Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Saxophonist Ralph Williams: A Familiar, Heartwarming Presence in Central Park

Who would have thought that the biggest memes in live performance in New York in 2021 so far would be chamber music, singer-songwriters and buskers? Almost fifty percent of the United States has been liberated and is back to normal, but some of the biggest names stuck in the other half of the country have been reduced to busking to make ends meet.

Not that there’s any shame in a performer doing that. Robin Aigner‘s hapless Mediocre Busker aside, there’s no better way to sharpen your skills than playing public spaces for hours on end, day after day. Now that spring is here, New Yorkers who’ve been starved for live music since the beginning of the lockdown need only look as far as the nearest park.

One of the most familiar sights in Central Park is saxophonist Ralph Williams, whose favorite spot is the edge of the benches just south of the Naumburg Bandshell. He’s been playing solo there for years. As you would expect from someone who’s put in thousands of hours on his instrument in frequently sub-optimal conditions, his chops are formidable.

But he’s not a showoff: his postbop style is very lyrical. Sonny Rollins seems to be an obvious influence, but where Rollins will self-combust, Williams likes subtle shades and ornamentation, and keeps his tempos, such as they are, on the slow side. He adds some gravel to his tone when he wants to drive a point home. Even though he’s playing solo, his approach is uncluttered, with lots of space. Any note in a particular phrase could be the springboard for a flurry or a melisma or a playful curlicue. While most of what he plays seems completely improvised, he’s anything but self-indulgent. And there’s a warmth and optimism, if not full-blown exuberance, in his music: this isn’t a guy who seems to want to exorcise demons with mournful wails or crazed extended technique.

He’s almost always at his usual spot on Sunday afternoons; he was there early Tuesday evening, after the clouds had passed. Too often we run across buskers when we’re enroute and in a hurry. This guy is a New York institution and will lift your spirits if you’re in the mood to hang, listen and recharge for the rest of the day.

May 6, 2021 - Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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