Tag Archives: Roth’s Westside Steakhouse

SOMETHING TORCHY

The Beloved and I made our way uptown on a very cold Friday night (January 29, 2010) to Roth’s Westside Steakhouse to hear the chamber jazz duet of trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso and pianist Ehud Asherie, both well known to readers of this blog.  Perhaps everyone there had read in the papers that the economy had grown, because the air was loudly festive, although no one’s birthday was being celebrated. 

Our waiter, a dramatic fellow with a dramatic upsweep of hair (“Pomade,” he told the Beloved) went around being cheerful.  One memorable exchange was: “Having a good time?” he inquired of a table of diners.  “Yeah, fine,” one of them said.  “Well, keep having a good time!” he countered.  David Mamet has nothing to fear.

In the midst of this, Jon-Erik and Ehud went about their work: medium-tempo James P. Johnson, a little Fats Waller, some Edgar Sampson. 

The enthusiastic woman to our left (who occasionally applauded in the middle of a four-bar exchange) leaned forward in the middle of the set and asked the duo, “Can you play something torchy?” a request that caused some discussion and thought.  Jon-Erik and Ehud settled on this Frank Signorelli-Matty Malneck composition, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME (originally called LITTLE BUTTERCUP when it was an instrumental).  That song, not incidentally, was first associated with Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti; later, Billie Holiday and Lester Young.

I am sure that the management at Ruth’s has informed the busboys (they look grown-up to me) that an uncleared table will be dealt with severely, so the staff makes frequent — if not incessant — visits to diners, taking a bread plate away here, a knife there.  Perhaps it’s an unspoken law in the restaurant trade that a table almost devoid of utensils makes diners go home or makes them order dessert and coffee and then go home.  I don’t know.  But in the middle of this seriously lovely performance, a gentleman came to remove some plates and assorted debris and lingered in front of my camera long enough for it to lose its grip on reality.  Hence a brief out-of-focus interlude, but the microphone continued to work.

These capers aside, I’LL NEVER BE THE SAME is a wonderful, serious lesson in deep-down melodic playing and subtle, touching embellishment — much more difficult than ripping off harmonically-adventurous scalar lines over shifting polyrhythms.  And this kind of playing is second nature to Jon-Erik and Ehud.

VISITING NOBILITY

New Yorkers are lucky for many reasons — but here’s something new to celebrate.

Trumpeter Duke Heitger is paying us a visit! 

Duke Heitger

Duke will be playing this coming Sunday (June 7) at the Ear Inn with Matt Munisteri, Jon-Erik Kellso, and the EarRegulars, Tuesday (June 9) at Roth’s Westside Steakhouse in duet with pianist Ehud Asherie, and twice on Wednesday (June 10) — once in a gala at Birdland with David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band (guest pianist Dick Hyman will be there, too!) and a late-evening / early-morning gig with multi-talented John Gill.  I don’t know where the latter gig is taking place, but one could ask the very amiable Mr. Heitger in person. 

If he’s new to you, just check out his most recent CD — DOIN’ THE VOOM VOOM — a duet with Bernd Lhotzky on Arbors Records, or my recent post of a YouTube clip, “IS THERE ANYONE FINER?”  He’s someone truly special.  I first saw Duke play at the 2004 Jazz at Chautauqua (have you bought your tickets for this year?) and his passionate swing knocked me out, as they used to say.  And he comes through whole on recordings — but there’s nothing like seeing Duke in person and watching him give his whole heart to the music.  Don’t miss him!

NEW YORK, JAZZ PLAYGROUND

“There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This is one of them.” That was the introductory voice-over I remember from the fabled television show depicting New York City’s urban grittiness. I don’t know how many stories there are as I write this in July 2008, but here is my story — one man’s nearly obsessive quest to soak up all the choice live jazz possible before leaving New York for a long pastoral summer vacation. The score at the moment is (approximately) four Kellsos, two Asheries, two Aldens, one Hendricks, and so on. Tally up the totals at your own peril.

On Sunday, June 29, I took my position at THE EAR INN (326 Spring Street), knowing that the Earregulars would swing out in inimitable fashion, and a quartet of Jon-Erik Kellso, Dan Block, Howard Alden, and Frank Tate devoted themselves to some surprising music: a rousing “Ring Dem Bells,” “When I Take My Sugar To Tea,” then, joined by the brilliant alto / flute player Andy Farber, who leads his own seventeen-piece band at Birdland on Sundays, they stretched out on “Russian Lullaby” and “Sometimes I’m Happy,” before ending with a jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose,” made even more brilliant by violinist Craig Eastman, Frank Tate’s talented cousin.

The music was stirring, the camaraderie was happy: I got to meet and talk with the owners of an upscale Australian chocolate company (www.chocolategrove.com), Will and Dianne Muddyman, in town to show off their products at the Jacob Javits Center. They are a lovely couple, funny and well-informed: we were trading names of Australian jazz heroes in spirited fashion.

On Tuesday, July 1, I made my way to ROTH’S WESTSIDE STEAKHOUSE (630 Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) to hear the weekly duet — in this case, pianist Ehud Asherie and Howard Alden. Listening to their inspired teamwork, I thought often of the 1941 “Waiting for Benny” warmup session captured by Columbia’s engineers that brought together Charlie Christian and Johnny Guarneri, Alden’s single-string lines perfectly complementing Asherie’s stride and walking tenths. Their repertoire was magically wide-ranging, moving without strain from Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” and “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby” to Monk’s “Ruby My Dear,” Morton’s “Shreveport Stomp” and “King Porter Stomp” with all their strains properly attended to, as well as a Fred Astaire cluster of “Change Partners” and “I Won’t Dance.” Barbara Rosene (high-class local talent) sat in and sang a pretty, yearning “I’m Confessin’,” and the duo offered a delightful Brazilian contrapuntal song, “Lamentos,” which was new to me (Ehud said it was a choros, although whether I am using the term correctly I have no idea).

Here, too, the pleasure was personal as well as gustatory (he steaks are excellent at Roth’s): I met the genial owner Marc Roth, a committed-to-the-point-of-piety jazz fan who donates his time and energies to the Jazz Foundation of America. It was a real pleasure to meet a club owner who sees good music as integral to his business.

Two days later, I visited Ehud and Jon-Erik again, this time for a Thursday duet session at SMALLS (183 Tenth Street at Seventh Avenue South) with the compact room filled more than usual, which pleased me greatly. As I climbed downstairs, they were floating through a truly slow “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.” The tempo made that song (often turned into a quick-step) into a wistful love ballad. But their next tune, a “Whispering” that kept turning into “Groovin’ High,” was just as rewarding, and I noted that these two players have been more intuitively connected each time I’ve heard them — two like-minded improvisers turning into a team reminiscent of Hackett and McKenna, Braff and Hyman. It was a most rewarding hour.

Oh — and the personal angle? When I walked in, I heard a pleased voice (in an accent that wasn’t Queens) say my name, and I turned around to see a beaming Will and Dianne at the bar. We had an even more lively chat afterwards — with hopes for a more leisurely encounter in the future.

We didn’t hear any live jazz on July 4 — but since Louis thought that day was his birthday, it has the status of a sacred day.

On Saturday, July 5, the Beloved and I went to the JAZZ STANDARD (116 East 27th Street) to catch the early show of what was billed as “Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross Redux,” featuring one of the elders of the tribe, Jon Hendricks — now eighty-six, dapper and bouncing in a yellow blazer — his daughter Aria, and the anchor of the trio, Kevin Burke Fitzgerald. At eighty-six, Hendricks manages vocal calisthenics with the skill and wit of a man one-third his age. He led the trio rather than keeping up with it. Aria has a lovely, supple vocal instrument and a dynamic stage presence; Fitzgerald not only sang his parts wonderfully but stopped the show twice, hilariously impersonating a muted brass player, then an arco bass soloist — magical impersonations, theatrical as well as musical. He’s a true star and he deserves to be widely known.

Sunday, July 6, was a Kellso-and-friends doubleheader. I found my way to a new spot in the Broadway restaurant district, the sympathetically-named BOURBON STREET (346 West 46th Street), where the band was scheduled for their first brunch appearance (12-4). All the omens and portents were good: the restaurant is a huge space, two floors with high ceilings, marble floors, and a wrought-iron balcony. This isn’t simple decoration: the band was positioned on the second floor, playing without amplification, and their sound was brilliantly resonant, the room “live” the way such places used to be. The quartet was an uptown version of Kellso’s gifted crew, with Dan Block on clarinet and tenor, John Gill on banjo, guitar, and vocals, and Kelly Friesen on bass. And I got to sit with Doug Pomeroy, renowned audio engineer and deep-dyed jazz listener, so that we could trade inside stories.

Musically, it was one of those extra-special occasions where the jazz was quiet but rose to new heights on every song, from a hymnlike “Old Fashioned Love,” to a floating “I Can’t Believe That You’re In Love With Me,” and intense explorations of “Wabash Blues” and “Apex Blues.” Jon-Erik and Dan are profound soloists and deeply attuned team players, filling gaps, finishing each other’s sentences. Kelly Friesen nimbly managed to bring together the great slap-bass he learned from Milt Hinton and witty bebop references. John Gill provided his own recogniable pulse, wonderful chord voicings — and his own Bing Crosby-inspired versions of “When You’re Smiling,” “an uptempo “Pretty Baby,” “Sweethearts on Parade,” and — for a socko finish, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” The Irish connection? One of the owners, Brian Connell, hails from Blanchardstown, a Dublin suburb, and we traded local lore. I hope that the place prospers as a site for live jazz: the acoustics are wonderful, the food delicious, the staff cheerful.

After a brief interval devoted to non-jazz realities, I drove downtown to The Ear Inn for a hail-and-farewell* Sunday night with The Earregulars — Jon-Erik, trombone marvel Harvey Tibbs, bassist Pat O’Leary, and guitarist Chris Flory — joined for the second set by Dan Block, on his third gig of the day. If the mood at Bourbon Street had been distinctly New Orleanian, this band had its heart firmly set in late-swing-early-bop (think 1946 Savoy, Keynote). Perhaps without any hidden egocentrism, they chose songs for the second set that had their first word in common: “I Never Knew,” “I Want A Little Girl,” “I Would Do Most Anything For You,” a heartfelt “I Only Have Eyes For You,” featruing Dan, Chris, and Pat, and “I Want To Be Happy.” A closing “C Jam Blues” broke the pattern but was a delicious slow-rocking exploration. I got to chat with Jackie Kellso and the young trombonist Emily Asher (known for her work with the ensemble “Mighty Aphrodite,” which lives up to its billing) — another pleasure.

I don’t know if I could keep up this pace on a regular basis — occasionally my eyes threatened to close of their own accord, and I did go outside and stand on the street between sets to gulp some air — but my jazz marathon was richly rewarding.

Never fear, though, loyal readers: I will be posting on this blog wherever I go.

*I was doing the farewelling: happily for New Yorkers, that band will continue even when I’m not there.  Reassuring, that.

LANCELOT TAKES MANHATTAN

Last Monday, the French stride wizard Olivier Lancelot flew in from Paris for ten days of tri-state jazz immersion — a duet gig at Smalls with Dan Levinson, and appearances at the Hot Steamed Jazz Festival in Essex, Connecticut, with serendipitious sitting-in here and there. 

Photograph by Lorna Sass.  Coptright 2008.

When Olivier sat down at the keyboard at Roth’s Westside Steakhouse (680 Columbus Avenue at 93rd Street) only five hours after his plane had landed, he looked serene and cheerful.  And he approached his four-hour gig with enthusiasm, playing nearly fifty songs in the course of the night, drawing on a huge repertoire.  His musical standrads are high: thus, no “Feelings,” no “The Way We Were,” no “New York, New York.”  Rather, he explored “Body and Soul,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “That Old Feeling,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Darn That Dream,” “Blue Moon,” all at a gentle jog reminiscent of middle-period Teddy Wilson.  True to his reputation, he gave out with a few stride showpieces, most memorably “Handful of Keys” and a blazing “Song of the Vagabonds.”  A very pretty “La Vie En Rose” reminded us of Piaf and Louis at once, a neat accomplishment. 

But the unfamiliar material was even more intriguing: a song neither I nor the Beloved could place turned out to be “Somethin’ Stupid,” a Sixties AM radio hit for Frank and daughter Nancy Sinatra.  Late in the evening, driven by some private whimsy, Olivier went into “I Wanna Be Loved By You,” once the tradmark song of Helen Kane, reprised by Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT.  Following that line of thought, he leapt into a jaunty “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” a song James P. Johnson would have loved — although who, besides Olivier, ever thought of it as worthy material?  “Do-Re-Mi,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein, became a Donald Lambert fantasy.  

Lancelot’s understanding of the music goes beyond his admirable facility at the keyboard.    Many players who identify themselves as stride (or Stride) piano specialists narrow the style as a double handful of composed pieces: here’s “Carolina Shout,” here’s “Russian Fantasy,” here’s “Keep Your Temper.”  Dick Wellstood, ever questing, extended this approach by playing Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and “Rubber Duckie” (from SESAME STREET) as they would have been done uptown circa 1934.  Olivier has the technique and stamina to play ten or twelve choruses of violently athletic stride without strain, even though he pantomimed exhaustion (a giant wiping-of-the-forehead gesture) after his extravaganzas.  But he didn’t restrict himself to such fireworks: as he told me during the evening, playing these pieces too often in a set blurs the effect quickly.  Rather, he played stride patterns, casually and as a matter of course, remembering a time when that was the accepted way to play, at a variety of tempos — whether the song was an easy “Darn That Dream” or even “As Time Goes By,” suggesting Bogart and Bacall at Monroe’s Uptown House.  His rhythm was impeccable, his time steady, his bass lines varied (not just a metronomic oom-pah).  Combined with a light touch, he made it seem as if we had been invited into Fats’s living room to hear him play some tunes — informal and delightful.           

The last word belongs to our waiter Chad, a gracious import from the South.  “You know our regular pianist Ehud?  He sent this guy in for tonight — he’s from Paris.  Oh, this one’s great!” 

Yes, indeed.