Winter Jazzfest NYC: Michael Leonhart Orchestra

By Andrew Andrews

The 27-member Michael Leonhart Orchestra performs on stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in NYC’s Greenwich Village

Winter Jazzfest NYC 2017 is a two-night marathon of some of the most entertaining jazz artists from New York City and abroad. With over one hundred sets by as many different ensembles, scattered over more than a dozen venues, to say that there’s something for everyone is certainly an understatement: in fact, for jazz aficionados and even casual listeners the hard part isn’t finding a show you’ll like, but choosing one.

So how can we review an entire festival? We can’t, of course, so we’ll try to summarize the full program in just a single set: The Michael Leonhart Orchestra’s performance at (Le) Poisson Rouge in Greenwich Village. This show, because it exemplifies what 2017 NYC Winter Jazzfest is all about: including over two dozen musicians, an unconventional playlist, and a standing-room-only crowd of jazz enthusiasts eager to get their groove on.

We’ll start with the musicians: five on various instruments of percussion, two each playing guitar and bass clarinet, a zillion horns, a sitar—yes, even a sitar—accordion, violin... you can almost get the picture. In fact, the band was so big, we couldn’t even fit everyone in the photo above! But unlike young ladies in the 15th century, music should be heard, not seen, and this ensemble certainly filled the room with sounds that pushed the boundaries of what a jazz performance might be.

That brings us to the playlist, which started with two very familiar numbers from A Charlie Brown Christmas: Skating, by Vince Guaraldi, and the traditional O Tannenbaum. Remember, though, that these tracks are normally performed by a trio; here we had almost ten times as many musicians and an arrangement tweaked to perfectly accommodate the lot of them. So where do we go from here? How about a cover of a hip-hop song by Wu Tang Clan? And from there? Almost another rap song: David McCallum’s The Edge (which most of us know as the featured sample in Dr. Dre’s The Next Episode). And how do you round out a set like that? How about with Spinal Tap’s Big Bottom—seriously (and if you don’t know the song, seek out the original)!

Wrapping up this review, let’s talk about the standing-room-only crowds: a festival is only successful if there’s an audience to enjoy it, and it’s fantastic that the New York City jazz scene is strong enough to draw the masses on a night with below-freezing temperatures and mounds of snow and slush on the streets and sidewalks. But let’s face it: jazz is best enjoyed sitting around a small table, sipping a cocktail in a smoke-filled room—even if that smoke these days is machine-made. If that makes Winter Jazzfest a victim of its own success, then so be it.


Andrew Andrews attended Winter Jazzfest NYC: Michael Leonhart Orchestra at Le Poisson Rouge in Manhattan on Saturday, January 7, 2017 @ 6:00pm to write this review.