The best improvised music destabilizes expectations. That could happen when a taut groove suddenly dissolves into a free-jazz breakdown, a trick the band Science Fair pulled in a set Saturday night at Winter Jazzfest in New York City. It could happen via the surfeit of groups at the festival, such as Science Fair, that are led by women in a genre that has long been male-dominated. Or it could happen when confronted with the scene a few blocks away at the Bowery Ballroom, where there were two unusual sights in the jazz world: long lines to get in, and patrons unable to resist the impulse to dance inside.
As I have written in the past, Winter Jazzfest is a good opportunity to take the temperature of jazz and improvised music each year. The festival, which is now in its 15th year, featured nearly 150 acts across 12 venues over more than a week this year, and while the stars may not be household names, they are among the brightest in the genre, including artists such as the pianist Vijay Iyer, the bassist Christian McBride, the saxophonist Gary Bartz, and the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood. Because of the festival’s sprawling size, neatly summarizing it is futile. But two big themes emerged from my own listening at this year’s edition. First, while the relationship between jazz and hip-hop is decades old, there’s an exciting moment today as musicians fluent in both genres produce newly mature hybrids. Second, the present and future of jazz are female. While women have been part of this music scene since the start, they’ve often been marginalized. Not this year, and not at this festival.