It goes without saying, the best ideas are not birthed in isolation. Rather, ideas are best stimulated in some collaborative effort. In particular, musical innovation grows from collaboration – a partnership melded together by the language of sound and rhythm. This past weekend, The New York City Winter JazzFest celebrated their 15th annual concert series, celebrating the craft of music, musicianship, and the role of music in challenging many of the social ills that have become institutionalized. Spanning 9 days, the WinterFest included more than 700 musicians, spread across 12 venues. With a music festival this large, collaboration has to be at the heart and a central focus. And, in fact, the collaborative spirit could be felt, as artists consistently cheered on each other, and some even joining the stage.
Below are some of my personal highlights and favorite moments from Marathon, Day 2 at the Bowery Ballroom. Enjoy!
Marathon, Day 2 – Bowery Ballroom
On a night that would feature some of the best musicians in the world, Mike Mitchell’s band would stand out. One, because the musicians playing alongside him were incredible – Maya Kronfold on Rhodes, Alissia Cara on bass, DOMi on keys/auxiliary keys, and Lunar Rae on percussion. But also, because his band – the instrumentalists – was entirely comprised of women.
Long heralded as a child prodigy, Mitchell has been on the scene for years, playing gigs with Stanley Clarke, Erykah Badu, and Christian McBride, amongst others, most of which was done while still in High School! Mitchell is known for his lightening speed playing, and a style built in the tradition of Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, and Lenny White. In 2017 Mitchell released his sophomore album, Killing Bugs, most of which he played on this night.
In between sets DJ Stutz McGee spun records (not literal records, but digital records on a computer), as crew members changed the stage for the upcoming acts. Many know Casey Benjamin from his work with the Robert Glasper Experiment as a vocalist and saxophonist, but I’d never heard him DJ. That was until Saturday night… Now, typically DJ’s in his position are there to just fill time, but Stutz was like actually really, really good and something I looked forward to after each set. In his short sets Stutz McGee laid out the range of Soul, Hip-Hop, and R&B – from Herbie Hancock to The Internet, Barry White and MSFB to J Dilla and Kimiko Kasai. I really love Stutz McGee’s ear.
James Poyser and Friends:
The walls of music are littered with James Poyser’s name. As a musician, producer, writer, and composer, Poyser has contributed to some of the most acclaimed albums over the past 20+ years. The guy has basically worked with everyone, yet he still seems to fly under the radar. So, it was good to see Poyser as the “front man” performing much of the music he’s helped make.
One of the high points from this set was when Poyser and Friends played Bilal’s Reminisce, produced by the late J Dilla. Following Reminisce, Derrick Hodge took a moving solo, weaving in and out of melodies and key signatures, and using a variety of effect pedals. Poyser was also accompanied by Jaleel Shaw (alto saxophone), Keyon Harrold (trumpet), Nate Smith (drums), Derrick Hodge (Bass), and Stro Elliot (Ableton Push). Poyser paid tribute to the late Roy Hargrove, playing a few tunes he collaborated with Hargrove on, as Harrold held down the lines Hargrove once played. Closing his set, Poyser invited just about every singer on stage – Bilal, Kendra Foster, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Renee Neufville – EVERYBODY – to sing Hargrove’s I’ll Stay – a song composed with some of the deepest and traditional elements of gospel, blues, and jazz. Fittingly, the set ended with a praise break.
Roy Hargrove Tribute:
When Roy Hargrove passed away late last year, much of the music world was rocked. Though he had been battling an increasingly severe kidney disorder, he continued touring and playing shows. In fact, Hargrove was so committed to not letting his health get the best of him he had reached out to the NY Winter JazzFest and was slated to play a set. Sadly, Hargrove kidney failure would become too much, as he passed away on November 2nd.
The legacy and spirit of his music could be felt in the room. In some way he touched the lives of each of the musicians that took the stage. Mike Mitchell mentioned that he and Hargrove attended the same high school in Dallas (shout out Booker T. Washington High School), and the legacy he left for musicians. Justin Robinson talked about Hargrove’s spirit and intellect as a composer and songwriter. James Poyser mentioned their time recording together, Hargrove’s brilliance in his ability to come up with intricate horn parts in minutes, and touring with D’Angelo on the Voodoo tour.
Honoring Hargrove, his last Quintet paid tribute to him with Justin Robinson (alto saxophone) serving as the bandleader alongside Danton Boller (bass), Willie Jones III (drums), Tadataka Unno (Piano), and Hargrove mentee Giveton Gelin (trumpet) playing many of the lines Hargrove once played. In a moving set, the quintet played From the Top of My Head, Something to Believe, and closed with Strasbourg St. Denis.
Chris Dave and The Drumhedz (Featuring Thundercat):
After releasing his debut, and long-awaited album, Chris Dave and The Drumhedz last year Chris Dave was fittingly placed as the headliner for the festival. With just a few days before Chris Dave’s set, the festival just listed his slot as “Chris Dave and The Drumhedz Featuring Surprise Guests” Well, it turns out one of those surprise guests would be Thundercat (JDLSCIHBSDICB!!!) – a pairing I’ve only dreamt of (literally been dreaming about this for like 6 years) — largely because what makes Chris Dave and Thundercat so unique is their approach rhythmic patterns, often blurring the lines between time signatures.
On this night The Drumhedz included a horn section featuring Keyon Harrold (Trumpet), Marcus Strickland (soprano and tenor saxophones), Kebbi Williams (tenor saxophone); and a rhythm section featuring Daniel Crawford (keys), Shedrick Mitchell (organ), Nir Felder (guitar), and none other than THADDEUS TRIBBETT ON BASS – which basically means Thaddeus Tribbett AND Thundercat AND Chris Dave would all be together on stage. Dawg, what? And they didn’t disappoint! Having two bassists isn’t common, and they can often step on each others toes if there are two bassists. But this worked. While Thundercat plays the bass, he plays more like a horn player at times, and a guitarist at others, and uses a variety of effects to help raise and alter the pitch, as well as a combination of chord/melody phrasing, which he’s able to do given he has 6-strings (opposed to a 4 or 5 string bass). Conversely, Thaddeus Tribbett is more closely aligned with what many would consider to be a traditional bassist (A VERY GOOD ONE) — rarely using effects, playing in lower octaves, and also using 4-string bass. So, in the end it worked out perfectly. When Thundercat left his upper his octaves to chord, Thaddeus Tribbett fell back. When Chris Dave changed the rhythmic pattern, Thundercat responded accordingly. No words were spoken, but everyone understood, in the truest and best since of improvisation and collaboration.