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Winter Jazzfest 2020: Ashley Henry, Moses Boyd & more at Le Poisson Rouge (pics, review)

Winter Jazzfest, now in its 16th year, is an institution that’s shown a knack for keeping up with both the city’s changing club landscape and the genre’s latest developments in NYC and elsewhere. Showcasing jazz’s many permutations across multiple venues, the fest’s broad scope goes from Starebaby‘s prog-metal-inspired doom jazz to Robert Glasper‘s hip-hop and R&B workouts, and many digressions in between from free jazz and Afrobeat to jam bands and neo-soul.

One of the most fertile areas of exploration for the past two years has been the fest’s UK jazz showcase. Hosted by DJ/tastemaker/label head Gilles Peterson and presented by PRS Foundation and BBC Music Introducing, the evening has brought rising stars such as electronica-jazz trio The Comet Is Coming, fiery saxist Nubya Garcia, heady trumpeter Yazz Ahmed and lynchpin of the London scene Ezra Collective—all artists interested in exploring the crossover between jazz, hip-hop, soul, dubstep and grime and bringing their music to a wide audience. At a place like Bonnaroo, where several of the previously mentioned acts are booked this year, their kinetic music and driving approach fits in well, as it does at more jazz-focused fests like Newport or here.

On Thursday night, the showcase held down that reputation. Drummer Sarathy Korwar drove a group that fused Indian music, hip-hop and jazz, and singer Poppy Ajudha blended pop and neo-soul with a socially conscious message. Drummer Moses Boyd led his unorthodox band—a quartet rounded out with keys, guitar and sax—through music that blurred the lines of electronica and jazz. As Peterson noted in his intro, Boyd scored one of the rising scene’s first hits with his single “Rye Lane Shuffle,” released in 2016. Here, Boyd’s stuttering rhythms and precision hi-hat work demonstrated a confident presence en route to bigger stages, with his first solo album, Dark Matter, due in February.

While Boyd built his music on loop-like repetition, pianist Ashley Henry explored simplicity even further. Henry—filling in for Afrobeat ensemble Kokoroko, which canceled last minute due to visa issues—playing with a trio and several guest vocalists. His cover of “The World Is Yours” (a tribute to two inspirations, Nas and Ahmad Jamal) and a sparse version of Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” both treated the source material with respect and restraint and drew clear lines to his influences.

At one point Henry mentioned that he’d first recorded the next song back in 2017 after a session with Chicagoan Makaya McCraven at London’s Total Refreshment Centre, a hub for the scene. Interestingly, across town at Public Records, McCraven himself was about to perform at an unofficial WJF showcase put on by Chicago record label International Anthem. At the Gowanus club, the trio with with bassist Junius Paul and trumpeter Marquis Hill took advantage of the pristine hi-fi sound, playing music that was responsive and dynamic in the cozy room. One of the best spots in the house was near the back speakers where the sound rang through with immaculate clarity. The frequent collaborators followed each other’s leads through skittering free improvisations, wobbly funk grooves and an experimental sampler and electric-bass breakout.

So much of what the music is about is the interplay between influences, scenes and personalities. One of the perks of Winter Jazzfest is seeing that come together live in different settings across the week. There are chances to see almost all of the above mentioned artists again, as well as harpist Brandee Younger, who played an opening set at Public Records, and that’s just a small fraction of what’s happening. Check here for the full schedule.

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