Buoyed by an influx of new fans drawn by crossover stars from the hip hop and electronic scenes, the resurgence of the hot jazz scene, and a vanguard of international artists, modern jazz is more culturally influential, boundlessly diverse, and flat-out enjoyable to listen to today than it has been for decades. One of the best ways to reacquaint yourself with the genre is the annual NYC Winter Jazzfest.
Now in its 15th year, Winter Jazzfest is an embarrassment of riches both in quantity and quality. The festival programmers take an open-minded approach to defining what qualifies as jazz, go out of their way to book a gender-inclusive lineup, and have integrated jazz’s long tradition of engagement with social justice as a major platform of the festival’s mission.
With dozens of sets and hundreds of participating artists (including more than a few What Should We Do favorites), scheduling a must-see list can be intimidating to even the most seasoned audience member. We’re here to help with four top-notch nights of fresh sounds to start your 2019 with a roar.
Saturday, January 5
While part of the fun of the night can be plotting a personalized venue-hopping schedule, the plush underground listening room SubCulture boasts a lineup that could easily entice a listener to spend the whole night in one spot. Begin with the live debut of Ghost Train Orchestra’s forthcoming album by prolific avant-garde composer and legendary New York City oddball Moondog, then stick around to hear ethereal vocalist Theo Bleckmann in concert with brass quartet the Westerlies, followed by the Thelonious Monk Competition–winning tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Cap that off with a late-night turn from charismatic Cuban drummer Pedrito Martinez. SubCulture, 45 Bleecker Street (between Lafayette Street and Bowery), Greenwich Village; Saturday, January 5; 5:30 p.m.
Monday, January 7
Popular jazz trio the Bad Plus is celebrating the first full year of their newly reconfigured lineup, and I’m pleased to report that they sound as vital and compelling as ever. This impressive three-act concert also features the New Orleans trumpeter and regular Spike Lee collaborator Terence Blanchard with his combo, the E-Collective, and the multitalented drummer and Berklee College professor Terri Lyne Carrington with her band, Social Science. Both Carrington’s and Blanchard’s most recent work explicitly tackles issues of racism, police misconduct, intersectionality, and gun violence; you can expect this show to be a reflection of these artists’ politics as well as their talent. (Le) Poisson Rouge, 158 Bleecker Street (between Sullivan and Thompson Streets), Greenwich Village; Monday, January 7; 6 p.m.
Wednesday, January 9
Throughout nearly three decades, the Brooklyn-originated trio Medeski, Martin & Wood—consisting of bassist Chris Wood, percussionist Billy Martin, and John Medeski on keys—has acted as a gateway drug to jazz for multiple generations of funk and jam band aficionados. The group’s latest album is 2018’s Omnisphere, a live collaboration recorded in 2015 with the versatile ensemble Alarm Will Sound that sees Medeski, Martin, and Wood expanding their scope in a fresh and unlikely direction: contemporary classical. Both MMW and AWS will be on hand to re-create that concert at the cavernous Williamsburg venue, Brooklyn Steel. 319 Frost Street, Williamsburg; Wednesday, January 9; 7 p.m.
Friday, January 11
With 52 discrete gigs spread out over 11 venues in just one night, planning out your marathon Friday evening in advance is a must. Rest up—it’s going to be a busy night.
- 7:10 p.m.: Start leisurely at Public Arts for 30 minutes with Louisiana trad jazz/pop-fusion artist Sasha Masakowski.
- 8 p.m.: Leave yourself 20 minutes by foot or 10 by Lyft to arrive at Soho Playhouse for the avant-jazz duo of circular-breathing saxophone specialist Travis LaPlante and seasoned veteran percussionist Gerald Cleaver, who play together as Subtle Degrees. Their spectacular 2018 debut album, A Dance That Empties, is a riot of violently looping repetition, breathtakingly beautiful melodies, and sudden silences.
- 9 p.m.: It may well be difficult to tear yourself away from Subtle Degrees’s wordless devotionals, but you’ll need to plan 15 minutes of crosstown walking or else show up late to drummer and bandleader Makaya McCraven at Bowery Ballroom. McCraven’s lively 2018 album, Universal Beings, is justifiably popping up on a number of best-of-the-year lists, and you don’t want to get shut out of an opportunity to hear it live.
- 10:20 p.m.: Get a drink and stick around at the Ballroom for Jazzfest’s 2019 artist in residence, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, alongside guitarist Jeff Parker as they cover tracks by a rogue’s gallery of Brooklyn muses, including Neil Diamond, Pat Benatar, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard.
- 11:20 p.m.: If you’ve still got anything left in the tank after that tour de force, walk a bit uptown to the Bitter End for the sweetly soulful and gently playful Cameroonian singer Blick Blassy.