Before the Knitting Factory opened in 1987, a lot of music lovers, myself included, were under the general impression that there were essentially two kinds of contemporary jazz: neo-bebop, of the Marsalis brothers variety, and free jazz, which extended out of the 1960s avant-garde. At their most complacent, the bop revivalists were safe and predictable, while the free players, at their most extreme, were screamingly unlistenable.
It was primarily in the '90s that another kind of jazz began to develop, one that was greatly informed by world music, classical, and pop, yet still was essentially jazz. The Knitting Factory was ground zero for this kind of postmodern jazz experimentation; in fact, the club's name referred to how various strains of music could be knitted together. But its glory faded quickly. Not long after the club moved to its expanded quarters on Leonard Street, it began phasing out jazz altogether (too bad — it might have predated Jazz at Lincoln Center's Rose Hall as the music's first multiplex).
In the 21st century, jazz has returned to the Knitting Factory at least once a year, as it did on Saturday night in an annual event mounted by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters entitled "The NYC Winter JazzFest." For the last four years, unconventional jazz groups have gathered back at their spiritual home on Leonard Street to perform a nine-hour marathon in the venue's three spaces. Saturday offered a total of 24 bands playing between 40 and 50 minutes of music each.
The first two bands in the middle space, the Tap Bar, laid out some of the broad parameters of this kind of jazz. The Pan Asian Chamber Jazz Ensemble includes a core group of four female players — cello, flute, piano, with leader-composer Meg Okura on violin — plus two guests on drums and soprano saxophone (the latter being Sam Newsome, who has been heard in many world-music settings). The group delivers exactly what its name promises: a combination of an Asian idea of what jazz is and a Western idea of what Japanese and Chinese music sound like. On Saturday, the group found a common ground in '60s-style modality, occasionally reminiscent of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner's Eastern explorations.
Where the Pan Asians offered truth in advertising, Coin Coin, led by the singer-saxist Matana Roberts, gave us no forewarning. The act is essentially a quartet with trumpet (Jason Palmer, who sounded and even looked like the late Don Cherry), bass (the veteran Hilliard Greene), and drums. The group sounded like my idea of a Southern church band of 70 years ago — ragged, funky, and barely in tune, but with undeniable drive. The use of voices, however, gave Coin Coin a surreal, postmodern quality; a baritone sang random lines from familiar spirituals and Ms. Roberts interjected ranting speeches that juxtaposed lines of Scripture with country-western lyrics, as well as, it seemed, anything else that popped into her head.
In the upstairs Main Space, Travis Sullivan's Bjorkestra was a total surprise: A generation or two after Gil Evans, Buddy Rich, Maynard Ferguson, and others injected rock rhythms and electricity into a big band context, this collective of 18 20-somethings strikes a perfect balance between the two. I couldn't tell you whether I would like them as much if I had ever once listened to the music of the Icelandic pop singer-songwriter Björk (I feel like a bjerk for never having heard her), but even so, it was clear that these guys were doing something right. The native Bjorkers were followed in the Main Space by two trios. The first was led by the piano prodigy Eldar, and the second was Dave Douglas's Magic Circle. Eldar, despite the name, was the youngest performer on this bill, as well as the most mainstream. In this fringe-music setting, he seemed to be playing with more eclecticism than usual. Contrastingly, Magic Circle is one of Mr. Douglas's more "inside" groups. Though it comprises violin (Mark Feldman), bass (Scott Colley), and the trumpeter himself, Mr. Douglas opened with three standards: harmonic variations on "All of Me," a lovely, straight reading of the melody of "Travelin' Light" from the Billie Holiday songbook, and a highly ornamented treatment of the '20s drinking song "Show Me the Way to Go Home."
Meanwhile, two excellent tenor saxophonists, both working with the guitarist Ben Monder, prevailed at the lower-level space, called the Old Office: Donny McCaslin is an excellent technician who uses the whole length of his horn and a wide range of dynamics. In keeping with the international mood of the evening, at one point he played a long passage in which he made his tenor sound like a Celtic flute. Contrastingly, Jerome Sabbagh, a name new to me, was most comfortable in the middle range of his tenor and played in a softer, more lyrical style that seemed like a postmodern extension of Stan Getz (much as Getz himself extended the swing-era legacy of Lester Young). Even when playing in blues and funk grooves or going through elaborate tempo changes, Mr. Sabbagh sounded like a grandson of the original four brothers; along with the Bjorkettes, his is the act I'll most want to check out again.
The JazzFest's world-music mold was reinforced by Magos Herrera, a South American vocalist; I'm not sure what she was doing at a jazz event, other than working with the brilliant African guitarist Lionel Loueke and the Hadouk Trio, who play improvised music on a combination of Western and Middle Eastern instruments. I have no objection if you want to call it jazz.
The Tennessee-born singer-songwriter-guitarist Doug Wamble channels influences of a different sort. His playing and writing are firmly based in the blues, but he works with a boppish rhythm section (piano, bass, drums), and at times he seems like a descendent of both Blood Ulmer and Mose Allison. Mr. Wamble played a vintage steel guitar with a ringing tone almost like a horn, and his most intriguing new composition was a piece called "Home," written in the traditional Tin Pan Alley song form (AABA). I'd have liked to hear him do a few more songs that I knew rather than so many originals, but since his writing is so firmly based in the fundamentals, this point seemed moot.
By 7 p.m. Saturday (the event stretched from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.), the whole facility was completely packed, and there was still a line stretching down the block (music presenters, take note). I had stood up for the whole time I was there, and by 10:30 p.m. there was barely even room to do that. So the final act of the night for me was the excellent, high-energy, free-style tenor saxophonist J.D. Allen and his trio. After exploring all varieties of postmodern jazz, it was fitting to finish the evening with a taste of the old-fashioned avant-garde.