Saturday 22 May 2010

Friday 21 May 2010

Some reflections on the New York trip

New York is small and densely packed. All the players I saw were energetic and decisive. Just because you're playing in a small place - Smoke, Vanguard, Smalls, Arturo's, Earl's front room - doesn't mean you shouldn't play your ass off. The standard of people like Peter Bernstein and Joshua is something to aspire to and to prevent me from getting complacent. There's no shortage of things to practice and master. It would be good to go back annually to be reminded of the intensity of players in that environment and to have the opportunity to play with some of them.

It's a competitive environment. It must be hard earning a living just by teaching and playing. New York has a great history of jazz but with the ever increasing expense of living in Manhattan, more and more players must be leaving for Brooklyn, Jersey, upstate, Europe. It's no longer possible to be "livin' high on nickels and dimes" in the way Joe Lee did back in the day. Fashion, art, media. finance and tourism seem to typify New York now. Hopefully jazz will always have a home in New York, though you wonder what will happen to The Vanguard when Lorraine if no longer around. New York seems an exceptionally safe place and all the people we met were polite and helpful. It's not longer the big bad place that it was - certainly welcoming if you can afford it.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

New York Trip - Day 4

The first stop was the Flatiron buildings for photos, then a trip up the Empire State Building for panaromic views of the Island. Back at West 26th Street, a block from our hotel, is The Jazz Record Centre, an Eight Floor apartment packed with vinyls, CDs, DVDs, posters and bookers. We spent a good hour browsing before I settled on three CDs (as vinyl is not an easy option when flying) - a recording by New York guitarist Peter Leitch, a Joe Lee Wilson recording featuring Japanese guitarist Ryo Kawasaki (who also played in the Gil Evans orchestra) and the latest Brad Mehldau double CD featuring Joshua Redman.
In the afternoon we met Joshua outside the Public Library with mother & daughter artist team Bea and Adrienne who we had met at the house party on Saturday, for a subway trip to Coney Island. Coney Island is on the brink of a major redevelopment to convert it from Brooklyn's version of Hastings/Margate/Blackpool to exclusive beach side condos. We stopped at Nathan's hotdogs for a snack (clams, hotdog, fries) and then wandered the boardwalk past the ghosts of the amusement park: Shoot The Freak (which involves shooting a live midget with a paintball gun; the Cyclone, a wooden rollercoaster reputed to be the scariest ever; and the huge Wonder Wheel, big wheel with sliding cars. Like the Empire Diner (which closed at the weekend), a piece of history about to disappear.

We ended up in Brighton Beach, or Little Odessa, packed with Russian shops and restaurants and used as a location in The French Connection. We found a very good Russian Restaurant - no frills, Russian clientele - bought some vodka at the liquor store and had a delicious (& very cheap) meal of dumplings, herring, mackerel, stuffed cabbage, pureed aubergine, coffee cake and Napoleon cake.

Back at the hotel we bid farewell to our host, to the D'Angelico (which I have grown very attached to) and then headed out to Dylan Thomas' favourite watering hole, The White Horse tavern, for a nightcap. I'll certainly miss Joshua's warmth, his anecdotes & sharp wit.

Monday 17 May 2010

New York Trip - Day 3

The day began with a jog through Greenwich Village, around Washington Square Park and then up 5th Avenue to Broadway. I stopped and looked up and was stunned by the sight of the Flatiron Building. I thought it would be impressive but I hadn't expected it to be beautiful. It is very ornate, as though the whole building has been carved and decorated. At the top are two carved figure peering over the ledge, giving it a human sense of scale. The geometry is extraordinary as you can see all the facades of the building from a single perspective.

During the morning we made our way towards the Brooklyn Bridge, taking in Little Italy, Chinatown, Tribeca and plenty of ornate, cast iron buildings. It was another beautiful warm day with a slight breeze. Brooklyn Bridge gave us some great views. But how rusty the bridge is! Unlike the Forth Road Bridge,which is in a constant state of decoration, the Brooklyn Bridge doesn't look as if it's been touched since the Forties. It gives it an elemental feel.

Early afternoon was spent exploring Brooklyn Heights taking in the architecture and the views of Manhattan. Keith found himself a new car - one of the Motor City's finest from the Fifties, a pristine Ford Thunderbird. Back on the island, we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on a bench in Washington Square Park taking in the chess players, the live jazz and the residents.

Late evening we headed off to The Village Vanguard to see Bill Frisell with his 858 Quartet featuring Eyvind Kang on viola, Jenny Scheinman and Hank Roberts on cello.  Before the set started I popped out to the "rest room" and peered into the famous office-cum-dressing room where I saw Bill bent over the guitar in his lap, silently cleaning his strings (weirdly recalling a dream I had 18 or so months ago where I went backstage at The Barbican to meet Bill in his studio/loft something like the Vanguard's office). The music was a strange mix of country & western and chamber music; Bill leading the band with a twangy Telecaster through largely (possibly completely) composed charts. There were C&W waltzes mixed with more classical-sounding influences like Steve Reich and John Adams. Jenny Scheinman did some great soloing in the last piece and very quickly it was over. It was strange & interesting hearing on consecutive nights Bernstein, Breakstone & Frisell - very contrasting players; Peter & Joshua heavily engaged in the jazz tradition of improvisation over changes but with very different, singular voices, and Bill coming from somewhere entirely elsewhere (at least on this gig).

The sound in the Vanguard was great. Like being inside the Flatiron building, it is a wedge shape with the band at the sharp end. This means that you're pretty much guaranteed a great sound wherever you are. Lorraine Gordon was in attendance and we had a brief encounter with her - "Are you staying for the next set. No? Then drink up . . .". It's that approach that has kept the place in business for so long.

It was then off to Smalls and back to Arturo's for a final drink. Both featured singers (possibly a Sunday thing). I decided to forego the jam session at Small as it didn't start until 1:30.

Sunday 16 May 2010

New York Trip - Day 2

The day started with another hearty breakfast. This time in the West Village. We spent the morning exploring the Village and stopping bar famous landmarks: The Village Vanguard; the Cafe Wha! where Jim Hendix started his career; St Christophers' Street where the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan was shot; Jim's Electric Lady Studio; Bob's House, where we spent a relaxing hour in the Cafe Dante opposite. There were plenty of photo opportunities - I wished I had brought Joshua's guitar case as a prop.

Looking at the map I could see that Bond Street was not far from Washington Square. Bond St was the location of Joe Lee Wilson's Ladies Fort loft the 1970s. Joe Lee rented the club when he won $5000 on a horse race and decided to invest it in five years rent on a place for jazz artists to perform. Through the club Joe Lee became a well known figure on the New York jazz scene, and many jazz musicians in NYC still remember it and Joe Lee. I have seen one photo of Joe Lee standing outside it so I had some idea of what I was looking for. Much of Bond St has been redeveloped so I was ready to walk away disappointed, until I realised that the street continued West across one of the avenues. After a few minutes I found a spot that looked close. I popped inside to a design store and, after enquiring, they sent me downstairs to the studio of fashion designer Tunji Dada. We wandered inside, found Tunji and, yes, there it was - The Ladies Fort. Tunji new all about it having met Joe and Jill a few years ago when Joe Lee's documentary was being filmed. Tunji was very charming and delighted to meet us and chat about Joe Lee and the history of the place. It was great finding Joe Lee's place, poignant too. Tribeca Arts Centre currently has a serices of concerts called Lost Jazz Shrines celebrating Ali's Alley, Sam River's Studio Rivbea (also on Bond Street) and Barry Harris' Jazz Cultural Theatre. It's a shame that The Ladies Fort wasn't on the list.

The afternoon was spent on the Staten Island Ferry before hand back to relax ready for the evening. We then head up to the NY Port Authority and took a bus out to Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, home of bass player Earl Sauls. This was a great evening. I got to hear Joshua's trio in Earl's front room! The third member of the band is a brilliant drummer called Jakubu Griffin, son of free jazz trombonist Dick Griffin and until recently working in Las Vegas with the liked of Stevie Wonder, Chaka Kahn, David Cassidy and Sheena Easton (remember her?). The Trio burned their way through a number of tunes before taking the tempo down for a beautiful Soul Eyes (which I managed to catch on video) and a Barry Harris tune I have been listening to a lot recently, Lolita.

In second set I got to play a few tunes with the band - Blue Monk, Have You Met Miss Jones & Stella. It was inspiring playing with and listening to musicians of such calibre. Earl did some wonderful soloing, with lines and rhythms stretching way out. We met some real characters at the party and got a lift back to Manhattan with drummer David and his wife Peg in an ancient Buick that John had driven up from Arizona (over 3000 miles). They dropped us in Washington Heights and travelled the subway almost from one end of the Island to the other. The evening ended in a bar next to the Chelsea Hotel.

Saturday 15 May 2010

New York Trip - Days 0-1

My first view of the famous Manhattan skyline was from the plane. In the hazy distance it sat suspended in the air like a vision of Avalon.

After a good flight, coach and shuttle to our hotel in Chelsea, we hooked up with Joshua Breakstone. Joshua introduced me to my companion for the trip, a D'Angelico New Yorker guitar - a gift to Joshua from D'Angelico that, I was told, had been coveted by the likes of Jimmy Bruno and Pat Martino. We then drove downtown to Greenwich Village, passed famous jazz clubs like The Village Vanguard and The Blue Note before arriving at our destination - a funky little Italian called Arturo's which featured a jazz trio squished around a piano. By the time we got to bed, Keith and I had been up for 24 hours  . . .

Friday morning began at the famous Empire Diner for a huge breakfast that set us up nicely for the day. We then went uptown to the Museum of Modern Art where we two fascinating and contrasting exhibitions - a retrospective by performance artist Marina Abramovich called the Artist Is Present (the artist is in fact present, along with a large number of naked men and women recreating installation pieces from her past), and an exhibition of Cartier Bresson photography. We then strolled up to The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, gaping at the skyscrapers (I kept on think of the line "canyons of steel" from the song Autumn in New York) and enjoying a stroll through a very sunny Central Park.

Highlights at The Met included the exhibition of their Picasso collection and the beautifully arranged collection of modern art - huge rooms exhibiting de Koonings, Warhols, Barnett Newmans and the like. After about three hours we ended up on the roof with a huge, intricate bamboo sculpture and wonderful views across Central Park.

We then headed all the way downtown to the curious mix of glamorous high fashion and wholesale meat market that is the Meatpacking District. From here we made our way up on to former raised railway line that has been transformed into an urban park called The Highline. This has to be one of the most laid back places in Manhattan - people reading, picnicking, chatting, strolling among beautiful flowers and grasses. This led us eventually to a pier on the Hudson where we say on a disused lightship (The Frying Pan) drinking beer, eating burgers and watching the sun set over New Jersey.
Our final stop of the day was Smoke, a small  at the upper end of Broadway where guitarist Peter Bernstein was playing with legendary Milers Davis drummer Jimmy Cobb, Richard Wyland on piano and bassist John Webber. Although I know Peter's recording well I have never seen him live. He told us it was years since he played in London but would like to get over there with the trio he has with Larry Goldings and Bill Stewart. I recognised a number of the tunes from his recent Live at Smalls release featuring the same band. The band played really well - Jimmy Cobb with his trademark "no frills" approach, Richard Wylands with a lovely laid back feel and Peter with his great, blues inflected lines. Bassist John Webber probably got the loudest applause for the night for his solos - he seemed to really play out of himself, with imaginative lines and great dynamics in his soloing.

Needless to say, I went to bed shattered.