A jazz tour of New York City

Before I left for my trip to New York, I was telling a coworker about all the jazz I was going to see. He asked me if there was a jazz festival going on, and I told him, “No, I’ve just found shows to go to pretty much every night of the week.”

“Alright!” he said, “Guess you’re going to Josh Fest!”

So here’s my recap of Josh Fest, in no particular order:

Birdland

birdland

Birdland is a really old club, having originally opened in 1949. The current location opened in 1986. The club features a really wide layout, with dinner tables surrounding a large, but short stage. The place feels wide, similar to how Jazz Alley is laid out, but is not as darkly lit, making it feel a little more family friendly.

At $30 for the cover, it was a little on the higher end of Seattle jazz prices, but I was allowed to stay for a second set without paying another cover. There was an additional food/drink minimum of $10 for staying, though.

The Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was great. They were an 18-piece big band, comprised of older experienced musicians, as well as younger players just breaking into the New York scene. Arturo has great stage presence and an enjoyable patter without being overbearing, yet still keeping the audience informed about what everybody was playing. They played a mix of original tunes and old Latin jazz classics such as Night in Tunisia and charts from Machito’s band. Throughout both sets, nearly everybody got to play a solo, which was refreshing to see, especially in a band this large. They were tight, musicianship was good, and solos were enjoyable: straight-up classic Latin jazz. They had a big sound, without being overpoweringly painful.

The highlight of the night for me was when they played Havana Blues, a Chico O’Farrill composition that I played at the UW Afro-Latin Jazz band. In between sets, the musicians got up and milled around, having conversations with people at the bar. I loved how everyone was so friendly and happy to hang out, as opposed to how Jazz Alley musicians usually run and hide in the back room to stay away from the plebian masses.

Blue Note

IMG_1468Down in Greenwich Village is Blue Note, started in 1981. This was the most “posh” of all the jazz clubs that I went to. The club has a similar layout to Birdland, with a wide horizontal space wrapped around a slightly taller stage. The bar is tucked off at far stage left, though, and visibility isn’t great. The whole place is dimly lit, giving it a very classy feel, albeit a little arrogant. The cover charge for when I went was comparable to Birdland, with a similar policy about staying for the second set.

Donald Harrison (sax), Ron Carter (bass) and Billy Cobham (drums) played the night I went. I’d heard Billy Cobham play a fusion set at Jazz Alley before and was excited to see him play again. I was also intrigued to hear a jazz trio without a piano or guitar comping behind the soloist. All three musicians are old masters, and they certainly played that way. It was all straight-ahead, they were very comfortable with each other, and reacted to each others’ ideas quickly. The music was a little heady, in a cool, intellectually detached kind of way, but it was good. Donald played complex bop lines, backed by a steady, no frills walking bass that played on the edges of harmony. It was fun to see Billy Cobham play straight-ahead too.

Village Vanguard

IMG_1492Village Vanguard one of the oldest I visited, opened in 1935 in Greenwich Village. It’s about a 5 minute walk from the Blue Note. It’s got a fun little veranda entrance with a red doorway that leads down into a basement. The Vanguard is a lot smaller than Birdland or the Blue Note, with small wooden tables and chairs squeezed close to each other. Space-wise, it’s a little smaller than Tula’s in Seattle. However, unlike Tula’s, all the tables point towards a stage in the deepest part of the club, and there are not really any bad seats where you can’t get a good view. No food at this one, just drinks. $25 cover, 1 drink minimum.

Barry Harris was playing with his piano trio when I visited the Vanguard. An old master on par with the guys I saw at Blue Note, his playing style was less intellectual and more fun and swingy. Completely comfortable, they played soufully. Barry’s a goofy guy, he chattered and told ridiculous jokes in between tunes. The band had a very “hanging out with the guys” charm from decades past.

Apollo Theater

IMG_1566I didn’t get a chance to visit the mainstage of the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem, but I did get to go to the Apollo Music Cafe, an offshoot music venue right next door, which according to their website, is “designed to bring independent, cutting-edge artists to a forward-thinking audience.” The place was pretty fancy. Clean and modern interior design and a fancy stage had this venue dripping with hipness. Drinks were overpriced too. Don’t ask for “just water”, they’ll give you a $3 bottle.

Gloria Ry’ann sang with her band, the Rakiem Walker Project. Very much R&B/soul, her music had a decent groove, but harmonically and melodically was not as interesting as I had hoped. They were tight, just not that interesting.

Billie’s Black

Walking distance from the Apollo, Billie’s Black is this tiny little restaurant/bar. It looked like it seated only about 30 – 40 people; it felt about the size of a small local cafe on Capitol Hill. Staff was friendly, catfish was delicious.

I didn’t initially realize there was going to be live music at this place, but I was pleasantly surprised! The Evan Brown Experience is a drummer-led organ trio. Evan Brown and the bass player laid down a solid hip-hop groove, upon which the organist played complex harmonies, reaching far into the upper extensions, with speedy solo lines reminiscent of bebop. The drummer sang for most of the tunes they did; he had a soulful voice that was smooth as honey. And he sang while maintaining a rock steady beat.

Smoke Jazz

IMG_1579Recommended to me by another pianist I met in New York, Smoke Jazz is a club in West Harlem about a mile southwest of Billie’s Black. It has kind of a squarish room with dinner tables on one side, bar on the other. There’s good visibility at just about every seat in the house. Earlier shows are a little pricey, but sometimes there are late night (read: past midnight) shows that have no cover. There’ll still be a drink/food minimum, though. The place felt pretty modern, but friendlier feeling than Blue Note.

Johnny O’Neal played piano with a trio. The bass player and drummer looked a little younger; it was cool to see a wide age-range on the bandstand. He has a gentle touch on the keyboard, and sings a heart-wrenching blues.

Smalls

IMG_1441Out of all the clubs that I’ve been to over this trip, Smalls was my favorite. It’s down in a basement just like the Village Vanguard, but smaller inside, with a bar on one side and benches on the other. Musicians play at the far end of the venue, there’s no stage. A $20 cover gets you in for shows starting at 7:30 or so, going late into the night. Known for being one of the best places to see rising jazz talent, Smalls is incredibly homey. It feels like listening to music in someone’s living room. They run nightly open jams if you stay late enough, or if you’re not a late-night person, there are happy hour jams from 4-7pm on Fridays and Saturdays ($10 cover, $5 for musicians). Show up early, though, Smalls can draw a decent-sized crowd and will eventually end up being standing room only.

What really struck me about Smalls is how great a community it has. I hung out at open jams a couple times and everybody was really friendly. The house band does a good job of making sure everybody gets a chance to play, and they’re quite accomodating of musicians at every level. Musicians that show up run the gamut from students just discovering jazz to full-time jazz giggers. It’s a good crowd, and many come regularly. Even non-musicians come hang out regularly just to hear new talent. The community feeling isn’t limited to open jams either. Since there’s no raised stage and the venue is so small, the performers just mingle with everyone else, catching up with their friends and other musicians in the audience.

Besides the open jams, I saw two shows at Smalls. The first was the Taylor Eigsti Trio. I’d listened to Taylor Eigsti’s first two albums a bunch a couple years ago and really enjoyed his playing. He had a bit of a bombastic style, with a really big sound and a dramatically percussive touch. I hadn’t heard any of his recent recordings so I was surprised to hear that he has mellowed out a lot. Instead of the rambunctious playfulness I was expecting, he played delicate and mellow lines, bordering on brooding.

The second show I saw at Smalls was the Jean-Michel Pilc trio, with Richard Bona on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums. Jean-Michel whistled a couple solos too, I was pretty impressed with the full on 16-th note bop lines he was able to whistle. Out of all the live jazz I’ve ever seen, nothing matched how fluidly this trio reacted to each other. They played nothing but standards the whole night, but only barely hinted at traces of the melody. Everything gelled flawlessly, yet all three of them pulled the trio in different directions, with everyone reacting organically and following along. They were loose in following the form, yet were so tight-knit. Not a single note was out of place.


Josh Fest was a whirlwind tour of non-stop jazz. New York has such a high density of good jazz players that it’s easy to find a good show any night of the week, and into the wee hours of the morning. I’ll definitely be coming back for an encore.

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