A gem of a show

February 17, 2008

There are times when writing feels like work, when my lofty aspirations of creating journalism that not just services, but encourages thought, seem exhaustingly far away. Occasionally, however, I’m lucky enough to observe something tangibly fresh and inspiring after one of these moments of doubt. Usually, this something is a creative work–a film, a staged reading, a concert–that reminds me why writing about the arts make me feel like an artist myself. These works need not be groundbreaking, but simply stemming from a passion to create and a drive to make it happen.

Singer-songwriter Dawn Derow’s Feb 12th cabaret show at The Duplex, Shooting My Arrow, was the most recent artistic moment to restore my inspiration.

A graduate of Boston Conservatory, Derow has performed on cruise ships, auditioned around the city, and compiled this assortment of songs to tell her story. Although she mixed in only the occasional original with covers of Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman and others, Derow lent a personalized spin to all of them. Behind her breathy intonation was a trained instrument, lending her performance a kind of relaxed, confident quality. Her lineup of musicians, including bassist Antar Goodwin and hard-working pianist David Kreppel, was impressive as well. Her backup singer, Lara Janine, was so naturally charismatic in her own right that on certain songs it was downright difficult to not focus on her.

Sure, Derow could have opted for less spoken personal history and instead included a few more original songs in her program, but for a cabaret show, this one was refreshing in its lack of pretentiousness. Derow doesn’t currently have other dates lined up on her web site, but I’m already recommending some of my artist friends to check out her next show. I was inspired for her joy and obvious resilience alone.


The MTA subway system–that claustrophobia-inducing web beneath our sidewalks– certainly encapsulates the grimiest, frenziest and the most democratic aspects of New York City living. Students, mothers, homeless snoozers and Morgan Stanley commuters are all crammed into the same steel tubes, often literally arm against arm, Birkenstock against patent leather. It’s also one place in the city where the performing arts, both sloppy and skillful, maintain a place, no matter how many regulations are tossed their way.

Browsing through Google News today, I came across a slice of life-story by Denis Murphy from the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Reading about New York’s notorious and endlessly described rush hour from a visitor’s perspective is always fascinating, because although the observations might be nearly identical from one writer to the next, they are always remarked upon with the same joy of discovery. Murphy notes contrasts between the young and the old, between the rich and the poor, and, like others, notes both the unique coexistence of classes and the oddly thriving artistic spirit.

Murphy writes:

“Does the subway influence the New Yorker character? Does it not only make people cockier, but also more tolerant of human weakness, less tolerant of arrogance; does it somehow put people on the side of the underdog? Do the long, silent hours in the subway drive people to write, paint, play an instrument, draw graffiti, compose?”

I’m not sure if it’s the silence–I only seem to notice the cacophony of noises–but the inspiration is perennial.

(Image from Wikipedia)

Link to my magazine feature

December 7, 2007

I recently wrote a magazine-length feature about the way New York’s musicians are reacting to a fizzling live music scene. I met some charismatic individuals along the way, each of whom offered a particular angle into the situation. These are trying times for jazz, one might say, but at least its players aren’t lacking passion.

Read my story here:


I recently edited the transitions of my Big Apple Jazz video a bit, and posted it on Google Videos using the “Desktop Uploader” that allows you to upload files larger than 100MB. I was expecting the quality to be slightly less grainy than this, given the long upload time and larger file size, but as of now it’s still smudgy.

Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it.


Jazzy Starbucks

November 7, 2007

Every so often, the sounds of jazz hit me in the face in the most unexpected places. Just a couple of days ago, as I was waiting my turn to order a Grande nonfat latte at Starbucks, Ella Fitzgerald’s Don’t Fence Me In sounded blissfully from an in-store sound system. I hadn’t given the coffee chain’s new monitor system much thought yet, but suddenly felt very appreciative that everyone in line was informed which song and artist was serenading them at that given moment. At the counter, I was handed a free download for a Herbie Hancock tune.

Starbucks’s jazz offerings may mostly consist of recycled and overplayed standards, but I appreciate that millions of latte drinkers can now put an album and an artist to each classic.

Yes, there might be a degree of sadness to the fact that classic American sounds now live on as itunes giveaway cards and background music to morning commuters. But I nevertheless appreciate this corporate giant’s efforts to keep names like Hancock part of the everyday dialogue of this country.

Besides, Sign On San Diego recently informed me that the coffee chain has also invested its funds to promote the work of eclectic, lesser-known new artists. Brazilian Ceu, who sings a mixture of reggae, jazz, Brazilian and pop, is one recent name to be brought to mainstream consciousness through Starbucks.

It’s a bold choice, and I’ll gladly have my coffee with that.


Sign on San Diego article


A 9pm-1am slot on a weeknight might be inconvenient for any bar concert, but I was nevertheless disappointed to see such a slim audience at guitarist Jason Rosen’s weekly jam session–especially since it happened in a neighborhood with an otherwise round-the clock schedule. Third avenue between Sullivan and Thompson streets was wide awake with late-night bodega shoppers and college students, but few seemed interested in the prospect of live music. 

Rosen’s energetic set would have been an ideal introduction to the live music culture for any Ipod listener; although it included spur-of the moment solos and other improvised segments, the tunes included sing-along classics like Get up, Stand up and Born to be Wild.  His rotating lineup of musicians included skilled basists, saxophonists and drummers. During their break I chatted, for example, with Japanese  drummer Tomo Kano and Berklee-educated Basist Antar Goodwin. 

Rosen is a self-taught guitarist who grew up in the Westbeth artists’ colony in the 1960s. His mother worked at the Village Vanguard, and throughout his childhood Rosen was surrounded by spontaneous live music. Like many musicians I’ve met during the past two months, he was worried about the withering status of New York’s music culture.

“The Audiences aren’t as interested. Most of the audiences are tourists, who come to New York to see the jazz scene. That’s who supports it, not local New Yorkers,” he said. “People aren’t aware of the visceral experience of live music, they don’t seem to want it as much.”

Rosen supplements his income by booking clubs like the Dinosaur BBQ in Harlem and the Red Lion on Bleecker Street. His idea for the jam session, he said, came from his desire to support a legacy of music education. It was through jam sessions, after all, that Rosen got his own education. 

“Jam sessions are the tradition of music everywhere forever. To get young musicians and experienced musicians together and do some different things,” he said.

In case you walk in the neighborhood on a Tuesday night, stop by the Baggot Inn to see a song or two. The  musicians’ joy is both accessible and unpretentious, and the cause of live music is something worth supporting. Not to mention, there is no cover.


http://www.lasttribenyc.com (Rosen’s frequently touring and performing band)

http://www.baggotinn.com (The Baggot Inn)

http://antargoodwin.com (bassist Antar Goodwin’s web site)

(Image from baggotinn.com)

On Wednesday night I saw trumpet player Steven Bernstein jam with bassist Mario Pavone at the Stone, Alphabet City’s nonprofit avant-garde venue (I mentioned the place last week, but hadn’t yet had a chance to check it out). To refresh your memory, the Stone operates on a volunteer basis, serves no food or drinks, and gives 100% of each night’s profits to the musicians. Cover charge is $10. Wednesday’s attendance was relatively slim–about 20 audience members–but Bernstein said that when he last played the Stone with his band, Sex Mob, the venue filled to its capacity and the musicians split close to $1000 between the four of them.

One of the lucky few who has made his living playing exactly what he wants, Bernstein is known for his work in Sex Mob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra, his collaborations with artists like Rufus Wainwright and musical director’s credits on various film and TV soundtracks. I’m dropping in the Stone again tonight to watch Bernstein play with another acclaimed bassist, Ben Allison.

Be it not for the sounds of jazz that carry out into the sidewalk–the sound of vibrating bass strings carrying the buzzing flight of a trumpet melody–a passerby might not even realize the existence of the Stone. Its corner location (Avenue C and 2nd Street) is unmarked, aside from a tiny printed logo near the door handle. The interior consists of a single room, reminiscent of a small recital space, and the only decorations are a few black curtains against the brick and white walls and a line of black-and white photos. The audience sits on folding chairs.

I tend to enjoy a glass of wine with my jazz, but one can’t help but applaud owner John Zorn’s efforts to support underground acts and bring a sense of experimentation and authenticity back into the scene. In addition to the Stone, Zorn runs the Downtown Music Gallery, one of the few surviving indie record stores.








Indie acts and bar jukeboxes might generate most of the musical sounds echoing out of East Village neighborhood joints, but it’s nice to know that casual jazz concerts live on in even the trendiest areas. Peter Brainin, whom I met during one of his gigs at Big Apple Jazz last month, played a three-hour set last Friday in a seemingly unexpected venue: an Irish bar on 11th Street. The concert was free of charge (in itself refreshing), and set selections varied from Brainin’s own songs to Herbie Hancock tunes. Most of the happy hour crowd sat by the bar, but I preferred the more intimate setting of the back room, where the band played by food-framed mirrors and mismatched sets of wooden tables and chairs.

Brainin, who will be on tour in Ecuador with his band Native Soul until early November, was backed up by Noah Haidu (an excellent and confident pianist), Matt Clohesy (double bass), and Ben Cliness (drums). For more info on Brainin, check out profile.myspace.com/peterbrainin.

 The 11th Street Bar (www.11thstbar.com/) frequently hosts live music and poetry readings. It’s also the gathering spot-of choice for Liverpool Football Club fans.

(Image from 11thstbar.com)

Those who frequently agonize over the closing of Manhattan’s small music clubs may have a reason to take a deep breath. During an interview with Saxophonist Michael Blake today, I learned of an East Village venue called the Stone that’s entirely devoted to nurturing avant-garde music. And I mean entirely; the venue is not-for-profit, and serves no drinks or merchandise. “Only music,” its web site advertises. Children are welcome (in fact, they get in for free), and the cover charge is a meager $10.

Fans of optimistic, experimental jazz should pay a visit to the space tomorrow night at 8pm. Mr. Blake, a busy working artist whose band projects include Slow Poke and Blake Tartare, is all about blending jazz with genres like folk to create new, catchy melodies. He also actively collaborates with musicians like bassist Ben Allison. And, unlike many others, Blake is optimistic about jazz.

“I think that music is in a really good place because we are all supporting it. If there are enough artists, musicians, students, fans and club owners who like the music, there will always be opportunity for it to continue to develop. And it is developing, because there are just so many new artists,”he said.

I’ve mentioned Big Apple Jazz on Harlem’s 7th Avenue (between 131st and 132nd Sts) a couple of times on this blog. Its mission is to attract jazz fans to a neighborhood that is, by many, considered the birth place of this art form.

Below is a link to my short doc on the place: