Words & Images by: Alex Borsody
Joe Russo Quartet :: 02.13.09 :: Sullivan Hall :: New York, NY
Sullivan Hall (formerly the Lion's Den) is a 345-capacity venue in Greenwich Village, NYC. The lights and sound are spot-on for a small venue and once you step inside you are swallowed by a low-lit ambiance with the gritty feel of a dive bar. Though low key and comfortable, some of the best touring musicians grace the stage, making it a unique rock club in NYC. The bands that are booked range from the relatively unknown to world renowned groups that appeal to more eclectic, counterculture tastes. Beautiful photographs line the walls of artists like Grace Potter, Warren Haynes and Col. Bruce Hampton, serving as an indicator of what to expect from this venue.
|Joe Russo Quartet :: 02.13.09|
Joe Russo is a Brooklyn-based musician that is also a regular on the festival scene, something I respect as not many NYC jazz musicians are inclusive enough to share the stage with such diverse talent. This show was the night before Valentine's Day and was really two concerts in one. Three independent bands played earlier in the night and The Joe Russo Quartet took the stage around midnight. The late night show was billed as a post-moe. gig, as the legendary live band was playing just up the street at Terminal 5.
The bands on the earlier bill were lesser known, though each demonstrated a lot of potential. Shotgun Stereo is an NYC group that could be considered by some to be punk rock. They impressed me with their ability to get an authentic blues sound, a quality lacking in much rock music today. Bryan Fenkart is a singer-songwriter from Astoria, Queens that reminded me of Ben Folds, playing melodic, soft music. The Great Divide from Ann Arbor, MI was the most jazz influenced of the three, setting the tone for the night, with tight, soulful horns, keys and a great jazz guitar/bass combo. I presume the sophisticated talent of this band is the result of formal musical training.
A broad swath of music fans are attracted to Joe Russo and his other project the Benevento/Russo Duo. These range from jazz freaks, neo-hippies/yippies and the scourge that is NYC hipsters. The Duo's ability to appeal to such a varied audience is due to a combination of unique musical style, location and a willingness to branch out. Joe Russo and Marco Benevento are both pillars of the NYC experimental jazz scene. Like Medeski Martin and Wood, they are carrying the torch for this tradition in New York and keeping improvisation alive.
After Great Divide finished their set, the quartet took the stage. Taking almost an hour to carefully set up their own gear, they were the picture of hard working musicians. The Joe Russo Quartet features Jonathan Goldberger on guitar, Erik Deutsch on keys, Todd Sickafoose on bass and Russo on drums. Sullivan Hall allowed the players ample freedom to experiment and the set was full of long improvisations. The music did not have elaborate chord progressions or changes, but rather placed emphasis on playing with rhythms and time in creative ways. The emphasis on rhythm was due to the show being centered on the drummer, something fairly unique at most rock or jazz concerts. This gave the music a different element that I appreciated most when I was conscious of and concentrated on the fact that the drummer was the focus of the show. The melodies and chord changes were less important than the acceleration and deceleration of tempo, the subtle shifts in rhythms and the difficult time signatures.
|Joe Russo Quartet :: 02.13.09|
One of the best things about Sullivan Hall is the unpretentious, casual atmosphere. The music business in general can feel like a perpetual competition for one-upmanship in a game of "hipper than thou." For this very reason it is difficult to sound sincere when writing about music, thankfully, Web 2.0, blogs and the comment system have been important in helping to keep the media authentic and in check. Sullivan Hall is a venue for the people; the smaller stage does not put the musician on such a high pedestal as to separate them completely from the audience. The line gets blurred between the music and the audience, creating an interaction and synergy that is important to the live music experience, and which is difficult to replicate in arenas and large, fancy venues.
As I left the building, I walked through the surrounding neighborhood of Greenwich Village, one of the most colorful parts of NYC. I thought back to the history of the 1960's counterculture embedded in the area. I look forward to Sullivan Hall bringing more of this particular type of niche music that is hard to find anywhere else on a regular basis.
Be sure to check our recent exclusive feature/interview with Sir Joe Russo here.
Joe Russo tour dates available here.
JamBase | Big Apple
Go See Live Music!