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.

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On Saturday, just about three and a half months past the bebop founder’s 90th birthday, an impressive cross-section of New York’s jazz world gathered to celebrate Thelonious Monk. Watching a jazz band on a ballroom stage is never quite as affecting as seeing the glow of your tabletop candle reflect off the curve of a saxophone just feet away, but the sheer quality and passion of the evening was enough to hold my attention. The bill of artists, some of whom had played with Herbie Hancock and Max Roach or earned titles at the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition, all appeared equally eager to impress. Carolyn Leonhart’s vocals in How I Wish were soulful enough to send a tingle into one’s stomach, and trumpet players Ambrose Akinmusire and Jean Caze showed off segments of impressive unison. In one of the evening’s most spirited moments, drummer T.S. Monk lent a pop edge to his beats with a confidence reminiscent of his father.

Host Bill Cosby likened the moment when he first heard Monk’s music to other historical ‘where were you’-dates. “Get the piano, I’m going into showbusiness,” he recalled saying to his mother–right after he had finished laughing at one of Monk’s merciless solos. While the memory contained a conscious self-awareness of Cosby’s status as a pop culture icon, it also provided a welcome reminder of Monk’s larger-scale cultural influence. Music aficionados like to prevent that it isn’t true, but his name and legacy still aren’t universally recognized among non-jazz listeners.

One depressing example: I’m yet to find a newspaper review of Saturday’s show.

 

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.

Links:

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.

Links:

http://www.thestonenyc.com

http://www.stevenbernstein.net

http://www.mariopavone.com

http://www.benallison.com

http://www.dtmgallery.com

 

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.

Here’s a reason for the city’s diehard jazz fans to be lining around the block: Every night this week until Sunday, legendary pianist Martial Solal is showing off his improvisatory skills at the Village Vanguard. Jazz enthusiasts appreciate his takes on the classics, while film aficionados should remember him as the man behind the soundtrack to Godard’s A Bout De Souffle (1960).

Today’s New York Times included a review that praised Solal’s confident improvisation:

“One of the world’s most imposing jazz musicians — being 80 has not dimmed his agility or his imagination — he interpreted each passing moment of the songs as a provocation: spinning out a quick cycle of chords from just one, or interrupting the shape of a melody to add on a whole new structure, invented at breathtaking speed.”

According to the Times, Solal’s concerts represent only the second time that the Vanguard has hosted a week of solo sets by one performer.

During a recent interview, freelance trombonist Nathan Mayland invited me to check out one of his trombone octet’s weekly rehearsals. The two-hour sessions, he told me, give him and his friends a chance to chat about future gigs and improvise to their heart’s content outside of the city’s noise-regulated apartments. Not to mention, a trombone-dominated group warrant playing around with songs that showcase their instrument of choice.

This week I sat in on the rehearsal, held in a worn performance space at the Musicians’ Union building on 48th Street. The group of seven trombones and one tuba sat in a semicircle in front of a modest stage that now appeared to primarily serve a storage function. Rows of chairs in front of the group, perhaps left from a prior performance or class, gave the rehearsal a performance-like quality and seemed to invite passersby to drop in. The selection of music was mostly classical (the likes of Brahms, Bach and Rachmaninoff made appearances), but most of these musicians routinely play around with genres from jazz to Broadway.

Even the unfamiliar pieces rang beautifully, of course, but as a non-musician I was most impressed by the fact that this rehearsal (despite the term) wasn’t held in preparation for a concert. This group schedules regular meeting times for the sheer love of playing.

Considering that we were situated only a few steps away from chronically hectic midtown, it felt surprisingly therapeutic to know the existence of these jam sessions. Because the building security is reasonably lax–I walked right in without formal ID exchange or paperwork–I recommend music lovers to pop their head inside the first floor space in case another mini-concert like this one is taking place.

When it comes to boundary-pushing musicianship, it’s difficult to think of an artist more free-spirited and experimental than jazz/hip-hop flutist Yael Acher. That a classically trained player is attempting to blend these two genres is enough to awaken one’s curiosity, but after seeing her perform at Big Apple Jazz last week, I can easily see her appealing to both a poetry club crowd and a Blue Note regular. Because both genres heavily rely on the concept of improvisation, jazz and hip-hop are a surprisingly natural pair in Acher’s hands. In the end, her artistic approach is surprisingly in par with the philosophies of classic jazz.

“I didn’t really realize it, it just came slowly,” Acher said when I asked how she arrived in this particular musical hybrid. “It’s nice, it’s unusual. I think it’s a good combination.”

“Jazz comes from Rhythm and blues which is connected to R&B, and R&B is connected to jazz. It’s all connected really,” she continued.

Acher was born and raised in Israel, and received her bachelor’s degree in classical flute from the Jerusalem Academy for Music & Dance. In 1992 she moved to Copenhagen, and remained in the Danish capital for ten years before joining the New York City jazz scene. While living in Europe, she was already performing her flute compositions with DJs. New York’s musical scene, she said, could be characterized by the curiosity and openness of its musicians; it’s the kind of environment where her work can attract potential collaborators.

On Saturday night, Acher performed with a bassist, a drummer and a spoken word poet, Rashad Dobbins. In a characteristically jazzy manner, she played around with simple melodies on her flute and improvised with sounds, breathing and scales in long, freely flowing segments. At times Dobbins’s words provided accompaniment to Acher’s flute, while in other pieces she stepped back to let his words serve as the main melody.

Although Acher’s artistry is certainly modern, she said that she hopes to incorporate more jazz standards into her performances.

“I like it when you hear the personality coming out. Jazz standards are beautiful things, and it’s interesting to hear other artists doing their interpretation of a standard,” she said.