Each January, groups and solo artists perform at a variety of Greenwich Village clubs under the banner of Winter Jazzfest; last Friday and Saturday nights, the eighth annual festival featured more than 60 acts in five venues, all for a single fee of only $45. A very satisfying weekend, except perhaps for those troubled by the increasing elasticity of the definition of jazz.
It’s an old debate without resolution. Referring to the once-blasphemous style of free jazz, trumpeter Steven Bernstein said by telephone, “A lot of my friends and I had this conversation 30 years ago. I was into the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Oliver Lake and Don Cherry. That was the music when I was young. Dexter Gordon and Art Blakey were the old guys.”
Saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, whose accomplishments have garnered him a mighty reputation beyond his legacy as John and Alice Coltrane’s son, might be considered a traditionalist by fans of electric, rock-influenced jazz. But, he said, “If I went to Lincoln Center and said I’m a traditional player, they’d laugh me out of the room.”
“I don’t describe it as jazz,” said pianist Marco Benevento of his own music, “but I do cover instrumental music, which is a jazz concept.”
Winter Jazzfest encourages the broadest definition of jazz. No venue is designated for one or another stream: The postbop attack of trumpeter Wallace Roney and his quintet was presented at the same hall as guitarist Marc Ribot’s rock- and free-jazz-influenced Ceramic Dog. Playing music from his big-band tribute to Nat King Cole’s Spanish-language albums, saxophonist David Murray’s Cuban Ensemble occupied the same space as Mr. Bernstein and his Millennial Territory Orchestra, which drew from its new album, a take on the music of Sly Stone. The free-wheeling Mostly Other People Do the Killing, a quartet that jumps from postbop to funk to free jazz—often within the span of a few bars—worked the same stage as Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose album “Samdhi” (ACT) incorporates straight-ahead jazz, electronica and Indian percussion and modes. And so it went, from late evening until close to dawn.
As you might expect, among musicians at the festival the definition of jazz depends on the kind of music they play. “You don’t have to call me a jazz musician,” Mr. Bernstein said. “I listen to more jazz than anybody you know. But I’m a dude from Berkeley. I’m going to come up with whatever I come up with. I don’t need any name.”
For some musicians, fans and critics, whether the music swings is the key to the definition of jazz. Mr. Coltrane doesn’t agree. “Swing is a style. It’s a genre. There’s music that’s presented as swing that’s corny. There’s modern music that’s uplifting and inspiring, and it has nothing to do with genre and style. It has to do with what the music is trying to communicate.”
Mr. Roney holds to high standards musicians who profit from an affiliation with jazz. “I’m willing to bet if they can’t swing, they probably can’t play what’s put in front of them.” They may admire John Coltrane’s innovative compositions but, he added, “Trane gave them their freedom to do different things and I don’t know that that was Trane’s intention. He was searching for something higher. It allowed people who weren’t as committed to do things that weren’t as pure.”
Terminology didn’t matter much to the energized Winter Jazzfest crowds, which spanned multiple demographic groups; clubs were packed—dangerously so at times—and lines for admission streamed along the Village streets. Rock and electronica invaded—and not only in the form of electric music with an emphasis on the backbeat: Guitarist Julian Lage and his combo ended its set with a Pearl Jam tune, Mr. Coltrane quoted a Nirvana song, and pianist Vijay Iyer paid tribute to techno’s Robert Hood.
But as if to confound all debate about what jazz means in 2012, funk was a dominating presence at the festival. Mr. Bernstein’s group, which featured John Medeski on the Hammond B-3, turned (Le) Poisson Rouge into a dance club on Friday with his Sly interpretations, and the Bernie Worrell Orchestra did the same a night later.
Prior to his set, Mr. Coltrane said repertoire was irrelevant. “I’m looking to find how we can relate to each other. Funk, jazz—let’s explore those places.” With Matt Garrison on electric bass—he’s the son of Jimmy Garrison, who was the elder Coltrane’s bassist—and the powerhouse whirlwind Nikki Glaspie on drums, the trio fused hard-bop percussion and jazz-funk bass under Mr. Coltrane’s serpentine tenor. It was an impressive performance for mind and soul, with Mr. Garrison laying down a supple bottom and filling the middle range too.
As for the all-but-doctrinaire Mr. Roney, he fronted an excellent septet that melded postbop and electric jazz: Along with his brother Antoine and Arnold Lee on saxophones—Mr. Lee is the son of bassist Bill Lee—Mr. Roney played warm unison lines over a burbling caldron of electric keyboards with a wah-wah pedal, congas, funk bass by Rashaan Carter on an upright, and Kush Abadey, who with his perpetual motion seemed to channel Mr. Roney’s late friend Tony Williams, which is the ultimate in praise for a drummer. Was it jazz that Mr. Roney and his unit played? In 1970, when Davis cut “Bitches Brew,” purists would have said no. In 2012, according to the musicians at Winter Jazzfest, if it’s spontaneous and innovative, it qualifies.
By JIM FUSILLI
Mr. Fusilli is the Journal’s rock and pop music critic. Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.