Show-toppers banjoist Eddy Davis and pianist Conal Fowkes performing at the 2015 edition of the New York Hot Jazz Festival. (photo by Jane Kratochvil; courtesy www.nyhotjazzfest.com)
Jazz Travels with Bill Hoffman
The New York Hot Jazz Fest Stage is a small part of Winter JazzFest, an eight-day event of—as its organizers claim—“communal celebration, open discourse, and musical inspiration on stage and beyond.” It took place from January 10-17 at ten venues mostly in and near Greenwich Village. The portion of JazzFest of greatest interest to us was held on Friday and Saturday evenings at Django, a basement cabaret at the trendy Roxy Hotel at the southern end of Sixth Avenue. Because of schedule constraints, I was only able to attend Friday night. But I undoubtedly would have enjoyed Saturday’s show as well, perhaps more so.
The NYHJF is the brainchild of Michael Katsobashvili and trumpeter Bria Skonberg, who founded the event about five years ago. It is now held on the fourth Sunday in September at the McKittrick Hotel. The Hot Jazz Fest Stage is probably best described as a subset of Winter JazzFest. Although the NYHJF was originally launched as just a day-long celebration for New York’s hot jazz and swing communities, it has expanded its mission to year-round presentations of, and advocacy for, traditional jazz through various collaborations and partnerships. These include Central Park Summer Stage, Jazz at Lincoln Center, and Symphony Space in addition to the dedicated event that is the subject of this report. The Fest has spearheaded a number of original projects and facilitated in the formation of original projects and new bands such as the Gotham Kings, Dan Levinson’s Gotham SophistiCats, and Jon-Erik Kellso’s Mahogany Hall Pleasure Society Jazz Band. Hot Jazz Fest Stage is the most modern-leaning of all the events under the NYHJF umbrella; all the others are decidedly traditional.
Like the other festivals that Michael curates, his emphasis is on showcasing different bands and vocalists each year. Fortunately, in New York he has many choices. His purpose is two-fold: to provide the highest quality and variety of talent, and to encourage those with curiosity and desire to get into this music and provide them with an opportunity to showcase their projects inspired by the sprit of tradition, something that the contemporary jazz world they are immersed in precludes them from doing. Hopefully, the followers of these musicians, who, like their idols, are generally younger than us “moldy figs,” will similarly get introduced to a facet of jazz they were unaware of or had overlooked.
About the venue: Django is an L-shaped room with the stage roughly at the juncture of the two legs of the L. I spent about half the evening near the stage on the base of the L, where I found the acoustics rather poor. It was especially hard to understand any spoken remarks. Later I was able to move to a table where the sound was much better. The walls are a combination of brick and plaster, with the ceiling built in a series of arches. I doubt that this helps the acoustics.
Each evening consisted of six roughly one-hour sets with about 15 minutes in between. Friday’s program opened with the wonderful pianist Ehud Asherie paying tribute to “Harlem piano giants.” I unfortunately missed most of his set due to my bus being late, but not the last number, “After You’ve Gone,” with vocal accompaniment from Hilary Gardner. Hilary hung around, as the next set was the vocal trio Duchess, a delightful group that also includes Amy Cervini and Melissa Stylianou. They were accompanied by a piano, bass, and drums, which I found less enjoyable than the vocals. Their repertoire favors the Boswell and Andrews Sisters. One highlight was “Creole Love Call” with its seldom-heard lyrics.
The next set topped the show, in my opinion. This was a quintet led by banjoist Eddy Davis, with John Gill on trombone (and on occasion, banjo), Jay Rattman on bass sax, Jon-Erik Kellso on trumpet, and Conal Fowkes on piano. They paid homage to songs written by Lil Armstrong, whom Davis had known. Eddy was invited to present this set precisely because he is a living link—one of the few remaining—to pioneers such as Lil Armstrong. When vocals were called for, Eddy filled the bill, although Conal also contributed one.
The Lil Armstrong tribute was followed by a Django Reinhardt-oriented set by Stephane Wrembel’s band, consisting of the leader on guitar; Ari Folman-Cohen on bass; Nicholas Anderson, drums; and Thor Jensen, additional guitar. To my dismay, this was not an acoustic set; all instruments except the drums were amped. But the musicians were of high caliber. Several of Stephane’s compositions, written for Woody Allen movies, were played.
Stephane was followed by trumpeter Jumaane Smith’s “Louis Louis Louis” set, honoring Armstrong, Jordan, and Prima. He had a seven-piece band, with a few vocals by Nancy Harms, which helped. Otherwise, I found the set too modern even if the tunes weren’t. However, I do not disparage Jumaane’s prowess on the trumpet. He has been around for many years, playing in top-notch bands, and is fully capable of playing in a trad or swing style.
The evening ended with Mike Sailors’ quartet: Mike on trumpet, Steve Ash on piano, Mike Card on bass, and Aaron Kimmel on drums. Vuyo Sotashe was a guest on vocals, and turned in a fine performance, especially on “Stardust.” I expect, and hope, to hear more about and from him in the future. He fills a critical missing piece in the roster of male vocalists in New York. I was unfamiliar with any of the musicians in this set, as was the case with Jumaane Smith’s band. That could be more of an indictment of me than of them; according to his website, Mike has played with a number of musicians I know. Steve Ash was on piano when I took in vocalist Molly Ryan’s new Sunday night gig at Blacktail just over a week later.
Saturday evening’s lineup was heavy on the vocal side, with the Aaron Weinstein Duo, the Felix Peikli and Joe Doubleday Showtime Band with the up and coming Australian vocalist Hetty Kate, Kat Edmonson (another young singer whom I’ve yet to see), Catherine Russell, Jason Prover’s Sneak Thievery Orchestra, and guitarist Matt Munisteri’s Tropical Hot Club Party.
As you may have surmised, not all the acts I saw at Fest Stage were those that I would make a special effort to see, but looking at the larger picture, as described above, helped me understand why they were selected. If everyone’s tastes were as narrow as mine, events like Hot Jazz Fest Stage would become very routine very quickly.
Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.
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