Who knew that one version of Paradise could be found in Williamsburg, Brooklyn?
It’s the Radegast Hall and Biergarten, at 113 Third Street — at the corner of Berry Street — take the L to Bedford Street.
In December 2010, I’d gone into new territory to hear the Grand Street Stompers, a delightfully compact jazz ensemble led by Gordon Au, and I had a fine time. The people I’d met had been lovely, the music surprising and reassuring in equal measure, the beer — a lemon-colored, fizzy Gaffel Kolsch — delicious.
But it was even better last Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011.
I had learned that the GSS would be playing that night. But the days before had been particularly snowy. It wasn’t the Blizzard of 2011 by any means, but it was messy and slushy. Stubbornly, I had decided that I had to be there.
Snow boots, knapsack with video equipment, gloves, cash, a street map . . . I patted my pockets to assure myself I had everything a bold jazz explorer needs!
I arrived at Radegast more than an hour early, and went into the long rectangular room next to the bar to eat something. After being gently directed by a pleasant waitress to the grill in the back of the room, I stood in rapt contemplation (like Joe Rushton) of the sausages and burgers-in-training sizzling on the grill.
“Sizzling” is a dreadful cliche of menu-speak, I know, but in this case it was true. I had a gracious mind-expanding discussion with the grill-Sage about choices, and I ended up with an awe-inspiring meal for less than ten dollars: smoked kielbasa, a mound of warm sauerkraut, some grill-toasted peasant bread, large self-serve helpings of Radegast’s own mustard.
I was already in culinary Paradise with this wonderful unassuming hearty unfussy food. I ate it slowly and savored every last molecule. The temptation to return to the grill and say, “Do that again . . . with this sausage,” was strong but but I resisted.
Now, I hear some of you saying, “Michael, this narrative of your dinner has some appeal, but when did JAZZ LIVES become DINNERTIME?”
I found out later from the friendly manager, Chris, that the owner tailors the music on the sound system to the band playing there that night. So while I contemplated my meal with true reverence, I was even more uplifted by the music.
For me, to walk into a place and hear music I love on the sound system is a great, rare gift. For it to be Sidney Bechet and Jonah Jones (Blue Note, circa 1954) was wonderful. For it to be Bobby Hackett and the Andrews Sisters performing BEI MIR BIS DU SCHOEN (1937), even better. For the iPod shuffle to come up with I HOPE GABRIEL LIKES MY MUSIC by Mr. Strong . . . ! Bliss.
Then, I went to the bar and ordered my Gaffel Kolsch (I am a one-drink person while videorecording) and it was just as good as I’d remembered.
Then the musicians — people I admire and like — began to come in. I had lovely conversations with Gordon (trumpet, arranger, composer); Tamar Korn (vocals and astral travel); Dennis Lichtman (clarinet and wit); Emily Asher (trombonist in charge of blossoming); Nick Russo (banjo, guitar, and true hipness); Rob Adkins (bass, and serious joy). And — for the cinematically-minded — when I had first been at Radegast the room had been so atmospherically dark that I could just about discern the faces of the musicians. Better light this time, much appreciated!
The Grand Street Stompers settled themselves on their wooden chairs and Gordon kicked off the first number (he doesn’t announce them although he is happy to talk about what the band played after the set, if you ask). I didn’t recognize it from the verse. Then the band swung into the chorus and I nearly fell off the barstool in delight: I’ve only heard two bands perform SHE’S A GREAT GRET GIRL: Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks in 2010 and the original, Roger Wolfe Kahn in 1927 — a record featuring Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang and a very hungover but startlingly original young man from Vernon, Texas, Jack Teagarden. It’s a great great song for easy jamming:
I have watched that clip a dozen times and it improves under scrutiny: the GSS rocks, and you might enjoy watching the body language of a group of very happy improvisers — they rock and grin, too!
What could follow that? (I thought, “Well, if nothing else happens tonight — which I seriously doubt — I’ve had my Jazz Moment for the month!”) But equally fine music was in store . . . a dirty, gutty, downhome version of AUNT HAGAR’S BLUES that made me think of Louis in the Columbia studios, proceeding seriously through W.C. Handy’s sermon on the healing powers of hot music, that low-down stuff, rendered as sensitive dance music to hold your Beloved close. I wouldn’t change a sixteenth-note, from the thoughtful deep conversation among the horns to Rob’s bowing to the lovely head-arrangement passages. Their mixture of care and ardor is something to admire:
Many musicians who are brilliant irreplaceable improvisers aren’t equally compelling composers — which is understandable, for they create their compositions every night on the second chorus of BLUE LOU. Gordon Au is an exception: his compositions sound like songs rather than improvisations on someone else’s ideas. And, as Dennis Lichtman pointed out, Gordon’s songs sound like his improvised playing — the same nice balance between rise-and-fall lines full of repeated notes and a cheerful reverence for the melody itself. Here’s his ESCALLONIA RAG, which reminds me once again of an imagined piece for the Sixties Louis Armstrong All-Stars:
Gordon’s university training is in science, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that he named this original after a lovely Hawaiian flower: http://www.hear.org/starr/images/species/?q=escallonia+rubra+var+macrantha&o=plants
Then it was time for Tamar to sing, always an Event in my book. It takes courage to open your performance (in a room full of chat) with a ballad, and then to begin that ballad with two rubato choruses. But this is what the intrepid, searching Miss Korn did with MEMORIES OF YOU. Her voice, as always, makes me think of great acting that isn’t acting, “country music” that isn’t the Grand Old Opry . . . you get the idea. And the musicians follow, adding their own commentaries on this song, both sad and hopeful, coming together for hymnlike cadences while Rob is, cello-like, bowing away to great effect in the darkness, before Tamar returns to sing, so deeply, and with such feeling for the lyrics:
MEMORIES OF YOU was (and is) so intense that I didn’t know what could follow it — certainly not something in the same wistful mood. I don’t know who suggested SWEET SUE, but it was a fine choice — the delights of love realized rather than a song of yearning and remembering. Not too fast, and pretty. And the band! Emily Asher is blossoming as a player: while we are sleeping, she’s spreading her wings! And in case you wonder where the drum-cymbal-tambourine propulsion comes from, it is just another of the many faces of Tamar. I love the dialogue between the two “trumpets,” as well. This band doesn’t only share our dreams; it creates them:
Since I’ve heard so many formulaic performances of WON’T YOU COME HOME, BILL BAILEY? I tend to approach the song cautiously. Of course Louis and Danny Kaye did it hilariously in the film THE FIVE PENNIES and, more recently, the most eminent Joe Wilder played it at a concert — having announced it, deadpan, as THE RETURN OF WILLIAM BAILEY. This version is a delight — from the opening and closing vocal interludes (Tamar’s soprano scatting is what the angels would sound like, if 1. I believed in them, and 2. they swung) and the rocking momentum. If Bill stayed away after hearing this imploring in jazz-time, there would be no hope for him:
As before, I said to myself, “What could follow that?” and Gordon, who is a wise leader, changed the mood with his own PAVONIS (named for the species or genus of the peacock) which reminds me of Carmichael and Strayhorn at the same time — moody, shifting, surprising, and lovely:
And the set ended with a little rough-and-ready jam session on the wonderful LOVE NEST (which will remind some of you of Burns and Allen, some of a 1944 Commodore record session that brought together Max Kaminsky, Rod Cless, and James P. Johnson). Here the Grand Street Stompers were joined by the very engaging Lucy Weinman (of the Big Tent Jazz Band) who knows what it is to swing out. Cool stockings and great ensemble lines, no?
A wonderful experience, as you can tell. And it happens at least once a month! (There’s a natural segue to be made from this post to the PayPal button below, but I’ll let my readers get there on their own.)
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