Sunday, 2 December 2007

New York Notes

I was in NYC at the beginning of November for the record fair run annually by the listener-supported radio station WFMU. It's a big affair with hundreds of dealers, and I kid myself each year that if I buy wisely enough it will pay for the trip. And the present state of the dollar means that if I can buy for a dollar and sell for a pound, I'm happy. I'm even happier when I get to hear some good music.

It was not an outstanding year at the fair, but I picked up some good stuff, including labels like Muse and Xanadu which don't seem to be highly regarded in the US (perhaps they are too familiar) but are well-liked in Europe and Japan, probably because they were not distributed widely outside the US. They don't go for high prices, but they sell. (They also contain some great late-bop- Barry Harris, Charles McPherson, some off the most engaged Sonny Stitts.)

Muse also issued a few free jazz albums - freebop really, which is a term I know I overuse, but it describes well the range of music I love the most, with melodic freedom and a loose but steady jazz beat. A favourite Muse issue is drummer Barry Altschul's 'You Can't Name Your own Tune'(Muse MR5124) with a great band- Sam Rivers, Muhal, George Lewis (blessedly electronics-free), Dave Holland. Intense, driving music, full of surprises.

I'd planned to hear Houston Person at the Rose Centre, but when I saw that Barry was playing at one of my favourite NYC venues, the Cornelia St Cafe, I changed plans. (The night before they had featured a band playing Krysztof Komeda's music- I found out too late.) Barry's band comprised Paul Smoker (trumpet), the unknown-to-me Hayes Greenfield, alto, George Schuller, bass. Two sets of originals, and you won't be surprised to learn that they inhabited Ornette's sound-world. It was a knockout. The revelation of the night for me was the bass-playing of George Schuller, who I guess I must have heard before without really hearing - he played big fat Haden-esque notes, with no sliding or scampering- perfect.

Other highlights of the trip included: white-whiskered Ted Curson perched on a stool like a black Buddah and blowing with great fire with a young band at the Wholefoods Market on Houston & meeting the 75-year-old Yusef Lateef at the same venue, playing flute and reciting devotional poetry at the launch of his (ghosted and sadly dull) autobiography. I'd assumed that the former William Evans had adopted an Islamic name for the political reasons that inspired many hard bop and free jazz musicians; I learned from the autobiography that he had converted in 1948 and was a member of the Ahmadiyya community, which- presumably- has no problem with Lateef playing wind instruments, which are haram to many Muslims. He is certainly devout enough to have refused (gracefully, standing to make a bow) to shake the hand of a woman who bought a copy of his book.

I also went for the first time to Smoke, a club on Broadway at the southern edge of Harlem, to hear drummer Bill Stewart's quartet with David Kikoski on piano, Dwayne Burno on bass, and Seamus Blake on tenor. It was the first set of their second night at the club, and the room was full- I had to perch at the bar. The 1st half of the set was played without the bassist, who was held up in traffic. Stewart had brought a set of originals with him, but until Burno arrived, they jammed on the blues and rhythm changes. Playing such familiar material allowed Kikoski to fill in the missing bass part with a walking left hand, and they stormed through the changes with real fire.

Strangely, the same thing had happened at a gig in Nottingham shortly before I left for NYC. Pianist Kirk Lightsey, who visits the UK frequently, doesn't particularly like playing standards, and does like to play with English bassist Steve Watts and drummer Dave Wickens. (And who wouldn't?) Steve had to pull out at very short notice, and rather than substitute a bassist who didn't know Lightsey's music, they decided to manage without, adding a saxophonist who had recorded with Lightsey recently. It was close to being a disaster.

They kept to the set they had prepared, and Dave Wickens had obviously chosen to patter around on the drum kit rather than drive the band- a reasonable decision. Unfortunately the saxophonist was woefully unprepared, and the burden of holding the whole thing together fell to the pianist. Kirk is a formidable and hardworking player- you may have heard him with Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon or the cooperative band The Leaders (with Arthur Blythe)- and someone whose sheer pleasure in playing communicates itself well to the audience. By the end of the first set he was dripping with sweat from the effort, but there was a bass-shaped hole in the music.

Which made me admire David Kikoski even more.

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