous peaks of catharsis, such as trumpeter Marquis Hill’s searing solo over a suddenly swinging portion of McCraven’s setting of “I’ll Take Care of You”.
The standout set of the evening was crammed into the back room of The Dance. Pedal-steel guitarist Susan Alcorn’s new quintet—so new she had to call out rehearsal letters from time to time—laid down the most innovative music heard all night. With compositions seeming to draw as much from Bartók and Scriabin as they did from folk and jazz traditions, and a band of deft improvisors, Alcorn’s set walked between a crystalline latticework of counterpoint and a maelstrom of frenetic improvisation. Guitarist Mary Halvorson’s trademark electronic pitch dives and slide guitar faculty proved an excellent foil for Alcorn’s use of the sliding nature of her own guitar to blur tonality. Seeming to radiate both calm and chaos at the center of this beautiful hurricane, Alcorn’s unique voice as a composer and improvisor was the star of the set—this group is one to watch.
Back at Webster Hall, keyboardist Robert Glasper’s set, with Burniss Earl Travis II on bass, Justin Tyson on drums, and DJ Jahi Sundance on turntables, was a reminder that there is a good reason for Glasper’s success. Approachable and fun, Glasper’s music seemed the most at home in the large, rock-oriented hall. Joined by Taylor McFerrin, Alex Isley, and later, Common, Glasper ended the night on a high note.
Glasper’s set was prefaced by Meghan Stabile, founder of Revive Media Group, sharing a personal and extremely moving story with the packed ballroom. Stabile talked about her childhood traumas and her history of alcoholism and suicide attempts—emphasizing the years she tried to escape her mental health issues by working herself into the ground as a cautionary tale to those who may think they don’t need to seek help. Listening to her sing an untitled prayer song she’d written in rehab, and thinking of Becca Stevens’s new song “Letters from Heather to Her Mother” (about the tragic murder of Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville protest in 2017) heard earlier that night, it became clear that music’s power to heal is not always through escape, like the party promised by some acts at this festival, but a true confrontation with the person, or country, in the mirror. There is no such place as away, and all we can do is our best to heal each other forward.