The staircase down to the main stage of Le Poisson Rouge was swathed in pink, the slow rasp of drums and soft twinkles of a piano slinking under the long, strong vibrato of a female voice. At last, at the bottom of the stairs and stepping into the vast blue light of the room I inched my way through the crowd and stood still before the performers onstage. In a black, glittered dress, Katherine Russell, a smile sneaking onto her lips, sung the song’s last words as the crowd clapped and hooted. Before I could contribute to the applause, Ms. Russell and her band then jumped into “Blues in the Dark,” a piece once sung by Ella Fitzgerald if I heard Ms. Russell right. I’m not too familiar with Fitzgerald but, from a few songs of hers that I’ve heard, I got the sense that Ms. Russell was now brilliantly, almost scarily, channeling her. Like that legendary woman of jazz, Ms. Russell seemed to have such control of her voice, such mastery over the sudden outstretches to the air and hauling back that are perhaps the mark of a true vocal master. If I don’t know what I’m talking about (I don’t), I can tell you that Ms. Russell did know what she was doing as the group of men and women below her almost infectiously hollered in admiration of her. I, myself, couldn’t help but tap my fingers against my notepad and bob my head a bit as she went through some classic jazz songs such as “The Dawn Brings Only Heartache to Me” and one song which had the words, “I like my men like I like my whiskey; aged and mellow.” Although I wanted to stay for the rest of the set, I knew Dan Tepfer and Lee Konitz were playing at Zinc Bar just a block or two away, and I so made my way through the crowd amidst soft guitar notes and the claps of the crowd.
Like Le Poisson Rouge, Zinc Bar was very crowded, so much so that I couldn’t even find a slight opening in the crowd to try to nestle through. So I took a slight spot at the maroon-wooded bar and tried watching the performers onstage over the heads and through the necks of the people in front of me. I soon stopped straining for the perfect view, though, and instead just tried focusing on the music. As Mr. Tepfer told me on the phone a few days before, there was a string quartet on stage with him and Mr. Konitz, and their dissonant, jagged chords rather spookily underlined Mr. Konitz’s dallying saxophone and Mr. Tepfer’s soft piano. After the first piece, Mr. Tepfer stood up and announced the four string players as the Harlem String Quartet, explaining how, “Everything we’re doing is improvised.” In fact, Mr. Tepfer was playing notes on a computer atop his piano which then got sent to iPhones placed before the string players which the players then improvised off of. The performance was a bit more somber than I expected but the intimate beauty Mr. Tepfer, Mr. Konitz, and the string players managed to eke out in the club was startling and undeniable.
From Zinc Bar, I walked a block over to Sullivan Hall, not knowing who was playing there but keen to find out. A larger space than Zinc Bar, with high ceilings, Sullivan Hall was crowding with a predominantly young group of people, a silver disco ball slowly spinning above them. As the man next to me in the second row told me, the Revive Big Band was about to play. It was a big band. I can’t recall how many performers exactly there were but there had to be at least ten, maybe even fifteen. After a loud, blaring opening number, the band leader called up DJ Raydar Ellis up onto the stage who then led the whole group into a “Medley for A Tribe Called Quest,” as he put it. It was sick; first, the front row of horn players performed the opening of “Stir It Up (Steve Biko),” a personal favorite Tribe track of mine off their 1993 album, Midnight Marauders. From that first Tribe cover, Revive transitioned into “Jazz (We’ve Got),” off Tribe’s 1991 album, The Low End Theory, as Jonathan Powers hailed fiery blows on his trumpet. After the tribute to A Tribe Called Quest, Revive transitioned into a different piece that featured ramshackle, rollicking drums and the swiveling sounds of some of the horn players. For the group’s last piece, DJ Ellis was called back up and he did some fast rapping over the rising and falling of trumpets and saxophones. The act, as a whole, was maybe the most dynamic, exciting performance I had seen so far. The mix of jazz and hip-hop was seriously fun.
Coverage of the 2013 NYC Winter JazzFest continues next week…