A brief background for the uninitiated -- the annual International Association for Jazz Education conference is the jazz industry's biggest annual gathering of artists, students, educators, critics, radio hosts and programmers, label reps, publishers, etc etc etc. It's a four-day blowout of concerts, clinics, panels, and the like, beginning each morning at 9 AM and continuing until the wee small hours, There's more going on there than anyone could possibly see, even if you had the stamina. Plus, in addition to what's on the schedule, there is an incredible amount of Very Important Schmoozing going on at all times -- everyone's trying to persuade the right people to come to their hit (critics, label reps, big name artists, etc) or angling for teaching gigs, workshops, a record deal, etc. A lot of people believe, rightly or wrongly, that their entire career is riding on what happens at this conference. It's exhausting, even if you're trying to stay largely above the fray.
There are also thousands upon thousands of high school and college students at this thing -- some of them are performing with their school ensemble, some of them have won auditions to play in various student all-star groups or have their works performed at the opening ceremonies, and some of them have come on their own dime -- student registration is $170-$180, plus travel and accommodation -- to hear the big names perform and check out the various workshops. Many of these kids come from small towns and this conference will be their first time hearing top-flight jazz artists perform live. It's easy to get cynical about the meat-market aspects of the conference -- and I'm as guilty of that as anyone -- but I think it's also good to remember how exciting the whole thing can be for young players, especially the first time they experience it. I still have many fond memories of my first IAJE -- the 1994 conference in Boston -- especially since that's where I first heard Bob Brookmeyer. (He was leading the Danish Radio Band in a concert of his own music.)
The conference kicked off at 12:30 this afternoon with what was billed as a "Special Focus Section: Envisioning the Future of Jazz," but I couldn't make it down there until around 6 PM -- just time enough to pick up my credentials and line up for one of the opening performances, by Quinsin Nachoff's Magic Numbers, a septet featuring Quinsin on tenor sax, Mark Helias on bass, Jim Black on drums, and a Montreal-based string quartet: Nathalie Bonin, Noémi Racine Gaudreault, Jean René and Christine Giguère. This is a good time slot to have -- only one other simultaneous performance to compete with, and at this point everyone is still fresh and full of anticipation. (Nobody survives IAJE without getting seriously burnt out. The only question is exactly when burnout sets in.)
Quinsin is a tenor player active on the Toronto scene. I know him from the Banff Jazz Workshop -- we met there in the summer of 1999, and then were reunited at the 2000 Montreal Jazz Fest, where he played in my quintet. But I haven't seen him since, so I was excited to see him again, and to hear what he's been up to.
Magic Numbers opened with a fractured funkish groove, with Quinsin laying down some spacious long tones and the string quartet contributing a running commentary. The tune, "There And Back," winds its way through various modal areas, and Quinsin's solo became surprisingly boppish in parts, followed by some intense, active lines in the violins, reinforced at the octave by the viola, and ending with a brief pizz cello groove. The string writing was varied and effective, if occasionally a little discontinuous -- some of the ideas could have used more elaboration, and more room to breathe.
The highlight for me was Quinsin's arrangement of his own "October," the kind of simple, earnest, unapologetically pretty ballad that jazz musicians write in their first year of college (i.e., before they start acutely feeling the need to shelter themselves behind layers of surface complexity). It began with a lovely viola solo by Jean René, and ended with subtone sax and bowed cymbals.
They closed with "How Postmodern of Me," a bit of Zornish musical channel-surfing done up Toronto-style. Naturally, Helias and Black ate it up, but I thought it was interesting that, unlike the usual wrenching start-stop figures we associate with Downtown eclecticism, many of the abrupt stylistic shifts here didn't actually feel all that abrupt. In fact, at times it seemed like the deliberate discontinuity between sections actually created a more cohesive overall effect. Go figure. Anyway, the playing was first-rate throughout, and the group seemed very comfortable with the considerable challenges of Quinsin's material. This was a great way to kick off the conference.
After this, I must confess that I decided to bail on the evening's remaining official IAJE performances in favor of one of the many unofficial off-site events -- the 2007 NYC Winter Jazzfest at the Knitting Factory. This is an annual mini-festival consisting of acts that, for one reason or another, won't be performing at this year's IAJE. This year's edition featured hits by (among others) Rudresh Mahanthappa, Lionel Loueke, So Percussion, Steve Lehman, and Slavic Soul Party. This is apparently the Knit's attempt to trick visitors into believing that they still feature jazz on a regular basis. Like IAJE, it features multiple simultaneous performances, so it's impossible to catch everything, or even part of everything. I'd also been told admission was free with my IAJE artist badge. This turned out not to be the case -- apparently if you wanted to take advantage of that offer, you had to RSVP. Oh well -- the lineup was impressive enough that I didn't mind springing for the $25 cover.
I'd love to be able to comment on the many excellent performances I saw at this thing, but damn, it's 6 AM and I should probably try to squeeze in at least a little sleep before the Pulse IAJE hit tomorrow... er, I mean, today. (Thursday Jan 11, 5 PM, Sheraton Empire Ballroom.) Instead, I will leave you with more pics of Magic Numbers, as well as shots of some of the Winter Jazzfest acts, all below the fold.