Winter Jazz Fest 2017 has come and gone. And I’ve been slow to get an entry up. Instead of giving up on the idea entirely, however, and responding in the spirit of musical resistance to the tragic first days of the presidency of this hate-mongering and unfit human being, I wrote up a quick shout out to (only some!) of the life-giving singers I had the great fortune of hearing during the festival. Their music and presence is a strong undercurrent of beauty in the hateful reality in which we live.
Not surprisingly, Winter Jazz Fest’s 2017 theme of social justice, came directly from the work of the artists themselves, as Brice Rosenbloom (founder and and one of the producers) told us in the festival's panel on social justice, moderated by Siddhartha Mitter and involving the wise words of Terri Lyne Carrington and the ACLU’s Megan French-Marcelin. The power of the artists' work, we know, extends far beyond the quotes offered in leaflets and on the projector screens and the Tumblr feeds.
The five singers below (who sang over the two main marathon nights of the festival), to different degrees and in different ways, plug into the longstanding tradition of resistance through music.
Amina Claudine Myers
"Ain't Nobody Ever Gonna Hear Us?"
“These compositions, some of them are Negro spirituals, which were written by my ancestors. I wanted to honor them, by recording some of my favorites.” So introduced Amina Claudine Myers the songs from her performance at the New School 12th street auditorium on Friday, January 6th, and from her new album, Sama Rou (Amina Records, 2016).
Sitting at the piano, singing-speaking the lyrics, some of which we’ve heard time and time again. The microphone caught the smack of her lips, the breaths and gasps in between the utterance of phrases, the strain on the vocal cords that comes with years of being alive and singing.
If the words were consistent and heavy, reminding, reiterating, making sure we heard again and again what we needed to hear, the piano was new and surprising – unexpected dissonances and flourishes, hard to follow paths, notes stepping over one another. The meeting point was where the pleasure and beauty resided.
“Ain’t Nobody Ever Gonna Hear Us?,” which nestled in my ear for days after the performance, is Ms. Myers’ own compositional contribution to the tradition of her ancestors.
At the Festival: Amina Claudine Myers - piano and voice.
“Everything Must Change”
Nina Simone, whose life and career we know was persistently challenged because of her identity as a black woman speaking out against the injustices of capitalist white supremacy, in this country and beyond, might be the ultimate musician to turn to for guidance (as Amirtha Kidambi (see below, too) also reminded us in the introduction to her performance in the Refuse Fascism concert on January 19th, the eve of inauguration).
Ulysses Owens Jr., the mind behind this Jazz at Lincoln Center project, Songs of Freedom, introduced the different ways in which the three women he chose to honor embody freedom for him. Abbey Lincoln – progressive lyrics; Joni Mitchell – love; Nina Simone – resistance.
“Everything Must Change” went through the bodies and voices of a number of artists (Benard Ighner, released by Quincy Jones, in 1974, Randy Crawford in 1976, George Benson in 1977) before making it to Nina Simone, who was the person being honored in this concert (and check out the recording of this incredible live performance:)
In the New School’s Tishman auditorium, Alicia’s warm voice, switching between a luxurious and comforting vibrato and a straight and clear satin, stretching between the bottom of it depths, to the heights of its potential, urged change at the same time as reminding us to take some comfort in the richness of the beauty that we are able to make for ourselves .
This song will also appear on Alicia's new project, Transform, which explores themes of vulnerability in the short-lived, difficult, and productive process of transformation - personal, communal, political.
"Everything Must Change"
At the Festival: Alicia Olatuja - voice / David Rosenthal - guitar / Allyn Johnson - piano / Rueben Rogers - bass / Ulysses Owens Jr. - drums.
“Song for Naldo”*
I couldn’t find videos of this particular band, so here’s a link to audio tracks from their Carmen McRae-inspired record, Rambling Confessions (Sunnyside, 2015).
In the band, Jen sings and plays gayageum. At the festival, she sat down on a chair so as to play her instrument, and with her wireless headset microphone, her voice appeared in and out of the texture, sometimes with no visible trace. A ghost of a voice floating in the air and gymnastically responding to the musical moment.
At the Festival: John Hébert - bass / Andy Milne - piano / Satoshi Takeishi - Drums / Jen Shyu - voice and gayageum.
* For the visually inclined and to continue the theme, here is a video of a solo piece of Jen's, “Song for Naldo,” which has been playing in my mind's ear since I heard her perform it a few days ago at the aforementioned Refuse Fascism concert (although, if I’m not mistaken, with slightly different lyrics), and is taken from her piece Solo Rites: Seven Breaths (2014).
“We are not strangers
We are not separate beings
We are brother and sister, only.”
"Song for Naldo"
“Dvapara Yuga (For Eric Garner)"
Immediately following, in the same venue, was Amirtha Kidambi’s group Elder Ones, performing pieces off of their recent album Holy Science (Northern Spy, 2016).
Amirtha encouraged us to go beyond the theme of social justice as marketing, and to continue to do activist work and to strive to use the platform of the festival to its full potential. The band had CDs for sale, and Amirtha told us all proceeds would go to the NAACP, whose six member had recently been arrested at a sit-in in Jeff Sessions’ office.
Amirtha’s powerful voice combined with the cutting tone of Matt Nelson’s soprano, and the solidly woven web of bass and drums, all of this over the drone of the harmonium, produced innumerable moments of forceful sound through collective improvisation. There was one particular chilling moment, when through the density and intensity of the playing on “Dvapara Yuga,” a piece written for the memory of Eric Garner, a police car (or multiple police cars), came rushing down 13th street, sounding out its stress-inducing siren, and projecting its migraine red and blue strobe lights into the glass windowed room, invasive and piercing.
At the Festival: Amirtha Kidambi - harmonium and voice / Brandon Lopez - bass / Matt Nelson - soprano sax / Max Jaffe - drums.
Back in the 12th street auditorium Becca Stevens, her band, a string quartet (-1), and guests Michelle Willis and Michael League, performed songs from Becca's most recent album Perfect Animal (Decca Records, 2015) and debuted songs from her forthcoming album, Regina (GroundUp, 2017). Regina, “queen” in Latin, is the album of queens, Becca told us, strong women reimagined, explored, emphasized. Becca, flexibly and comfortably switching between charango, ukulele, electric and acoustic guitars, stopped in one song-switch to explain to the audience how her capo had a hole in it which means she can still play some of the strings below it, lest anyone think she was “guitar lip-syncing,” as she called it. She did this to fill in the tuning time with chitchat, but also should anyone have been wrong enough to contest the point that she herself is a bit of a royal badass.
At the Festival: Becca Stevens - vocals, guitar, charango / Jordan Perlson – percussions, backing vocals / Chris Tordini - bass guitar, double bass, backing vocals / Michael League - guitar, vocals / Michelle Willis - keys, vocals / Amy Schroeder - violin / Keiko Tokunaga - violin / Andrew Yee - cello.
The first song from Regina, "Queen Mab," was just recently released to the public: