I have found myself going to Tonic in the Lower East Side of Manhattan over and over again lately to get my musical fix. There is a certain vibe there that lends itself to a more eclectic and unique live music experience.
This was definitely the case last week when I was lucky enough to catch two shows on consecutive nights that most certainly fit best in the confines of Tonic.
Wednesday night was an anticipated pairing of Jamie Masefield and Marc Ribot paying tribute to jazz-guitar pioneer Django Reinhardt (joined by a stand-up bassist and a drummer I don’t have the names of). I must preface my review by admitting from the get-go that I am a huge Ribot fan and try to see him every chance I get, while I haven’t seen Masefield or his Jazz Mandolin Project in quite some time.
I got to the venue right as the music had started, and was upset to find myself crammed in at the back of an oversold room looking at the back of heads rather than at the tips of Marc’s fingers. I can’t begrudge the artists or the venue a nice-sized crowd, but the show was specifically billed as a “special, sit-down” affair on the Tonic site, and if anything can take away from the intimacy of the room, it’s being stuck at the back straining to hear over drink orders and the typical NYC “I’m at a show for every reason other than to listen to music” chatter. For some reason, Tonic has this ridiculous (for high-attendance shows) policy of putting three rows of chairs for about 25 people to sit in up front, and then makes the other 200-300 people cram elbow-to-gut in the remaining space.
Thankfully, as the night wore on many people left and made some room to move up.
Why did they leave? ‘Cause the show wasn't all that great. Why wasn't it great? Hate to say it, but the chemistry just wasn’t there. My general feeling throughout the show was “more Marc/less Jamie.” From the looks and sounds of it, Jamie was a bit out of his league and instead of allowing himself to be lifted to something better than he is, he was just an earsore on the music being made. Not to make unsubstantiated criticism: his tone was harsh to listen to, he seemed to be using some old-fashioned type mandolin that gave off the sound as if it were from a 100-year-old record being played in a closet – not that pretty, crisp mandolin tone that can send chills down your ear canal when played well. Besides that, his solos were redundant and flat and he brought no dynamic to the music other than backing up fills.
Why did I stick around? Two words: Marc Ribot (and the fact that about a 1/3 of the way through I actually made it up to a place where I could watch him). The man can do no wrong. His range is nothing short of amazing as he showed tonight, tackling the Django-style jazz-guitar genre with aplomb. Fat, crisp, clean guitar tones crackled with each solo. He played some tunes straight-up, brought a Ribotian (rhymes with "motion") noise-twist to some and then sent my jaw packing to the floor with an immaculate turn on one tune with an acoustic guitar. Unfortunately for Masefield, the contrast was stark and I know I wasn’t the only one that heard it. Marc made the evening worth it, even joshing around on some vocals for the encore.
The show was more about adopting a style than paying an overt tribute to Django. I would not consider myself to be knowledgeable in the least about Reinhardt’s music, but the evening was enjoyable from a pure listening point of view. Ribot played the six-stringed chameleon once again, transforming himself and his playing without coming off as an imitation. I don’t know how he can master so many styles and techniques and still play something interesting and fresh with such passion night after night. I am an unabashed fan, so take everything I write with that in mind.
Thursday evening brought a completely different group of musicians and a completely different crowd to 107 Norfolk St. Jenny Scheinman Quartet and the Scott Amendola Band were the double bill as part of the club portion of the Verizon Jazz Festival. Jenny and Scott are actually in each other’s groups, each adding a different guitar player and bassist to round out the ensembles, so it was an interesting chance to hear and see musicians lead and follow one another in completely different groups.
Thursday the crowd was cozily sparse, leaving plenty of seats and sightlines for almost everyone. Such a difference!
Scheinman’s group started things off. She plays violin and her group was Amendola on drums and Adam Levy and Lee Alexander, who play guitar and bass respectively for Norah Jones as well. The compositions stretched between jazz, classical, Eastern European with a bit of country/western flair occasionally thrown in there. She has played a bit with Bill Frisell (check out his new album with her on it - but that's another review... in a word: sick!) and Adam Levy has a lot of Frisell in his guitar tone. The set started off slowly but by midstream was just an unending supply of beautiful arrangements artfully played by the quartet. The key to the set was how understated all the musicians were. So often you see people trying hard to display all their talent every time they touch their instrument, when sometimes just laying back and surrendering to the group is best. This was best exemplified by Amendola who barely had any fills or "show off" sessions, although he certainly had the talent to. Instead, he dutifully played rhythms that accentuated rather than dominated. His drumsticks were so small he could have been playing with toothpicks, and he alternated between these and brushes. The music was soft and lovely and relaxing and traveled through different passages of increasing intensity. Good times.
Next up was Amendola's band which added Nels Cline on guitar and another stand-up bassist, Todd Sickafoose. From Scott’s lineage of TJ Kirk and backing Will Bernard and Charlie Hunter, I expected the music to be on the funky side, but rather it was another set of well-executed, top-notch compositions with a decidedly more intense tone than the previous. Cline had like a zillion pedals hooked up to his guitar and has perhaps the longest fingers I've ever seen on a guitar player. While he let himself go wild with the effect every once in a while, most of the time he would lock in with the violin and the two would overlap their playing in very tight and twisting interplay. It was the perfect music for sitting back, closing your eyes and drifting into a waking dream dictated by the ever-shifting music.
Later in the set the woman whom I had stared at and thought "Is that Norah Jones?" got up on stage and sang a tune with the group. Such a treat for the few in attendance as her sultry, Grammy-winning voice gave the winning treatment to Nick Drake's "One of These Things First." A great dessert to a tasty three-course meal at Tonic for the week.
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