This remarkable weekend began on Friday night (November 7) at the New York Historical Society on Central Park West, with a free one-hour concert featuring bassist-singer-composer Jay Leonhart, amidst what the MC introduced, somewhat oddly, as “rising stars” Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocals, Ted Rosenthal, piano, and Alvin Atkinson, drums. The program mixed several Richard Rodgers classics, “Shall We Dance,” “The Surrey With the Fringe On Top,” Bernstein’s “Cool,” with two Leonhart originals and a closing romp through “Lester Leaps In.” Rosenthal sparkled; Atkinson swung.
But the high point of the evening was an exploration of what Leonhart called “a jazz prayer,” “Body and Soul.” That 1930 song can be a problem for musicians, as it has been played so nobly by so many: Coleman Hawkins, Louis, Bird in his first flights, Duke and Blanton, Ben Webster, Lester Young, Lucky Thompson, Sonny Rollins, Billie Holiday, the Benny Goodman Trio, etc. This performance began with Leonhart’s arco solo and then reached heights with Wycliffe’s plunger-muted, stately exploration of the theme. Wycliffe knows full well how to honor a melody rather than simply leaping into variations on chord changes). Waggling his plunger in and out, he mixed growls and moans, naughty comedy and deep sighs, as if Tricky Sam Nanton or Vic Dickenson was playing a hymn. The solo ended all too soon.
Not only was the concert free, but the museum was open to all, so the Beloved and I wandered through lovely landscape paintings. Future Fridays at the NYHS (all beginning at 6:30 PM) will feature The Western Wind (a contemporary classical vocal sextet) on November 14, on the 21, guitarists from the Manhattan School of Music (teachers and proteges); Cheryl B. Engelhardt and Oscar Rodriguez (guitar) on December 5, jazz again on December 12, with Jeb Patton, David Wong, and Tootie Heath, and ending with Latin music on the 19th from the Samuel Torres Group.
We rested on Saturday to prepare ourselves for the exuberances to come.
Sunday afternoon found us at Sweet Rhythm on Seventh Avenue South for the third gathering of Jon-Erik Kellso and Friends: this time bassist Kelly Friesen, drummer Andrew Swann, pianist Rossano Sportiello, and reedman Peter Reardon-Anderson, doubling tenor and clarinet. Hyperbole is a dangerous thing, but I came away from these two sets thinking that I had heard the most exciting jazz in years.
I so admire Jon-Erik’s ability to shape an ad hoc ensemble into a cohesive one, and he did it through the two sets, creating jazz that was of this time and place, looking back to New Orleans and collective improvisation, forward to contemporary “Mainstream” solos. If I kept thinking of Keynote Records 1943-46, perhaps that’s because those jubilant performances kept being evoked on the stand at Sweet Rhythm. Rossano strode and glided, sometimes in a Basie mood (appropriately) on “Doggin’ Around” and “Topsy”; Kelly took the glories of Milt Hinton (powerful rhythm, a huge tone, beautiful arco work on “All Too Soon”) and made them his own, and Andrew Swann, slyly grinning, added Sidney Catlett and Cliff Leeman to his swinging progenitors. Anderson, twenty-one years old, is someone we can greet at the beginning of a brilliant career (to quote Emerson on Whitman): Zoot Sims and Ed Hall stand in back of his graceful, energetic playing. Basie got honored, but so did Bing and Louis in “I Surrender, Dear,” and Kellso reminded us that not only is he playing marvelously but he is a first-rate composer: his line on “Linger Awhile” was a memorable hide-and-seek creation. We cheered this band, and with good reason.
And the room was full of Jazz Friends who didn’t get up on the bandstand: Bill and Sonya Dunham, Jim and Grace Balantic, Nina Favara, Lawri Moore, Marianne Mangan and Robert Levin. A righteous congregation!
And the five portraits you see here — from the top, Jon-Erik, Rossano, Kelly, Andrew, and Peter — come from this gig, courtesy of Lorna Sass, jazz photographer.
Perhaps I am a jazz glutton, but those two sets weren’t enough: I walked downtown to the Ear Inn to soak up one more set by the EarRegulars: Jon-Erik, Chris Flory on guitar, Greg Cohen on bass, and Michael Blake on tenor, someone entirely new to me. (He and Jon-Erik go ‘way back, although they hadn’t played together in years.) Blake is exceedingly amiable, so we found ourselves chatting at the bar — about small towns near Victoria (Souk for one) and Pee Wee Russell, about the odd and gratifying ways people come to jazz, about Lucky Thompson and jazz clarinet. Then it was time for the EarRegulars to hit, and they surely did — from a “Blue Skies” that became “In Walked Bud,” to Blake’s feature on (what else?) “Body and Soul.” Here, backed by the wonderfully sensitive duo of Chris and Greg, he broke the theme into fragments, speculating on their possibilities, becoming harmonically bolder with a tone that ranged from purring to rasping (some echoes of Lacy), exploring the range of his instrument in a delicate, earnest, probing way. It was a masterful performance, and I am particularly delighted to encounter such brave creativity from a player I didn’t know before.
Of course, the near-collisions of beauty and contemporary weirdness never fail to amaze. I was sitting at the bar at the Ear, welcomed there by Victor, who knows more jazz than most critics. At the bar, to my left, three and sometimes four people were facing away from the band, hunched over their Black Berry or Black Berries, their iPhones, what have you. Electronically glowing tiny screens, blue and white, shone throughout the club. I too am a techno-addict — but why go to a bar to check your BlackBerry and ignore the live art being created not five feet away? To treat Kellso, Blake, Flory, and Cohen as background music seems oblivious or rude.
Monday there was work — but that is always a finite obligation, even when it looms inescapably — but soon I was back in Manhattan, drawn inexorably with the Beloved to Banjo Jim’s (Avenue C and Ninth Street) to hear two groups in one night. Banjo Jim’s seems ideal — small, congenial, a private neighborhood bar full of young people listening to the music, a real blessing.
The first group was full of old friends — Kevin Dorn’s Traditional Jazz Collective. This incarnation included Charlie Caranicas on cornet, Michael Hashim on alto sax, J. Walter Hawkes on trombone and vocal, Jesse Gelber on piano, Kevin on drums. Kevin kicked things off with a romping “I Want To Be Happy,” explicitly summoning up the 1972 New School concert where Gene Krupa, Wild Bill Davison, Kenny Davern, and Dick Wellstood — someone named Eddie Condon in charge — showed what could be done with that simple line. (I was at that concert, too.) J. Walter Hawkes, one of my favorite unsung singers, did his wonderful, yearning “Rose Room.” Barbara Rosene sat in for a thoughtful “Pennies From Heaven,” complete with the fairy-tale verse, and the proceedings closed with a hot “China Boy.”
And then — as if it that hadn’t been enough — the Cangelosi Cards took the stand. They are the stuff of local legend and they deserve every accolade. A loosely-arranged ensemble: Jake Sanders on acoustic guitar, Marcus Milius on harmonica, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Gordon Webster on piano, Karl Meyer on violin, Cassidy Holden on bass. They are all fine players, better than many with larger reputations. I thought I heard a drummer but saw no one at the trap set: later I found out that their singer, Tamar Korn, has a remarkable vocabulary of clicks, hisses, and swishes — she fooled me and she swung. The group has a Django-and-Stephane flavor, but they are not prisoners of that sound, that chugging rhythm, that repertoire. They began with “Douce Ambiance,” moved to Harry Barris’s “It Was So Beautiful,” and then Eddie Durham’s “Topsy.”
Early on in the set, it became clear that this band has a devoted following — not just of listeners, but of dancers, who threw themselves into making the music physically three-dimensional in a limited space. Wonderful inspired on-the-spot choreography added to the occasion, an exultant Happening.
Then Tamar Korn got up to sing — she is so petite that I hadn’t quite seen her, because I was seated at the back of the small square room. But I heard her, and her five songs are still vibrating in my mind as I write this. Without attempting to be mysterious in any way (she is friendly and open) she is someone unusual. Rumor has it that she hails from California, but I secretly believe she is not from our planetary system. When I’ve suggested this to her, she laughs . . . but doesn’t deny it.
Tamar’s singing is focused, experimental, powerful. In her performance of “Avalon,” she began by singing the lyrics clearly, with emotion but not ever “acting,” then shifted into a wordless line, high long held notes in harmony with the horns, as if she were Adelaide Hall or a soprano saxophone, then did two choruses of the most evocative scat-singing I’ve ever heard (it went beyond Leo Watson into pure sound) and then came back to the lyrics.
Her voice is small but not narrow, her range impressive. What I find most exhilirating is the freedom of her approach: I hear old-time country music (not, I must add, “country and western,” but real roots music), blues and bluegrass, the parlor soprano essaying light classics, opera, yodeling, swing — and pure sound. She never appears to be singing a song in any formulaic way. Rather, she is a vessel through whom the force of music passes: she is embraced by the emotions, the notes, the words.
And when the Cards invited their friends — that is, Charlie Caranicas, Michael Hashim, and Jesse Gelber — to join them for “Milenberg Joys,” “I’m Confessin’,” and “Avalon,” it was as close to soul-stirring ritual in a New York club as I can remember. The room vibrated; the dancers threw their hands in the air, people stood up to see better, the music expressed intense joy. I don’t know whether Margaret Mead had rhythm in her feet, but she would have recognized what went on at Banjo Jim’s.
I hope to have video, thanks to Flip, to post shortly. Tune in again! (And another weekend is coming soon . . . tempus fugit isn’t so terrifying when there are glories like this to look forward to.)
Only in New York, I am sure.
All photographs by Lorna Sass, copyright 2008.