Top 5 Sizzling Hot Winter Music Festivals in Frigid New York City

(l. to r.) Andrew Cyrille; photo: Petra Cvelbar; Thelonious Monk (1966); photo: Everett Collection

By Dan Ouellette, ZEALnyc Senior Editor, December 28, 2016

Think the brutal cold and sometimes snow or freezing rain of New York in January can keep musicians and crowds off the streets and huddled under blankets at home? Think again. In fact, it seems that the city's annual festivals have found a vital life in one of the darkest and bleakest months of the year. Think of it as the heat factor in the short days of daylight. There is no hibernation season, but rather a sizzling of high-caliber music that has been sprouting to life despite the chill.

You'd think summer, with all its green glory, would be the season of choice for music--especially jazz--to swing right into our lives. But the gray, leafless, snowy or icy season of the winter wonderland has in recent years made for a different kind of celebration that eclipses other times of the year. Of course, the cultural impact of New York City, in all its boroughs, is the grand central of local and international musicians gathering in artistic anticipation. It could well be the act of keeping warm by gathering.

Herein are the top 5 fests of the wintertide.

••• Five Snowballs: NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 5-10

What started twelve years ago as an inspired goal of giving voice to the plethora of relatively unknown but immensely talented jazz musicians toiling in the multitude of the New York's tiny and obscure clubs, the Jazzfest has become hands down the best festival for jazz in the entire year in a city where improvised music never sleeps. Some call it the SXSW of jazz.

It's immense. This year's fest stretches over six days, highlighted by the two-night Jazzfest Marathon on Friday, Jan. 6 and continues on Saturday, Jan. 7 at thirteen venues in and around Greenwich Village and across Lower Manhattan. More than 140 different groups comprising four hundred musicians take the various stages.

The range of music is dizzying. There's a not-to-be-missed opening night show (Thursday, Jan. 5 at Le Poisson Rouge) featuring jazz elder saxophonist Pharoah Sanders (who played in one of John Coltrane's later bands) and the young upstart from Britain, saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, who is one of the most dynamic young saxophonists in jazz today--though not well known because he hails from across the pond and has rarely played in the U.S. The bookend of the fest takes place on Tuesday, Jan. 10, when Le Poisson Rouge presents Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and its Concert for Social Justice with special guest pianist Geri Allen and arrangements by LMO co-founder Carla Bley.

In between, there's a plethora of jazz wonder, including salutes two of jazz's top labels, Blue Note and ECM, with bands from their stables. Plus there's a #BlackLivesMatter showcase of poetry and song by several groups as well as the Jazz Legends Play for Disability Pride NYC benefit concert at the Quaker's Friends Meeting House.

Salutes go to two of jazz's greats: artist in residence drummer/composer Andrew Cyrille and a special honoring of the 100th birthday anniversary of one of jazz's top masters: piano genius Thelonious Monk--one of the most influential artists to the new class of jazz musicians.

If it all seems a bit overwhelming, well, it is--like going to the North Sea Jazz Festival in July in Rotterdam and being faced with acts playing on 13 different stages all at the same time. So, a word to the potentially weary: choose carefully and become immersed in only tidbits of the offerings.

••• Four Snowballs: globalFEST, January 8, Webster Hall

Granted it's only a one-night shot (scaled down from what it used to be), but globalFEST ( is a multifarious extravaganza of world music from around the planet that takes place in the multiple performance spaces in Webster Hall). "This year's edition brings us full circle to why we started globalFEST in 2003 following 9/11 and the country's closing of borders," noted globalFEST co-founder Isabel Soffer. "We wanted to encourage our colleagues in the performing arts field to take artistic risks, and put international perspectives centerstage."

With "building bridges" culturally by music as its theme, this year's edition features tradion and experimentalists including old-school Congo rumba by L'Orchestre Afrisa International), Africa-rooted Latin by Betsayda Machado, socio-political Cuban club music by Batida, shaman-rooted glam rock of Korea's SsingSsing, African nu-soul singer Jojo Abot, and digital-looping Estonian folk violinist/singer Maarja Nuut. Also on the program are the global facets of very regional American styles: D.C.'s Rare Essence's funk-fired go-go and Ranky Tanky's take on the Gullah Sea Island traditions in South Carolina.

Added tastemaker and festival co-founder Bill Bragin: "globalFEST strongly believes that these unique cultural and personal expressions are what bring us closer together as a society. Diversity is a force that unites, not divides." Indeed this is the world in all its diverse beauty.

There is no place to better dive into the wealth of the world's music on the same evening as globalFEST. It's a unique event--only in New York--put together by the wise and wily expertise of the show's founders and programmers. Support it!

Lineup of artists for this year's globalFEST:

* AlSarah and the Nubatones (Sudan/Brooklyn): East African Retro-Pop
* Batida (Portugal/Angola): Afro electronic dance party
* Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo (Venezuela): Powerhouse Afro-Venezuelan vocalist (U.S. debut)
* Jojo Abot (Ghana/Denmark/USA): Experimental Afropolitan pop-soul
* Hoba Hoba Spirit (Morocco): Casablanca's irreverent rock stars.
* L'Orchestre Afrisa International et M'bilia Bel (DRC/USA): Tabu Ley Rochereau's Congolese rumba legends return
* Maarja Nuut featuring Hendrik Kaljujärv (Estonia): Digital Estonian folk soundscapes
* Ranky Tanky (USA): Funky Gullah songs of the South Carolina Sea Islands
* Rare Essence (USA): D.C.'s pioneering polyrhythmic Go-Go superstars
* Rudresh Mahanthappa's Indo-Pak Coalition (USA): Indo-jazz
* Septeto Santiaguero (Cuba): Grammy-winning son cubano stars
* SsingSsing (Korea): Shamanistic Korean folk songs meet rock

••• Three Snowballs: Jazz at Lincoln Center, January/February Lineup

While Jazz at Lincoln Center is not advertising it as such, but iut sure looks like a January/February festival if there ever has been. Whether it's staged at Rose Theater (the centerpiece of the jazz performance spaces) or at the amphitheater-like stage, the Appel Room with its backdrop of a picture window onto the colorful Columbus Circle, the shows this winter are top-tier events.

A brief overview:

* Branford Marsalis Quartet With Special Guest Vocalist Kurt Elling: January 20-21, Rose Theater
This collaboration, once viewed as a one-shot event/recording, has been a perfect fit. Adventurous jazz from the saxophonist teamed with the quirky, equally daring vocals by one of the best in jazz makes for a special evening of song.

* Celebrating Dizzy Gillespie: January 26-28, Rose Theater
The Diz would have been 100 years old this year. While he passed away in 1993, nearly a quarter century ago, the trumpeter/musical adventurer--who co-founded the bebop movement and brought Afro-Cuban music into the jazz vernacular--still influences the vital music of today. Wynton Marsalis leads his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with musical director Vincent Gardner in well-recognized Dizzy standards (i.e., "Salt Peanuts," "Night in Tunisia") as well new pieces inspired by the icon.

* The Latin Side of Dizzy With Carlos Henriquez: January 27-28, Appel Room
Musical director and bassist Carlos Henriquez brings together an all-star Latin jazz cast to celebrate Gillespie's contribution to Latin jazz.

* Dianne Reeves: February 10-11, Rose Theater
One of the top-tier jazz singers of this generation, the Grammy Award-winning Dianne Reeves sings lush swing for this special pre-Valentine engagement. Love and romance in the mix!

* Jazz of the '50s: Overflowing With Style: February 17-18, Rose Theater
While today's jazz continues to evolve and grow in experimentation and in popularity, the golden age of the idiom historically inarguably took place in the 1950s. Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with musical director Chris Crenshaw prove that assessment by performing the classic music of the eras by Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan and others.

••• Two Snowballs: The Ferus Festival, January 5-10

In its fourth annual year, the Ferus Festival sets up shop in January at National Sawdust, curated by its in-house producing and touring company VisionIntoArt. This festival features "untamed voices" showcasing multimedia collaborations and works-in-progress. As might be expected with National Sawdust, the mix is very eclectic, including collaborations in new music, theater and multimedia by innovative international and local artists

A snapshot roundup of shows:

* M IS BLACK ENOUGH: Poetry by Roger Bonair-Agard; music by Andy Akiho, Thursday, January 5

* The Afield and Nelson Patton with Lonnie Holley (split bill): Friday, January 6
Visual and textual storytelling within musical performance. Violinist Rebecca Fischer performs with a band and a film by Anthony Hawley is shown; Nelson Patton is an experimental duo of looped trombone (Dave Nelson) and drums & Moog bass pedals (Marlon Patton) with Lonnie Holley contributing vocals.

* Revert to Sea created and composed by Yuka C. Honda: Friday, January 6
Multimedia work-in-progress based on the writings of Japanese author Ryu Murakami, created and composed by Yuka C. Honda and performed by Honda, Alex Cline, Nels Cline, Devin Hoff and Zeena Parkins with video production by Brian Close, Kiki Kudo and Honda.

* Requiem for: A Tuesday: Saturday, January 7
A theatrical concert that takes the form of a ceremony in which those assembled are invited to overcome fear by looking to each other. Music, dance, with vocalist/improviser Helga Davis and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

* Mass Reimaginings Showcase: Sunday, January 8
For this Sunday evening engagement, the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and its companion chamber ensemble NOVUS NY are led by conductor Julian Wachner in an evening of contemporary Mass music.

* Record Release: Sxip Shirey's A Bottle of Whiskey and a Handful of Bees: Monday, January 9
National Sawdust's in-house record label VIA Records celebrates its release of the new album by composer, producer, interdisciplinary performer and NS curator Sxip Shirey.

* Lullaby Movement: Tuesday, January 10
A contemporary performance work incorporating music, movement and theater exploring lullaby ritual from around the world in over 20 languages and dialects as a staged theatrical song-cycle. Music composed by Sophia Brous, Leo Abrahams and David Coulter.

In this massive festival of social commentary, Evolving runs from January 2 through 22 (except 1/8 and 1/15) at Abrazo Interno Gallery, Clemente Soto Valez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk Street, Manhattan). Three sets each night by an array of under-the-cover jazz ensembles musically speaking out on the big clampdown we all fear. Let music be our shield!

Dan Ouellette, Senior Editor at ZEALnyc, writes frequently for noted Jazz publications, including DownBeat and Rolling Stone, and is the author of Ron Carter: Finding the Right Notes and Bruce Lundvall: Playing by Ear.

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