Monday 28 May 2012

NYC notes May 2012

I spent a week in New York City earlier this month; here's my diary.

Tuesday May 8: I'm staying in an apartment on W 13th between 7th & Greenwich, booked, despite my earlier NYC apartment debacle, through Craigslist. I've become adept in spotting the crooks (who still seem to comprise 80% + of the vacation rental advertisers.) Sara and I had circled each other warily before each decided the other was harmless but I was still a little anxious until I had collected the keys,  climbed the 3 flights of narrow stairs and let myself in to a beautifully- decorated (buddhist chic) studio.

Spike Wilner (pianist and owner of Smalls) was playing a 6pm solo set but all I wanted to do was sleep- but not before strolling down 7th Ave South to Bleecker for what's become an arriving-in-NYC ritual- a pizza and a pint of Sierra Nevada at John's (recently acclaimed the best restaurant in the West Village by the Village Voice.) The small pie's too big for one jet-lagged traveler (no slices at John's) so 2 slices go in a bag for lunch tomorrow.

Wednesday May 9 which your diarist learns an important lesson. I'd of course scanned Hot House and other what's on guides to help plan the musical side of the trip. One gig stood out-  a concert of solos & duos by Craig Taborn, Amina Claudine Myers & Vijay Iyer to be held at the Harlem Stage on 135th St & Convent Avenue that night, part of the Celebrating Cecil Taylor festival - I already knew I would miss the great man himself - he was to play 2 gigs after I left the USA.  I'd looked on line weeks before and noted that there was a $5 booking fee for a $10 ticket. I railed at the injustice of the charge and decided to visit the venue and save the 5 dollars. And of course it was sold out. And of course I'd have happily paid for a $15 ticket!

And inevitably I paid  far more than $15 dollars that night for 2 gigs in the Village.

The first was Jerome Sabbagh's quartet at Cornelia Street Cafe- a cd launch. I'd not heard Jerome before but knew he was an associate of the wonderfully left-field guitarist Ben Monder so I was expecting good things. Big disappointment; the quartet- Sabbagh tenor, Pete Rende, keyboards,  Simon Jermyn, electric bass;  Rudy Royston, drums - played the themes without enthusiasm- lots of bass ostinatos with some electronic twidding for contrast , and the leader's simple phrasing left me wanting a bit of  passion & complexity to spice up what was a dull set.

I decided one was all I needed  so I strolled up 7th Avenue to Smalls to hear the Brandon Wright Quartet- Brandon Wright - tenor, Boris Kozlov - bass, Helen Sung - piano, Donald Edwards - drums. I confess the leader was a name new to me, but I had heard Helen Sung and Boris Kozlov in the Mingus Big Band at Jazz Standard on my last visit and had been impressed by their forceful playing;  Helen is an a resonsive and provocative accompanist and an exciting soloist whose occasional Cecil-like clusters are immensely refreshing. And Kozlov- well, he plays bass in a band under the watchful eye of Sue Mingus! Dynamic drumming too, and the leader, who Fred Wesley called 'a young white cat who sounds like an old black man'- meant as a compliment I'm sure since Brandon displays it on his home page- provided all the drive and inventiveness I'd so missed from JS. Two sets of hard-swinging post-Coltrane jazz.

Thursday May 10 The day was spent touring the Manhattan record stores with my friend David- a voracious collector from Philly-  plus a brief visit to Brooklyn. In the era of Ebay and popsike it's near impossible to find treasure-trove bargains in record stores but between the NY Jazz Record Center (where I was introduced to Fred Cohen for the first time), the 3 branches of Academy Records and a few small shops in the East Village I bought around 50 albums. They will be on the new arrivals list I'm sending tomorrow- contact me if you'd like to see my lists.

Back to Cornelia Street that night to hear Allison Miller's quartet- another album release gig, but this time it was a double vinyl album- Live at Willisau. The band's called Boom Tic Boom, which is nice onomatopoeia for her restless and occasionally explosive drumming style; she's another name new to me- it was the presence of the great reeds player Marty Ehrlich which brought me to the gig. He was superb- especially on alto, playing just on the edge of abstraction with a blazing tone.

Friday May 11  A couple of weeks before my trip our club Leicester Jazz House had put on a gig by the New York Standards Quartet with tour organiser, animateur, mover & shaker Michael Janisch replacing the regular bassist. I already knew how good he is, but I was blown away by David Berkman (piano), Tim Armacost (ten/sop) and Gene Jackson (drums) none of whom I'd heard live before. Talking to Tim after the gig I mentioned I'd be in NYC and he recommended I went to a gig at Zinc by Emilio Solla y La Inestable de Brooklyn. 'Great tunes, and I'm in the band.' I'd already planned to hear Billy Harper at Smoke- 102 streets uptown-  but I reckoned I could just fit it in. I'm glad I did. I'm no great fan of Latin jazz (there's often too little angst for my taste) but Emilio's tunes and arrangements were superb. 'It's as if Gil Evans had been born in Argentina and studied with Kurt Weill' was my immediate assessment. Tim was the stand-out soloist but the whole band- John Ellis, tenor, flute and bass clarinet,Tim Armacost, tenor, soprano and alto flute, Alex Norris, trumpet, Ryan Keberle, trombone,Meg Okura, violin,Victor Prieto, accordion, Emilio Solla, piano,Jorge Roeder, double bass, Eric Doob, drums played brilliantly, and the voicings and instrumental combinations were superb. The band has a residency at Zinc once a month but have not recorded yet.

Then a quick dash for the 2 train to get me to Smoke for what I was sure would be a highlight of the week- Billy Harper's Quintet. It was not to be. Though Harper played beautifully with that characteristic 'cry' in his tone, the band- Francesca Tanksley - piano, Freddie Hendrix - trumpet, Clarence Seay - bass ,Aaron Scott - drums were efficient but unmemorable. And at the end of each number Harper asked the audience if we had any questions- one time adding ' I feel there's another question coming' after answering the one about the handsome leather tabard he was wearing. I held back from asking the query on the tip of my tongue- English reserve I guess. I couldn't help comparing his set to the unexpectedly excellent music I'd heard earlier, and a watery and overpriced Jambalaya added to my disappointment (though the food at Smoke is generally very good.) At the end of the one-hour set we weren't invited to stay for the next.

Saturday May 12 As soon as I heard that Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown were playing Cornelia St Cafe (yes again) I emailed begging them to reserve me a seat- they normally only accept reservations by phone but I asked them nicely.

I've asserted in the past that Sheila is the greatest living jazz singer; nothing about her two sets that night made me alter that opinion. The National Endowment for the Arts seem to agree- they just gave her a Jazz Masters Award. She was born, as anyone who's heard 'Sheila's Blues' will surely know, on November 18th 1928- Micky Mouse's birthday- and in her long black coat and black hat she looked every bit the old lady she undoubtedly is. The coat came off, the hat stayed on, and when she realised no-one was coming to announce her remarked 'I love the Village, it's so laid back' then launched into two wonderful life-affirming hours of jazz standards, show tunes- a great Fred Astaire medley, some Oscar Brown songs and a lovely version of Don Cherry's 'Art Deco.' She's a bopper at heart but was a friend of Don's. Never possessed of a big voice (indeed she made a record called 'Little Voice!) she now occasionally struggles for a high note; what makes her so great is her musical imagination, improvising ability and emotional profundity. And her humanity.

Cameron Brown is her perfect bass partner; she's worked and recorded in the past with Arild Andersen and Harvie S(wartz), but Cameron's note choices, phrasing and attentiveness were jideal. There's a great interview with him in the May issue of the NY Jazz Record where he talks about his work with Archie Shepp, Don Cherry (and Sheila of course).

I was delighted she remembered the gig with Harvie in Leicester when she sang without PA (it was buzzy) and now have her London Jazz Festival concert (with Kurt Elling) to look forward to. See you there- I'm the guy in the front row with the big grin.

Sunday May 13 I was flying home on Monday so I was determined to fit in as much as possible.
I'd not been to Cafe Loup before, but as it's just along W 13th from the apartment I decided to try their jazz brunch with Bob Kindred (tenor), John Hart (guitar) and Santi Debriano (depping for Steve La Spina) (bass). I asked for a table near the music, but they were very busy so I was a little way from the alcove half way down the long room where the trio played . Still,  just one table between me and the band. 

Then it hit me- it was Mother's Day- and the intervening table held 3 generations of a  family who were out to honour grandmother, and catch up. More people kept joining the party, and it became clear that they were not going to order (let alone eat) until all had arrived. (I hoped that eating might provide an alternative to conversation.)  The group included a woman whose voice could make mobile phones redundant and a man who sat looking slightly bemused for 30 minutes, then found his wind and joined in the melee. I was particularly impressed by his glasses, which came apart at the bridge, just like the ME's on CSI New York. Wasn't him though.

The fact that I've yet to mention the music might give you the impression that I wasn't concentrating...well I was trying but it was not easy to focus when there's that kind of  'background'. The tenor man had a nice tone out of Webster and Hawkins, the guitarist was in the Christian/ Kessel tradition- fine by me- and there were some nice bowed bass solos. If I'd been in a group with mother it would have been fine, but for a solitary music lover it was a struggle, and as my neighbours hadn't ordered by the end of the 1st set I finished my excellent Eggs Benedict and left, walking down to Washington Square Park where a young man had wheeled out a grand piano (almost in tune) and was playing Romantic favourites by ear. I'll certainly go back, but I'd book early the table opposite the band.

I'd been looking forward to that evening's gig at the Vanguard with great anticipation; I'd heard Geri Allen's trio on a previous visit to NYC- it was a Jazzmobile presentation in the open air at Grant's Tomb, and she had Maurice Chestnut (tapdancer) as guest. It was the first night of our trip, but her brilliance had cut through my tiredness.The chance to hear her at the Vanguard was not to be missed- I was slightly worried to read that once more there would be guests, because I'd have been content to hear the trio alone (remembering the great DIW 1990 album with Charlie Haden  & Paul Motian recorded at the Vanguard.) Robert Hurst on bass and Karriem Riggins (drums) were much more straight ahead than Haden & Motian but were dynamic parners to the pianist's rhythmically complex style and intense melodic inventiveness. Bruce Williams on alto was the first guest, with a rubbery Dolphy-like tone- excellent. Lizz Wright sang a couple of songs in each set- she claimed to be not a jazz singer, rather a folk singer who knew a few jazz songs. She's tall, physically very striking with a beautiful rich chocolatey voice, but she's right- Her 'Prelude to a Kiss' was rather stiff though she sang two gospel-inflected songs effectively, with Geri Allen's simple but effective backing- 'Grandma's Hands' impressed even though Lizz forgot the words. 

It was the last night of Geri's 6 night engagement; maybe that was why (though the first set was packed) most people disppeared during the interval. So we were invited to stay on (for just the 1 drink minimum). To a half-empty house they played a fantastic set, finishing with an obscure Charlie Parker blues- 'Another Hair-do' - Bird recorded it on Savoy in 1947, three breakdowns then the master take. Listen to the Complete Savoys and the head will drill itself into your memory. I didn't think anyone had recorded it since, but Tom Lord informs me that there are versions by Hampton Hawes, Art Pepper, Jackie McLean and Pete Yellin (on an obscure record with Sheila Jordan guesting on one track.)

Back to Geri; after the piano and alto solos a tall tenor player strode onto the stage and unleashed a blistering solo, then strode off again scarcely acknowledging the applause. Geri clearly wasn't expecting a sitter-in; when she back-announced the band she looked to the audience for assistance and someone yelled 'Azar!' 'Wow...Azar Lawrence' ....and wow was right- a magical ending to a stunning performance.

And a very satisfying week of music.

I'm organising a jazz tour of NYC in October so part of the reason for this post is to give some idea of the range of music to be heard in the city one random week. Contact me for details of the tour.