With more than 100 concerts in NYC spread across a dozen live music venues and jazz clubs, this year’s twelfth annual Winter Jazzfest—that superconcentrated, panstylistic showcase of improvisational artistry—is shaping up to be a stunner. As you plot your itinerary, we offer our picks for six essential sets.
RECOMMENDED: A full guide to Winter Jazzfest
Six best acts at Winter Jazzfest
Kicking off the feast of all things jazz is a decidedly “un-jazz” outfit: legendary Dutch punk lifers, the Ex. As OG flag wavers of punk rock—the Ex burst onto the scene way back in 1979—this musically schizoid beast may not fit neatly under the jazz umbrella. But its wildly adventurous, genre-defying vision—often bolstered by cohorts like Ken Vandermark, Han Bennink and Mats Gustafsson—is a perfect fit to inaugurate the festivities. January 13 at Le Poisson Rouge
The latest addition to Flying Lotus's increasingly eclectic Brainfeeder label, saxophone jazz man Kamasi Washington has an ambitious streak. His sprawling 172-minute, three-volume 2015 undertaking, appropriately titled The Epic, is just one example. Washington, with his 10-piece ensemble that includes fluid-fingered bassist labelmate Thundercat, aims to do nothing short of reinvigorate and revolutionize the contemporary jazz scene. January 14 at Webster Hall
Update: This show has been rescheduled as a "NYC Winter Jazzfest presents" show, set for February 24 at the same venue.
Matana Roberts (solo)
Prepare to be uplifted into a droning, chanting, poetic and ecstatic jazz otherworld—and given a history lesson in the process—by the Chicago–born, New York City–based saxophonist and vocalist Matana Roberts. The third installment of her Coin Coin series, entitled Chapter Three: river run thee, has wound up on Best of 2015 lists across the spectrum, and rightfully so. It’s a mesmerizing conceptual journey through the history of the South told via Roberts’s self-described "panoramic sound quilting" composition method. Minds will transcend and hearts will be aflutter as Roberts goes it alone this evening. January 15 at Subculture
Ches Smith/Craig Taborn/Mat Maneri
The ECM Records Stage will be all the rage as it trots out visionaries galore culled from its jaw-dropping roster including, Vijay Iyer, David Virelles, Tim Berne and Michael Formanek’s 19(!)-piece Ensemble Kolossus. Joining those ranks is Ceramic Dog drummer and Brooklyn mainstay Ches Smith, who is celebrating the release of The Bell, his ECM debut as bandleader. Akin to his solo experimental abstractions, Smith’s new album—which features pianist Craig Taborn and violinist Mat Maneri—is a sonically minimalist trip into a classi-jazz universe that is hauntingly transcendent. January 15 at the New School Tishman Auditorium
Sarah Neufeld & Colin Stetson
One wouldn’t expect star power like a member of Arcade Fire and a dude who’s toured with Bon Iver to crash WJF but violin virtuoso Sarah Neufeld and sax giant Colin Stetson are anything but typical ensemble players. Never were the way she was, the duo’s chamber-jazz project released earlier this year, was a revelation in its mighty conversational interplay and angelic storytelling. Come witness the powerful magic of their violin-horn combo for yourself. January 15 at Judson Memorial Church
Channeling Coltrane: ROVA's Electric Ascension with Nels Cline
The 2016 Winter Jazzfest fittingly concludes by bowing at the altar of jazz icon John Coltrane. Spearheaded by Bay Area four-pronged saxophone crew ROVA, Trane’s radical free jazz touchstone The Ascension is reimagined fifty years after its release, rocketing into the sonic stratum with help from mavericks collected from our very own downtown backyard. Avant hall of famers Zeena Parkins, Nate Wooley, Ikue Mori, Trevor Dunn and Gerald Cleaver join forces with ROVA and guitar titan Nels Cline of Wilco as they “channel” the godhead from the jazz heavens. January 17 at Le Poisson Rouge