2012 NYC Winter Jazzfest: Our favorite sets

Miguel Zenón

Miguel Zenón Photograph: Keith Sirchio

For this year's Winter Jazzfest—that bustling Greenwich Village takeover—TONY Music took a divide-and-conquer approach, with Hank Shteamer handling Friday's portion and Andrew Frisicano taking over on Saturday. Below is each writer's respective pick for his night's top set.

Friday: Miguel Zenn Quartet
During the early part of my Friday WJF excursion, I caught several unconventionally outfitted bands, including Ben Allison's drummerless Trio with Strings and a double-drummer version of trombonist Curtis Hasselbring's New Mellow Edwards. Both groups made the most of their idiosyncrasies—with Allison, guitarist Steve Cardenas and violinist Jenny Scheinman summoning folksy intimacy, and Hasselbring and friends providing sprawling soundtracks for imaginary films—but it was a good, old sax-bass-piano-drums lineup, the Miguel Zenn Quartet at Zinc Bar, that revved me up the most that night.

The San Juan, Puerto Rico--born leader, pictured, a font of passionate virtuosity, seems to understand that, as in tennis, the fiercer your opposition, the better you play. Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo, Austrian bassist Hans Glawischnig and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole blazed through Zenn's charts—urgently emotive rhythmic obstacle courses that suggested a state-of-the-art Latin jazz counterpart to the classic Coltrane quartet—decimating any sense of leader-sidemen hierarchy. Zenn swayed and nodded vigorously during his turbo-speed solos, then danced stageside as Perdomo constructed his own increasingly complex two-handed sound lattices over Glawischnig and Cole's springy vamps. The performance (drawn from the saxist's 2011 full-length, Alma Adentro: The Puerto Rican Songbook) crescendoed with a riveting Cole drum solo, which handily summed up the set's blend of pyrotechnic flair and shrewd musicality. Game, set and match: Zenn & Co.—HS

Saturday: David Murray Cuban Ensemble
On Saturday, I mostly stayed put at Le Poisson Rouge, checking out the diverse bandleaders featured on the fest's biggest stage. It was interesting to note how saxist Ravi Coltrane and pianist Vijay Iyer took on such different roles within their respective trios. The former seemed happy to play off his virtuosic rhythm section, while Iyer took a much more dominant tack, layering dizzying arpeggios on top of the playful basslines of Stephan Crump and drumming of Marcus Gilmore. Both groups had fun with their sets: Coltrane's was skillful and jammy, while Iyer's arrangements transformed pop tunes including Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" and Heatwave's "The Star of a Story" into knotty deconstructions. Arguably though, no one had more fun than David Murray, whose Cuban Ensemble was my favorite act of the night.

The tenor player invited the audience to dance early on, and led by example, practically shimmying out of his shoes as he laid spirited melodies over the sound of his ten-piece band. The songs were derived from the Spanish-language catalog of Nat King Cole, but the outsize sound in front was all Murray. The large format only made the loose arrangements, shifting from solo to melody to conclusion at Murray's cue, all the more thrilling. The musicians wore their reactions on their faces, whether they were unsure about the latest jump in the song or in awe of their fellow improvisers. No one looked more enrapt than Murray, who sang out melodies for the band to mimic and sprang up to cue the set's last note with a leap.—AF