A BRIC in Flux Turns Out an Intimate, Focused JazzFest

As jazz festivals go, BRIC JazzFest is on the small but ambitious side, aspiring to a few ideas at once. It operates in Brooklyn with something close to Manhattan-scale resources, but like BRIC’s flagship music series, the Celebrate Brooklyn! Festival, it aims to serve a broad audience, not a particularly affluent one.

To a greater degree than Celebrate Brooklyn! — a series of mostly free summertime performances in Prospect Park — JazzFest spotlights artists who live and work in the borough, though it brings in some of the best from out of town too. In the process, its organizers cut away at some of the hierarchical thinking that other jazz festivals, at various levels, often reinforce.

After three nights of music this past weekend from across the borough’s varied landscape, it was in the closing moments that all these strands came together most effortlessly, in what might have been the festival’s most informal moment.

The multi-instrumentalist Louis Cato was leading a jam session, smiling mirthfully from behind an electric bass, guiding a rotating band through deep-pocket covers of jazz standards and D’Angelo B-sides. At one point he followed Yahzarah — a vocalist and longtime veteran of the neo-soul scene, giving a bravura performance — from a coldly grooving cover of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” to a simmering vamp on James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

It felt like a festival-size version of something that you might find happening at a small bar in Brooklyn — and that ought to happen at more of them. Whether it fit perfectly under the banner of a “jazz festival” felt both uncertain and unimportant. Here were pieces of popular culture coming together; what justified its place as the culminating act was the virtuosity of the players, and the way they seemed to have earned the crowd’s constant curiosity.

The crowds had been good all weekend, including for strong sets by high-profile headliners like the vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, who closed Thursday night, and the Sun Ra Arkestra, Friday’s finale. This was the first time in BRIC JazzFest’s seven-year history that it had sold out completely each night, putting some wind into the sails of an organization that has found itself deeply in flux.

Much of BRIC’s top leadership has departed in recent months, leaving it in a period of transition as it looks to move beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Shortly before the festival, Lia Camille Crockett, BRIC’s director of performing arts, announced that she was taking a job running NPR’s live-events operation.

But in an interview, she said that BRIC had allowed her to experiment during the pandemic in ways that paid off, and she expects the organization to ride out its current straits with a similar resourcefulness. “One of the things I’ve loved about working at BRIC is that it’s always been an environment where you can ask questions, and question why things have been done a certain way,” she said.

“It was a year of experimentation,” she added. “Without saying, ‘We have a whole new manifesto,’ it was about taking opportunities where we could to experiment and turn certain things on their head.”

Nick Hakim performed with Roy Nathanson, a saxophonist and poet two generations his senior he’d collaborated with earlier this year.Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

At Celebrate Brooklyn! this year, with attendance and sponsorships already expected to be lower than usual, there was extra room for “creative risk-taking,” Crockett said. During the pandemic, she and her team also introduced the idea of having a Brooklyn-based musician help book BRIC JazzFest, along with herself and the producer Brice Rosenbloom. At last year’s digital-only festival, the bassist and singer Meshell Ndegeocello came on board. This year, the artist-curator was the vocalist Madison McFerrin.

In an interview, McFerrin said she had put a priority on keeping the curation close to home, mostly by booking musicians she knew personally from around the Brooklyn scene. She saw it as “an opportunity to just put my friends on,” which led her to think about the natural “range and extension of jazz,” as a way of making music.

Getting an artist to open their own contacts list seems a solid way of ensuring that a festival has a cozy and coherent feel to it. And it paid off for McFerrin in a personal way. Her headlining set on Saturday, performed solo with a digital control station beside her, went awry at the start when her loops pedal malfunctioned.

Midway through the set, she tried to get the audience to clap a fast and not-uncomplicated pattern as she led into “No Time to Lose,” a peppery original tune. Cato, a longtime friend of McFerrin’s, was standing in the crowd, and he saw what the moment needed. He leapt onstage and saddled up behind the drum set, guiding the crowd through the beat.

McFerrin first came in contact with BRIC soon after moving to Brooklyn seven years ago, when an old friend approached her to create a short documentary about her life as an artist for BRIC’s online TV channel. In addition to presenting music, BRIC is the borough’s largest creator of public-access TV content; a provider of media literacy training and documentary resources to Brooklyn residents; and an arts education group active in public schools across the borough.

The soul vocalist Nick Hakim also first interacted with BRIC through its documentary work, when the filmmaker Terence Nance made a short film about him for a BRIC series, “Brooklyn Is Masquerading as the World.”

This year Hakim and Roy Nathanson, a saxophonist and poet two generations his senior, released a short and enchanted album of tunes they’d written together in Nathanson’s South Brooklyn home. I first saw them play some of these songs live in Nathanson’s driveway, during a little public concert he’d thrown for the neighborhood in May, around his 70th birthday, but Friday night marked the first time the songs had been presented in concert with a full band.

The playing was as loose and unforced as it is on the album, and both audience and band seemed aware of the music’s value.

Sasha Berliner, a rising young vibraphonist also based in Brooklyn, appeared on the gallery stage — located in the building’s amphitheater-style foyer — with a vigorous, groove-oriented new band. Parrying with the keyboardist Julius Rodriguez, who was on Rhodes, Berliner sounded fully in command, showing meaningful growth from the last time she’d played BRIC JazzFest, two years earlier.

Stas Thee Boss performed an update on a ’90s indie hip-hop sound. Credit…Nate Palmer for The New York Times

The gallery stage was burdened with tough acoustics and unforgivingly bright lighting (it’s in a glorified lobby, after all), but it boasted a constant, varied flow of acts that offered a sense of what a working musician’s life sounds like in Brooklyn these days, across a variety of scenes.

Stas Thee Boss, an M.C. who moved to Brooklyn from the West Coast a few years ago, brought her group’s throbbing update on a ’90s indie hip-hop sound. The guitarist Yasser Tejeda led a quartet that was one-half percussion, blending rhythmic traditions from his home country, the Dominican Republic, that are rarely put together. Adam O’Farrill, a trumpeter who has lived in the borough almost his entire life, opened the festival on Thursday with a set of twisty new music from a forthcoming album with his quartet, Stranger Days.

This year, operating on fewer cylinders because of the pandemic, BRIC JazzFest didn’t include a full week of workshops, film screenings and other free community programming, as it typically would. But with a smaller focus and a slightly more intimate feel, it actually widened the lens to show what’s already happening far outside its doors.

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