Tuesday May 21.Smalls was nearly empty when I wandered in at 7.30 on my first night in the city. But people trickled in during the set as owner/pianist Spike Wilner's trio (Jonathan Kreiberg guitar/ Paul Gill bass) play a well- chosen set of standards including an Ellington tune I'd not heard before- Melancholy- and some Strayhorn. Smalls calls itself a cutting edge jazz club but Spike's style is firmly in the modern mainstream- a soothing beginning to the trip. I caught him after the set to collect the Smalls Live cds my customers had pre-ordered; the label is highly recommended- well recorded and packaged sessions from the club by a collection of young Smalls regulars, plus a few from an earlier generation.So there's Harold Mabern, Will Vinson, Dezron Douglous, Ralph Lalama, Ethan Iverson, Jim Rotondi....
I would have stayed for the set by the Smalls Legacy Band- including Frank Lacy from the Mingus Big Band and a young tenor- Stacy Dillard- who really impressed when I heard him at the club last year. But I was defeated by the time difference.
Wednesday May 22. The New York City Jazz Record is not the only free jazz guide you can pick up in clubs or download, but it's the essential one. Well-written articles, lots of reviews and interviews, as well the most comprehensive listing of clubs and concerts.
It was as a result of reading an interview with drummer Mike Pride in the NYCJR that I decided to hear his band From Bacteria to Boys- pianist/ keyboardist Alexis Marcelo, bassist Peter Bitenc and saxophonist
Jon Irabagon (plus tenor saxophonist Jonathan Moritz on a few numbers). The concert was at the Greenwich House Music School on Barrow St.
The stars of the show were Irabagon & Bitenc, the former showing great lyrical power on alto which contrasted nicely with Moritz' highly-charged athletic performance. Bitenc grounded the music beautifully with big calm notes. Marcelo played a decorative role, adding little but colour to the music. And the leader?- the article described his background in rock, followed by study with Milford Graves. His playing that night, on an extended kit- 2 snares- had sadly more of the former than the latter. In short too loud.
They played through the music from their new cd- complicated unmemorable themes with Pride moving restlessly around his kit but rarely allowing the music to relax and breathe. Great to see Irabagon live though.
That NYCJR article was by one of my favourite jazz writers- Clifford Allen- so I was pleased to meet Clifford the next day to deliver some choice vinyl, including one album which had already crossed the Atlantic twice before I smuggled it in this time; I'd previously addressed in error it to Clifford's previous address. My grateful thanks to the USPS and Royal Mail for getting the records back to me safely- Globe Unity indeed!
Thursday May 23. Mulgrew Miller suffered a serious stroke today, his second. He's in intensive care. Charlie Haden wrote: Sending love and healing light to the wonderful pianist Mulgrew Miller
who suffered a stroke yesterday. We see a complete recovery.
I've no idea what 'From Bacteria to Boys' signifies- a crude definition of evolution?- but the meaning of Open Loose is clear, and beautifully apt. This is a band, musicians relaxed and confident in each others' company, empathetic almost to the point of telepathy. Bassist Mark Helias, drummer Tom Rainey and tenor Tony Malaby played 90 minutes of enthralling improvisation at Cornelia St Cafe. The movement from theme to improvisation was seamless and everybody played the song; the collective nature of the music made it almost seem disloyal to clap solos.
Half a century after Ornette Coleman opened up a new world of improvisation. Open Loose prove this world still allows for beautiful discoveries and wonderfully satisfying experiences.
Friday May 24. Back to Smalls for some hard bop from trombonist Steve Davis's sextet. First I caught a set by tenorist Tad Shull (Ray Gallon piano, Paul Gill bass, Joe Strasser drums). It was a hard-swinging set of unhackneyed standards- Dearly Beloved, Time After Time- showing off well Shull's gruff tone and eclectic approach- there were echoes of Rollins and Lockjaw Davis, and just occasionally a Coleman Hawkins-like arpeggio
Apart from Coltrane's Village Blues the Steve Davis set comprised mostly Davis originals, good vehicles to blow on, though apart from the occasional background riff they made little use of the possibilities offered by the instrumentation. Trumpeter Josh Bruneau was in generic Lee Morgan mode, altoist Mike DiRubbo had some Jackie McLean grit to his tone and the rhythm team of Nat Reeves and Billy Williams drove the music effectively. The leader, playing open throughout, had the attack if not the speed of JJ Johnson, but the meat in the sandwich came from pianist Larry Willis, whose chording was a delight (I was sitting right by his left elbow) and whose soloing was rich and percussive.
I was tempted to stay for the 1am set when I heard that Harold Mabern was in bassist John Webber's band. Another time perhaps.
Saturday May 25. A constant fear for us jazz club promoters is that we'll organise a gig and no audience will show; it's never happened to us in Leicester though we've come close on the odd occasion. No-one at ShapeShifter Lab seemed worried that only a dozen people turned up at this new Brooklyn poat-industrial space to hear ex-Sonny Rollins pianist Mark Soskin with Jerome Harris on acoustic bass guitar and Satoshi Takeishi on an oddly stripped-down drum kit. It was a warmly romantic, rhythmically-charged set from a player used to stoking up the heat for his ex-boss.
Then we sat around while the Jeff Galindo- Marc Phaneuf Quartet set up, with a guest on piano whose name I did not catch. The sound engineer wandered around adjusting microphone levels with the aid of his tablet for what seemed an age- in a room where all that was necessary was a little boost to the piano- and the lighting man practised various colour washes on the back wall.
By now the Soskin audience had largely gone home, leaving me and what seemed like friends and family of the band. Trombonist Galindo had obviously studied at the Roswell Rudd School of Advanced Poetics- he treated us to some effective rasps and smears on a couple of originals including one dedicated to Steve Lacy. Saxophonist Phaneuf was more boppish- his original composition was a bop line on Body & Soul, disguised sufficiently for it to take a few choruses before the Lego bricks came together in my brain.
Two interesting sets rendered a little uncomfortable by the size of the crowd- the musicians deserved better. ShapeShifter has an ambitious programme, but they could perhaps spend more time on marketing - an interesting gig this coming Monday does not appear in any of the jazz listings- and less on p a.
Sunday May 26 After a three park stroll in the expectation of some al fresco music- Tompkins Square (where I at last located the site of the General Slocum memorial, under an archway in the centre of a municipal building, flanked by that NYC rarity- public toilets.) My main reason to visit was to stand reverentially outside Charlie Parker's house on Avenue B.
Then Smalls again for an afternoon session by bassist Ben Meigners, drummer Jason Brown, and, playing a few dates in the US before returning to the UK for his 50th birthday- Gilad Atzmon on alto. I wondered how Gilad would relate to an American audience- would he denounce the Israeli occupation, US warmongering and presidents present & past, and maybe play Burning Bush? In fact he was on his best behaviour (apart from a short foray into his decidedly odd take on sexual politics) and joked they would play an old jewish folk song: Oy Vey You Look Tonight. Gilad wasn't at his best- trying too hard to impress perhaps with superfast bebop phrasing, even on Body & Soul. He did impress of course, but I was hoping for more relaxation. He'd played with the same trio the previous night at Fat Cat, and whispered to me: The drummer's fantastic, before beginning the set. And indeed he was, a texturally complex player who complemented Gilad's lines well, especially when the bass laid out.
A quick stroll up 7th Ave South got me in line at the Village Vanguard for the first set of the last day of Barry Harris's week at the club. I was a little apprehensive when I saw how stiffly the octogenarian walked across the stage to the piano, and when he began a slow a cappella Sweet Lorraine I began to wonder if I'd have to make allowances for his age. Not one bit! He moved into a mid-tempo Sweet & Lovely with Ray Drummond and Leroy Williams beautifully responsive in support. The theme of the evening became clear when he told us the first tunes were a tribute to the Vanguard's owner ,'even though she can be cranky sometimes'. Then the set followed the story of a love affair: There Will Never Ever Be Another You, Just One of Those Things (with Williams playing the melody during his solo), I'll Keep Loving You & Yesterdays. This last segued into Night in Tunisia. Would he make the break?- of course he did. Then an original called something like 'You've Got the Power' which he sang with some help from audience members from (I suspect) his vocal classes. He finished with a Monk medley- Round Midnight, Pannonica, Ruby My Dear, Light Blue, before leaving us in Barbados with Charlie Parker. A consummate performance, full of delights, from the last of the great bebop pianists.
Tuesday May 28 It seems I'm stuck in the Smalls, Vanguard, Cornelia St triangle. It's Smalls tonight for some more reassuring standards from Spike Wilner, with Paul Gill once more and Spike's regular guitarist Pasquale Grasso- a player with a Joe Pass-like boppish sensibility and a technique to match. But the main event was Seamus Blake's quintet- a two-tenor front line with Chris Cheek, Aaron Goldberg piano, Matt Clohesy bass, Bill Stewart drums. The lineup makes you think of tough tenors, and there was real toughness in Blake's forthright gruff soloing on originals and unusual standards- they finished on Brian Wilson's Till I Die.
Cheek's lighter tenor sound made an effective contrast, though I got the impression that this kind of aggressive hard bop was not his natural mode of expression - I was proved right the next night. Aaron Goldberg often took a phrase and toyed with it like Mal Waldron used to, and Bill Stewart- wow! He drove the band with relentless energy.
Wednesday May 29 Second bass-led band, second two tenor quintet. Utterly original music. Chris Lightcap's Big Mouth-
Chris Cheek, tenor sax;
Tony Malaby, tenor sax;
Craig Taborn, piano;
Ches Smith, drums at Cornelia Street.
We all wanted a second set, but after an hour Lightcap announced- That's it- we're here for 2 sets tomorrow. No good to me- I'll be in Philadelphia- and I'll be missing Dave Liebman at the weekend.
Thursday May 30 Mulgrew Miller died today.
The chance to look through a collection of 25000 lps was too good to miss, even though I knew that the high-end items would be destined for Ebay. So to Philly on Megabus and an exhausting but exhilarating weekend looking through as many of the 300+ plus boxes I could manage in 2 8-hour days. I managed around a third, plus those my host David pulled out and waved at me- How about these- 15 bucks? David is selling the collection on behalf of the estate of an old friend and it is by far the best assemblage of jazz vinyl I have ever seen (aside from David's own!) Prices reflect this- at least 5 items have fetched USD1000 each or more on Ebay so far with one which finally fetched $2800. But there are hundreds of mid-price items, and anyone wishing to see the list should contact me.
Sunday June 2 back in NYC, and what better way to end the trip than a night at the Vanguard with Joe Lovano's Nonet- Tim Hagans, Barry Ries (trumpets), Larry Farrell (trombone), Steve Slagle (alto, soprano, flute), Ralph Lalama (tenor, clarinet), George Garzone (tenor), Garry Smulyan (baritone), James Weidman (piano), Cameron Brown (bass), Steve Williams (drums). That's ten not counting Lovano, and even with the stage extended the leader had to stand on the floor- great for me, sat on what's called the 'balcony'- a narrow strip of tables and chairs slightly elevated on the right side of the room. I was just above Joe's left elbow looking down on his sheet music. Joe calls the band Streams of Expression, adding Exploring ways of playing together. And so it is; it's not an outside band though it contains some left-field players: Garzone, Hagans, Brown, some firmly straight ahead: Lalama, Smulyan, Farrell, some kind of in between: Slagle, and the leader himself of course, who can do anything. I've read criticism of Lovano, especially when he had the nerve to release a double cd, one inside, one outside. Was he hedging his bets, not firmly committed to one music or the other? Frankly I don't give a damn; he sounds as honest playing bebop as he does playing free.
The first set was bracketed by two Tadd Dameron numbers- On a Misty Night and Hot House. Joe had obviously made changes to the arrangement of Night: 'I'm playing a chorus and a half before the theme- just follow Ralph.' 'I'd follow Ralph to the end of the earth' joked Cameron Brown. With beautifully rich saxophone writing it was a thrilling start; Lovano features his own playing extensively but gives plenty of room to the rest of band- the first number lasts 25 minutes: Barry Ries- Chet-Baker-thin, ponytailed, anxious about his top plate playing an occasional Don Cherry phrase in a basically hard bop style, Tim Hagans like a slightly eccentric favourite uncle- wavy hair, pink-rimmed glasses, blazer with handkerchief in the top pocket, deeper into abstraction without ever losing touch with the changes, Gary Smulyan looking uncannily like Pepper Adams' portrait on the cover of his Mode lp, and with a style not too far away. George Garzone and Ralph Lalama, two thick set tenors, the latter firmly rooted in hard bop, the former ranging further out. Slagle- hard-toned but lyrical alto, rich flute- and a great rhythm section- Steve Williams knew just when to stoke it up like a big band drummer and when to let a cymbal beat and spare snare accents do the work. Cameron Brown- who I'd last seen in a very different context, as duo partner to Sheila Jordan, showed what a versatile and imaginative player he is- his lines were always interesting and his solos superb. And James Weidman- a new name to me- was a calm and grounding voice on piano.
The set lasted 90 minutes- this is band that likes to play- and the club was packed- so I was just getting ready to leave when the announcement came: 'You can stay for the second set for just the one drink minimum. If you are staying sit down, if you are going get out.' I sat down.
Joe Lovano does great announcements: Thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou. Phew! Village Vanguard, New York City, Streams of Expression.
The second set included the first two parts of the Streams of Expression suite- Streams and Cool (which was anything but). And a stunning arrangement of Coltrane's After the Rain- good to be reminded what a great melody that is.
The music was never theme-solos-theme- this band really was exploring ways of playing together. Great background figures behind soloists (why do audiences applaud when that happens?- can't they hear the guy's still blowing?), linking scored passages, long sequences of eights and fours along the front line, and with the drums, collective improvisations- this band explored them all.
Midnight, three hours of amazing music, I can go home happy. But for now-time to eat.