Live Review: Liberation Music Orchestra At The NYC Winter Jazzfest

On Tuesday night in downtown Manhattan, the 13th annual NYC Winter Jazzfest concluded its massive music marathon with a conscious concert at the le Poisson Rouge nightclub featuring Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra. The festival itself ran January 5-10 and hosted more than 100 different artists on Friday and Saturday nights. Complimenting the festival’s 2017 theme of social justice, the LMO provided a compelling live set that was powerful, politicized and poignant.

Originally formed in 1969 by late bassist Charlie Haden along with arranger/pianist Carla Bley, the Liberation Music Orchestra has existed as an outspoken vehicle of protest and resistance for five decades. Balancing ecological, humanist and political commentary, Haden’s LMO has released a recording every 10 years or so, usually coinciding with the prominence of a Republican administration. This includes the recently released Time/Life (Songs For The Whales And Other Beings) on ECM, which was recorded prior to Haden’s passing.

Although Bley did not take part in the NYC performance due to conflicting commitments, the oversized, virtuosic band used her distinctive arrangements throughout, including an authoritative version of Miles Davis’ “Blue In Green” and distinctive twists on both “Amazing Grace” and “America The Beautiful.” With the gifted Geri Allen substituting for Bley on piano, the LMO boasted a mother lode of excellent musicians including saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek, trumpeters Seneca Black and Michael Rodriguez (who served as bandleader) and veteran trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.

The premise of music illuminating protest is central to the LMO, and the band persists in upholding the outspoken legacy of Haden’s insurgent vision. The group closed the show with a moving version of “We Shall Overcome,” which was also the final number on its first album back in 1969.

There were plenty of socially conscious performances during the Jazzfest. Composer/trombonist Craig Harris’s Breathe was another massive ensemble expressing discontent and hope, remembering the martyred Eric Garner and exploring themes of Black Lives Matter. Chicago wunderkind bandleader Mike Reed’s Flesh & Bone showcased explosive rhetoric by clear-eyed poet Marvin Tate and provided bracing counterpoint with a hard-charging band that included saxophonist Greg Ward. Saturday’s ECM Stage at New School’s Tishman Auditorium hosted bassist Michael Formanek’s group with saxophonist Tim Berne, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver, as well as performances by Danish guitar phenomenon Jakob Bro, duets by saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and pianist David Virelles, and guitarist Bill Frisell working in tandem with bassist Thomas Morgan.

Once again the NYC Winter Jazzfest was an unqualified success and its heightened attention to social justice was right on time. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Or as they say in Portuguese, “A Luta Continua.” The struggle continues.

—Mitch Myers; photo by Dave Kaufman

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