Because of a much-appreciated friendly email nudge from Jim Balantic, the Beloved and I (with Flip tagging along) wended our way down to Banjo Jim’s last Monday night.
Banjo Jim’s sits at the corner of Ninth Street and Avenue C. The area feels much like the mysterious East but it was worth the trip. The club is a small squarish room with tables, stools, and a bar (the latter presided over by the cheerfully expert “Banjo” Lisa). Banjo Jim’s is a neighborhood hangout, and it offers a dazzling variety of groups who play for the tip basket.
The crowd is mostly younger people, which I find encouraging, and even when the chat level gets high, they get reverently quiet when the band begins a ballad or they sense something unusual is happening. (And, when feelings run high, there’s a good deal of fervent jitterbugging and even slow-motion tangoing in front of the band.)
We were there because of the regular Monday night gig of the Cangelosi Cards, that musical cornucopia, and Jim’s news that their splendid singer Tamar Korn had been working on Boswell Sisters-inspired repertoire with two other harmonizing women.
And — this is no small matter — Tamar had graciously agreed to do some of the new trio material in the band’s first set (their gig ordinarily runs from 9 PM to 2:30 AM) so that the nine-to-fivers could hear some of it before their ancient eyelids began to sag. I was especially grateful to her for this kindness, because my clock radio makes itself known four mornings a week at 5:45 AM.
When we arrived, we were met on the sidewalk by Jim and his wife Grace and a beaming Tamar; Tamar and I talked happily until our faces began to grow numb from the cold. We spoke of the Boswell Sisters, and how their vocal arrangements seemed to have the same intense purity of chamber music — to be revered, but also to be improvised on in a personal style. Tamar said that she and her two friends — Mimi Terris and Naomi Uyama — found that they could do instant improvisation in the style they loved on songs the Boswells had never recorded, which suggests that they have moved well beyond imitative groups, and there have been a few. (Copying the Boswell Sisters, incidentally, is not at all easy to do.)
Inside, a young band, calling itself “The Scandinavian Half Breeds,” no fooling, was plunking away. That foursome, offered surrealistic gypsy swing, some Thirties songs, and some lopsided yet earnest singing. The Scandinavians have a CD for sale — a mere five dollars — and they also have a MySpace page with audio samples: www.myspace.com/scandinavianhalfbreeds.
But they were what my people call a forshpeits — an appetizer, an amuse-bouche before the entree.
The Cards were at full strength: in addition to Tamar, they had Marcus Millius on harmonica, Karl Meyer on violin, Dennis Lichtman on clarinet, Jake Sanders on guitar (he set tempos and routines as well), Cassidy Holden on string bass, Matt Musselman on trombone, and Gordon Webster on piano.
Here’s some of what Flip, that tidy little fellow, captured. I have to point out that Banjo Jim’s isn’t a movie set, so that people walk in front of Flip (he’s used to it) and there were couples gyrating in front of the lens. These clips offer atmospheric cinema verite of a particularly unbuttoned sort, but I think it’s in keeping with the spirit of the club and the Cards, who are more like an ecstatic travelling ceremony than a formal orchestra. And that’s high praise.
Here’s a wonderful rocking version of “I Ain’t Got Nobody”:
In the name of accuracy, I have to say it begins in darkness — but soon your eyes make out the nimble fingers of Jake Sanders playing his National steel guitar in the wonderful manner I associate with the West Coast genius Craig Ventresco. Then it starts to rock, and rock hard. This is the kind of music that great improvisers of any kind make when no one is paying attention, when they are blissfully playing for themselves. And the dancers! Tamar couldn’t keep still at the beginning, and the whole room was swaying, although Flip couldn’t take his little monocular self away from the band. (He’s a fan. Now it can be told.)
The Cards decided to slow the tempo down — and Tamar explored a truly lovely ballad, “It’s Like Reaching For the Moon,” which most people know, if at all, through Billie’s version. Examined closely, the song is a rather simple motif, repeated, and the lyrics aren’t exactly Larry Hart. (Charlie Levenson, jazz man-about-town, was sitting next to me, and he kept muttering ecstatically, “I love this song. This is my favorite song!” so perhaps I am being too harsh.) But what lifts it above the ordinary is Tamar’s singing — full of genuine yearning. We believe her, as do the Cards.
After two songs about unfulfilled love, even at different tempos, it was time to explore another dramatic situation, and the Cards turned to Irving Berlin’s satiric Socialism (like “Slummin’ On Park Avenue,” it has a sharp political subtext). Catch the weaving, seductive tempo they choose, and admire Matt’s wicked trombone playing:
Then it was time for what Jim had promised: Tamar, Mimi Terris, and Naomi Uyama got together on the tiny bandstand (this is one of those clubs where nothing delineates the end of the Audience and the beginning of the Stage, which is a truly good thing in this case) for “Moonglow,” which was properly ethereal. These girls have it:
We were glowing! The set ended with another loving consideration of meteorological phenomena, “Stardust,” which Tamar said she “learned from the music,” but clearly she, Naomi, and Mimi are well beyond the notes on the page, into some beautifully mystical realm:
When the Cards’ set was over, it was around 11:30 — time for the aging wage-slaves to find their cars and drive home. But there was more!
As we were getting ready to go, Tamar said there was one more Boswell Sisters piece that she, Mimi, and Naomi had been working on. They planned to perform it much later on but knew we would want to hear it. Would we mind waiting for them? Jim, Grace, and I looked at each other, grinned, wrapped our coats a little tighter, and waited on Avenue C. In a few minutes, the Girl Trio came out (as an unrequested surrogate parent, I checked that their coats were properly buttoned up).
The trio positioned themselves in front of us on Ninth Street, and began a most unearthly beautiful a cappella rendition of the Sisters’ radio theme, “Shout, Sister, Shout.” As you may remember, that’s a moody slow-drag, all about how singing the right way has Satan on the run. (Would that this were the case.) Their voices were pure and low-down at the same time, soulful and intense. I listened, transfixed.
In an odd way, it was as close to being a royal patron of the arts as I will ever be — with Mozart playing his new piece near the dinner table to give the guests a little night music. It was eerie, lovely, and awe-inspiring. . . as if Beauty had slipped her arms around me while I stood out in the cold.
Listening to live jazz is, with luck, a series of special moments when a listener feels that Something Rare is taking place, and it often is. But it’s even rarer for a musician or musicians to create such tender intimacy that the listener feels, “They are playing this song just for me.”
Even though I knew it was an illusion, I felt that way while Lee Wiley sang in her 1972 farewell concert in Carnegie Hall, and I remember a much more personal example. Once, Stu Zimny and I went to hear Roy Eldridge at Jimmy Ryan’s — this would have been the same year. Ryan’s was an inhospitable place for college kids who wanted to make their bottle of Miller High Life (awful beer even at $2.50 a bottle) last for hours. Roy must have been playing another gig, so his place was taken by the veteran Louis Metcalf, who had played with King Oliver and Duke Ellington in the Twenties. He was a far less electrifying player than Roy, but one moment cannot be erased. On a medium-tempo “Rosetta,” Metcalf put his Harmon mute (the stem still attached) in his horn and went from table to table, playing a half-chorus here and there, six inches from our ears. I can no longer remember the shape of his solo or the contours of the melodic paraphrase, but the experience — jazz at the closest possible range — gave me delighted chills then and I can see it now.
This version of “Shout, Sister,Shout,” girlish and earnest, graceful and disembodied — their three voices harmonizing as if in the middle of the darkness — was even more electrifying. As I drove home, shaken and levitated, I thought, “I might have died and never heard this. My God, I am lucky!”
To experience something of the same repertoire — although I can’t promise that you will have a private serenade on the sidewalk — be sure to follow the Cards wherever they go. If you judge musicians by the quality of their formal wear, the Cards seem loose and casual, but the musical experiences they offer you won’t encounter elsewhere. Blazing enlightenment is possible if you’re listening closely.