As a live music junkie, there are many, many reasons to love living in the NYC area. First and foremost you've got every national (and international for that matter) act you could hope to see coming through town. But as I creep towards middle age in both years and familial responsibilities, I find myself more intrigued with the wealth of local hidden treasures which can turn a simple drive around the island of Manhattan into a trip through musical paradise. Last night I had such a magical mystery tour as I flew solo into three distinct neighborhoods and like hungry lips into a Thomas' English muffin found bliss in the nooks and crannies this city has to offer.
Through the Holland Tunnel into live music Eden, the first stop was to The Jazz Standard on E 27th, which doubles as the basement to one of the premier barbecue joints in Gotham, Blue Smoke. Since its opening, this room has slowly shown some muscle as one of the better jazz clubs in town and perhaps reason numero uno is the menu. While old standbys like the Village Vanguard actually tease about no food being served and shackle you with a two drink minimum, the Jazz Standard boasts of no minimum whatsoever and yet makes it nearly impossible not to open your wallet and order some tasty BBQ. How could I resist? As I settled in for a Monday night appetizer from Steven Bernstein's Millennial Territory Orchestra, I ordered myself a half-rack and got to work myself. There are actually three types of ribs offered there, delineated by geography--St. Louis, Memphis, and Kansas City, which also well described the brands of jazz that the MTO had in store.
This gig represents one of my favorite aspects of the NYC music scene: the residency. In fact I have coined the term "resideNYC" to adequately describe how the recurring live gig is well suited to the vast patchwork of tastes and rooms in the city. Bernstein has put together an honest-to-goodness big band jazz orchestra playing, on the face of it, old-time jazz every Monday night at the Standard. I've been meaning to get there for weeks now and am happy that I finally made it. While many know him from his genre-snubbing Sex Mob, here Steven leads a nine-strong ensemble that roots itself in some of jazz's earliest offerings. But the music is only part of the fun. The whole set had the cross-pollinated feel of dinner theater, backyard BBQ, kitchen table kibbitz, stand-up comedy, and a left-leaning political talk show... with Steven Bernstein as your host, of course. Where in other clubs you'd be shushed to death in deference to the musicians, Steven encouraged noise making ("It's too quiet in here") and had entertaining conversations with acquaintances in the audience. He acknowledged that the Janet Jackson "controversy" was already a week old and played out and then proceeded to mention it multiple times. Throw that in with a couple swipes at Christian Conservatives ("Aren’t all marriages same sex? Isn't that why you get married, because you want the same sex?" [groan]) and calling the soprano sax one of the unfound weapons of mass destruction and you've got yourself an evening!
Since this is just the first stop of three, I won't go into crazy details on the music, but it was fun and lively and the players were hopping. The real standout was the "Bens" rhythm section of Ben Perowsky on drums and Ben Allison on stand-up bass. The numbers were often an endearingly sloppy mess with Bernstein very vocally leading them through, sometimes directing with his own scatting--"Now go 'dah-doo-dah-doo'"--to the horn section. In addition to Steven's excellent trumpet and slide trumpet playing were saxophones (of all varieties), clarinet, trombone, guitar, and jazz fiddle. Seeing as the MTO has been playing together for a while now, off and on, I've decided that the sloppiness is actually intentional and gears into the whole fun-loving aspect of the set. In addition to covers of some of the old-time masters, they surprised me with a couple of excellent pop covers. The first was a more obscure Prince tune, "Darling Nikki" I believe, off of Purple Rain, which they just killed in a drastic and refreshing change of pace from the rest of the set. It took a while to figure out what it was as it just built and flipped over a few times. Another tempo change came when they paid tribute to Louie Armstrong's ode to marijuana, with the guitarist doing vocals on "Viper." The set ended strongly with another nice pop homage--the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love," a song that, one realizes in retrospect, just cries out to be covered by a big band jazz orchestra.
With the ribs and side dish of the Millennial Territory Orchestra simmering in my belly and Bernstein's parting mantra "Support live music and be nice to each other" (put it on a t-shirt!) guiding me out the door, I hopped into the Nedmobile and headed due south to the Living Room in the Lower East Side. This brings us to item two on the "things I love about the music scene in NYC" mission, which is the opportunity to catch super-talented, potentially big-time musicians before they've "made it." And to me, it's not really whether they make it or not, but the journey toward the end, good or bad, that's fun to watch. Some people play Fantasy Football and try to get the gems, I'm playing Fantasy Music Producer... and I've had a pretty good track record so far. It's gotten to the point where once a musical act has a crowd of more than a 100 people or so at their shows, I start to lose interest. In that light, there has been a growing buzz about a new band called Ollabelle that I just had to check out before they started charging money for the honor.
Between hearing the omigosh reviews of their recent sets, hearing a few recorded tracks, and reading some intriguing descriptions of their band, I didn't know quite what to expect. I have to say, I was not disappointed. The Living Room is a cozy little spot that would probably do alright adding a few couches to make it even more living room-like. They'll have four sets a night of up-and-comers and I knew I'd do well getting there for an additional set before Ollabelle got on stage. That was a nice little set of singer-songwriter stuff that is listed on the web as Benedek Band, but from what I gathered from the singer's on-stage comments, the "band" is somewhat in flux. One thing's for certain, the fella's got some good songs, a great voice, and nice poise. I'd definitely be interested in checking out more of his stuff (NYC bonus!).
Ollabelle by Henry Diltz
Ollabelle took the stage and before they were even set up, I was ready to go, especially when I saw a dobro, a slide guitar, and an electric piano in the mix. I had heard that their strength lies in their immaculate vocal prowess--each one of the six band members reportedly could carry the lead duties, no problem. This became apparent from the get-go as they did an a cappella gospelish number... the audience was pretty much lassoed in from there and away we went. A lot of the descriptions of the band sort of laid them out as another one of these beyond-the-pigeon-hole variety, sweating-out-their-influences type-groups. I don't think I would characterize them like that at all. In fact, they were pretty firmly rooted in a few basic traditions, mostly what I would describe as "spiritual" and country music.
I am sure there are many examples of this type of gospel in the music stores, but I think the best comparison I can make from my own experiences is to the Blind Boys of Alabama... maybe call Ollabelle the "Sighted Mixed-Gender White People of Manhattan." Their repertoire featured a whole slew of well-arranged traditionals and other spiritual music like "Glory, Glory" and "Jesus on the Main Line," plus a couple originals, mostly penned by the keyboard player, and at least one latter-day pop cover: The Rolling Stones' "I Am Waiting" (one of my favorite Stones songs, by the way). At their most rocking they remind me of The Band (indeed, one of the vocalists is Levon Helm's daughter) or Little Feat, but they don't rely on rocking out to get your butt shaking and hands clapping. Through all that inspirational material, I never felt like they were proselytizing nor did I feel there was any disingenuity at work--in fact, quite the opposite, even if almost half the repertoire contained a variant of the phrase "laying ones burden down" (although, as someone pointed out to me, they seem too talented to be schlepping their own equipment). These guys are obviously performing music they love and care deeply about, and it shows from start to finish.
What else can I say? They were downright enjoyable, uplifting and all that. It's rare to find a sextet of musicians with such strength in the vocals--each member took lead on at least one song and the greatest power came in the combinations; the harmonizing sections were exquisite. Two women, four men, slide guitar, dobro, acoustic rhythm, drums, organ/keyboards--even greater than individual talents, it often seems, is the magic of interaction and chemistry. Much of the instrumentation is merely to create moods for the lyrics to wind their way through. The eerie slide guitar, the hair-raising twang of the dobro's steel strings, the roof-raising wail of the occasional piano solo--these are all just the pasta on which the steaming, tasty vocal sauces are poured over. These guys have found each other through whatever means and are making some terrific music together. Check 'em out!
Although exhausted and dreading Tuesday morning with every city block, I pushed on to make the most of my night out. It was then on to the West Village to the classic 55 Bar. If the Jazz Standard was the dining room of the city and the Living Room was, well, the living room, then the 55 Bar was certainly the dank cellar of my open house exploration of Manhattan. The dive at 55 Christopher St. houses the old chemistry set used to synthesize the ooey goo of Wayne Krantz's peerless K3. Monday night, though, it would resort to a more traditional, though probably more playful, role as the rec room. The band was lead by Chris Potter who was joined by Wayne himself as well as Craig Taborn filling in the few blanks on keyboards and Nate Smith absolutely ripping it up on the drums.
I was surprised at how full the room was for the midnight set, but I guess there's no reason to be. This final stop was a quest for item number three (and four) on the docket of NYC love, which is embodied by Krantz himself, particularly lately. Because in addition to the sick-ass residencies that pock the calendars of the clubs in town and the chance to see top-notch music before anyone in the rest of the world realizes it's top-notch, there are also piles of musicians who play night-in and night-out just for the love of the music. I know this happens everywhere, but here in NYC it happens at the highest level imaginable--when you see these people play you don't just think it's the best shit going down, you know it is. World-class musicians float in and out of tiny jazz clubs on whims to play and others are there just to check it out.
This leads to item number four, which is the spirit of collaboration which is at its utmost here. A couple weeks ago, I had the dream-come-true opportunity to see Wayne Krantz sit in with the Benevento/Russo Duo (not to mention an unexpected sit-in from Mike Gordon) as documented in a previous review. That was my peanut butter-meets-chocolate moment, and it's all Reese's Pieces from there. One of the songs they played that night was "High Noon" by Chris Potter. Ten days later Wayne is getting it on with Potter himself.
By this point I was barely awake, which as luck would have it, was the perfect setting for this music. In my drowsy state, Potter, Krantz, and company manipulated the dreams of my near-awake state and fiddled indiscriminately with my neurons. I think the music stopped only twice over the course of an hour as the quartet wailed away in solos, two-man duels and full-blown, full-band interactions. Maybe they played two songs, maybe they were stringing a half-dozen songs together (I think this was the case)--it didn't really matter. Notes begat notes begat flourishes begat hooteralling from the cozy cellared crowd. Potter was a phenom, blowing sax like an electric guitarist. He actually reminded me of the young Pat Martino, stringing impossibly long stretches of contradicting notes together in lines that stretched into infinity and back. The music was f'incredible as well, although I don't know what was stemming from his compositions, what was from his band leadership, and what was just happening in the spontaneous combustion of the moment. He turned the black-and-white of my dozing into a Technicolor dream with pure, unadulterated music. Potter found a perfect foil in Krantz, who laid back from his usual assaultive style in his own bands and, as he did with the Duo, morphed into something different and in many ways greater.
Wayne's transformances of the past few weeks have been nothing short of breathtaking. I have always had my cerebrum handed to me when I see him play, but always in the same way. These last two gigs have pushed my estimation of his talents into the upper registers. You do get to see a lot of collaborations around these parts and often they are fun and intriguing and worthwhile, but it still feels like guest "x" sitting in with band "y." With Wayne, he seems to have the ability to turn band "y" into band "Y."
The set provided me with just enough juice to get my ass from Christopher Street to my mattress without incident. Only my fragile little mind is worse for the wear.
"Support live music and be nice to each other"
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