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5 Must-See Projects At Winter Jazzfest

Lionel Loueke (left) and Miguel Zenon (right) join Jeff Ballard in the drummer's rhythm-oriented trio.
Andrea Boccalini
Courtesy of the artist
Lionel Loueke (left) and Miguel Zenon (right) join Jeff Ballard in the drummer's rhythm-oriented trio.

This week's Winter Jazzfest seems to be a kind of turning point — for the festival, and maybe for jazz in New York City. What started 10 years ago as a one-night showcase under one roof has expanded to five days at 10 venues, featuring more than 90 groups in a vast array of styles.

The underground edge is still there, but this year's acts include multiple Grammy winners, beyond-jazz acts such as singer Keren Ann, and three midweek marquee concerts. One show teams star pianists Robert Glasper and Jason Moran to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records.

Still, much of the festival's excitement still resides in its signature two-night marathon this Friday and Saturday, where acts perform in quick succession in neighboring Greenwich Village nightclubs. For the price of a single ticket, concertgoers can choose — or try to choose — between groups, which range from Balkan and New Orleans brass to Latin and straight-ahead jazz. The 18-piece orchestral pop ensemble Mother Falcon, with cello and glockenspiel, will also appear.

At WBGO HD2 we'll stream a mix of all 92 groups at this year's Winter Jazzfest around the clock to prepare for these new sounds. (For more insights, check out the conversation between WBGO's Josh Jackson and NPR Music's Patrick Jarenwattananon on our weekly new-music magazine, The Checkout.) Here are five of the acts performing in this year's WJF marathon, and a rundown of what they plan to perform.

5 Must-See Projects At Winter Jazzfest

Aruán Ortiz Orbiting Quartet


From 'Orbiting'

Aruán Ortiz's Orbiting Quartet lives by a simple credo: "It's rhythm," the Cuban pianist says. He takes cues from his native island and Africa in his playing, but what particularly spurs Ortiz here is his interaction with guitarists. "I'm interested in exploring loops, patterns and grooves," he says, "and playing against guitar riffs helps me find new textures in this."

The Orbiting Quartet performs new compositions by Ortiz on Friday (technically Saturday morning) at 1 a.m., with Rez Abbasi on guitar, bassist John Hébert and Eric McPherson on drums. (At WJF, Ortiz also performs with clarinetist Don Byron's Music for Six Musicians ensemble.) This is "Orbiting," the title track from the group's 2012 debut album (with McPherson, David Gilmore on guitar and Rashaan Carter on bass).



From 'Tillery in Concert in Los Angeles'

"Friendship brought this group together," Rebecca Martin says. She's one of the three widely admired jazz singers of the vocal trio Tillery (along with Gretchen Parlato and Becca Stevens) which performs Saturday at 6 p.m. The three discovered their synergy by accident, as they broke into song around Martin's kitchen table one night.

As a group, they often perform original compositions, which they recorded for their first album in the days leading up to Winter Jazzfest. "It's important to us to create a sound more powerful than the sum of its parts," Martin says. This is the song "Tillery," by Becca Stevens, as performed by the group at The Blue Whale in Los Angeles on Sept. 25, 2013. The group also performed a set for at New York's 92Y Tribeca for WBGO's The Checkout: Live series in 2011.



From 'Abraxas: The Book of Angels, Vol. 19'

ABRAXAS was created in 2012 by Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz to record the 19th chapter of composer John Zorn's "Book of Angels" series. Guitarist Pat Metheny and other jazz veterans had already recorded volumes for Zorn, so the bassist took a different tack: "I went out and found the two craziest guitar players in New York," he says, referring to bandmates Eyal Maoz and Aram Bajakian. The group performs at 1:30 a.m. on Saturday night/Sunday morning. Here's "Muriel" from the group's 2013 release on Tzadik Records.

Maoz and Bajakian have played with everyone from jazz singer Diana Krall to classical composer Lukas Ligeti. But with ABRAXAS, they opt for squealing distortion and speed-metal runs while Blumenkranz plays a gimbri, the three-stringed bass lute favored by the Gnawa people of Morocco for trance-inducing rituals. "Part of trance is repetition," Blumenkranz says. "So in order to keep the music interesting, I felt the guitar players should be as wild as possible." Drummer Kenny Grohowski further propels the group into a punk-fueled, ecstatic frenzy.

Jeff Ballard Trio

Andrea Boccalini

"Virgin Forest"

From 'Time's Tales'

Drummer Jeff Ballard speaks highly of the kinship and chemistry he's found with alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and guitarist Lionel Loueke. "We're all really drum-heads," he says. "With these guys, there's a lot of subtlety and incredible nuance of rhythm."

Ballard chose not to add a bass player in order to showcase their rhythmic interactions. "Because of that super-strong element of rhythm in the fore, each person is like a gravitational force," he says. "Melody and harmony have both gone from the squarest to the most out and then back again. Rhythm is kind of taking its turn now, to see how far it can go." Ballard, Zenón and Loueke perform Saturday at 8:50 p.m. Here's "Virgin Forest" from the trio's first album, Time's Tales, due out in February.

Trio Feral


From 'DON'T! FEED'

Feral means "wild," but if anything, Trio Feral aims to make jazz more listener-friendly. "We want to create a narrative or a feeling that anybody can relate to," bassist Jonathan Maron says. "The goal is an experience that goes beyond just connecting with other musicians."

This aesthetic is, in part, the fruit of Maron and keyboard player Barney McAll's experiences over 20 years in the band Groove Collective, which draws inspirations from a DJ's ability to read and heighten the mood on a dance floor. Drummer Bill Campbell joined them to record the group's first album, DON'T! FEED. They intentionally allowed compositions to emerge out of collective improvisations in the studio, rather than writing them out beforehand. "We wanted this project to be light and fun in its process," Maron says. "It's really been an open door for each of us to bring in whatever's moving us at that moment." This is "Stray," from DONT! FEED.

This album is available via Bandcamp.

Copyright 2014 WBGO

Tim Wilkins