FAT CAT (located at 75 Christopher Street in New York City, just off Seventh Avenue South) is, at first glance, an odd place to hear rewarding jazz.
You climb down a steep staircase, meet up with someone who asks for proof of age and three dollars, stamps your hand with a blue-ink drawing of a grinning feline, and you turn a corner . . . into what resembles a Fifties rec room at a huge scale. Past a bar (with an intriguing selection of beers on tap — I had Old Speckled Hen, a UK favorite — and wines) into a large basement filled with chess tables, billiard tables, ping pong tables, foosball tables, shuffleboard, and more. In fact, one of Fat Cat’s two sites asserts proudly that it is “NYC’s best-equipped gaming center” and “best pool hall.”
It’s far from dreary and ominous — perhaps a youthful Minnesota Fats and Eddie Felson might be doing battle here — on my most recent trip to Fat Cat, two young couples were playing pool with more enthusiasm than skill. There is a good deal of late-adolescent shouting when someone makes a great shot or a disastrous move, but it’s all cheerful. (One night, behind me was a chili-cookoff, or so it seemed, with aluminum tins of chili for a birthday party, a cake, and a long version of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU.) And I understand that it is jammed at 1:30 AM.
Here’s the “gaming site” for the skeptical:
What the youngbloods at their Scrabble boards might not know is that Fat Cat is a secret jazz hangout as well. How do the names Frank Wess, Ned Goold, Terry Waldo, Grant Stewart, Ehud Asherie, Corin Stiggall, Alex Hoffman — and more — sound to you?
The other Fat Cat website has all the musical information you need:
On Tuesday, July 5, a quartet gathered (there are soft couches — the sort of furniture it is difficult to leap up from) in a smaller quadrant not far from the bar. The corner was dark in portions, gleefully lit in primary colors near the back. A large sign announcing FEATRING _______________ and HIS ORCHESTRA (approximately, with the leader’s name never filled in) hangs over the proceedings.
But even given the shouts of joy or disdain from the players (not at all critical comments on the music), the quartet accomplished great things and brought wonderful lilting sounds to Fat Cat.
On tenor and soprano saxophone, the whimsical monument, the Swing Explorer, Joel Press . . . . making his own way, often sideways, in the great singing saxophone tradition bounded on one end by Eddie Miller and on the other by Steve Lacy. Although Joel says it’s impossible for him, given his origins, I hear a deep Southwestern moan and lope in his playing. He bounces when he plays, and you would hear the bounce with your eyes closed. His sound is tender yet burry: I thought of a favorite rough blanket, cozy but assertive, as he glides from one idea to the next. Lester Young peeks in approvingly over Joel’s shoulder, although Joel is much more than a purveyor of Prez-isms.
Pianist Michael Kanan never does the expected, yet when his notes and pauses have settled in, they seem exactly right — with the epigrammatic power and amusement of a Nat Cole, a Jimmy Rowles — although he, too, covers the entire spectrum from Willie the Lion Smith to Ray Bryant and Red Garland. Michael makes wonderful sound-clusters come out of the piano: rippling trills and tremolos, single-note stabs, chords that seem lopsided but fit just right. He and Joel float on a wave of loving respect, and several songs feature a sweetly chatty interlude, where ideas are tossed back and forth in polite yet eager conversation.
I hadn’t met Tal Ronen before, although I’d admired his work on a variety of CDs. And I was delighted by the big warm sound he got — even when tuning his bass. His pulse was absolutely right, although never obtrusive, and his solo lines were worthy of being transcribed. Although some players bridle at being compared with the Great Dead, Tal made me think — many times during the evening — of both George Duvivier and Paul Chambers.
Steve Little and Joel go back a long way — and this session was a reunion of sorts after a thirty-year hiatus. Steve’s gently prodding drums make a band sound better, and his movement around his set (from brushes on the snare to a variety of cymbal strokes) leave us enlivened rather than somnolent. Hear how deeply he pays attention to what’s going on within the band — but never letting his commentaries obscure the other players.
Charlie Parker’s DEWEY SQUARE, a New York landmark as well as a musical statement:
YOU’RE DRIVING ME CRAZY — in the best Kansas City tradition — turned the corner into MOTEN SWING before it finshed. Here’s the first Kanan – Press chat, too:
Joel named his variation on the chords of OUT OF NOWHERE “LAST EXIT” in honor of Warne Marsh, who died onstage while playing his own improvisation on the same changes:
LOVER MAN, for Billie Holiday and Ram Ramirez:
LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE, taken at an easy romantic trot, was a real pleasure:
INDIANA was the occasion for another Press – Kanan conversation:
Joel turned to his soprano sax for Thelonious Monk’s improvisation on LADY BE GOOD chord changes, which Monk called HACKENSACK:
And Joel closed the two sets with an easy Bb blues — the line, written by Sonny Rollins (but reaching back many generations before him) was called RELAXIN’, and it was an apt title:
Beauty and fervor and whimsy in the darkness.