Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Gorgeous String Jazz Sounds at Manhattan’s Best Facsimile of a Real Jazz Joint These Days

What a beautiful early Friday evening in Central Park, under the trees north of the 81st Street entrance on the west side, a few blocks from where cellist Marika Hughes grew up. Playing to a sparse but attentive crowd with her brilliantly unorthodox New String Quartet, she joked about not spending much time here as a kid since she’d had her sights on greener pastures. Since then she’s explored and conquered innumerable styles of music, from classical to jazz to soul and funk and traditional Jewish sounds.

Seriously: what’s more gorgeous than a stark minor-key blues riff played on the cello? In a show that probably went for well over an hour (it’s been a work in progress figuring out the start times for the ongoing series here) Hughes fired off scores of them. Some were poignant, some had extra bite, and there were funny ones too. The highlights of this completely unamplified evening were a couple of bittersweetly swaying, pensive minor-key instrumentals, Hughes sending stardust spirals of harmonics into the ether, bowing down at the tailpece during one of them.

The set was a comfortable, conversational blend of sharp individual voices committed to creating a warmly welcoming, hopeful, deeply blues-infused ambience. It was weird watching Marvin Sewell – one of this era’s great guitarists – reduced to strumming rhythm on an acoustic. It was also kind of strange, but rewardingly so, watching violinist Charlie Burham not only slithering through one rustic, otherworldly yet direct solo after another, but also singing into the breeze.

OK, there wasn’t much of a breeze: we got fragments of a haunting piney woods folk tune made popular by a regrettable grunge rock band, and also a triumphant, rhythmically shifting, gospel-infused minor-key soul tune, as well as more aphoristic ideas that would have been a perfect singalong had this show been in closer quarters. That may still be an eventuality in this city, legally at least, but it’s already a reality again in almost fifty percent of the country – and the opportunities for musicians on the road seem to be growing every day.

Beyond her understatedly poignant instrumentals, Hughes delivered a warmly lilting tribute to the late Bill Withers (who would likely be with us today if not for last year’s pandemic of malpractice). She and the band ended the show on a similar note with a gently soaring tribute to wake-and-bake stoner fun. Bassist Rashaan Carter set the flame that percolated the instrumental encore, which rose from suspenseful atmospherics to an undulating anthemic vamp.

The weekend series in this part of the park, produced by photographer Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts remains subject to the vagaries of weather and the availability of musicians. Still, Katz has put on more brilliant programming this year than anybody outside of the speakeasy circuit. The concert today, May 23 at around 3 PM in Central Park on the lawn under the trees, about a block north and east of the 81st St. entrance on the west side, features drummer Nasheet Waits leading a high-voltage quartet with Mark Turner and Steve Nelson on tenor sax, and Carter on bass again.

May 23, 2021 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, Reviews, rock music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Future Looks Bright for Jazz & Colors

The second annual Jazz & Colors festival in Central Park was a success for the same reasons that Make Music NY has been such a failure: time and temperature. Sometimes it’s that simple. Make Music NY synchronizes itself with the worldwide Fête de la Musique (the annual French busk-a-thon) on the June 21 solstice, meaning that musicians playing outdoor spaces around town wait til the sun goes down before they start, just as any reasonable person would. And by then, the rush hour crowd has rushed home to their air conditioning, or at least their window fans. Jazz & Colors, on the other hand, is held on the weekend, this particular Saturday on an absolutely gorgeous, brisk afternoon, and while crowds could have been bigger, they were a good representation of the vast expanse of demographics that make up this city. A scattering of diehards raced across the park to catch their favorite acts, a smattering of tourists seemed smitten by the chance to see so many big names for free, while random groups of New Yorkers from across the age spectrum – many among them who probably can’t afford jazz club prices – took in an eclectic, energetic bunch of performances.

How do you find your way around Jazz & Colors? With a map. This year there was one available online, and there were helpful volunteers handing out copies at the 72nd Street entrance on the west side as well as at some of the performance sites. The concept this year was to have everybody play the same two set lists, mostly standards, with a few unexpected treats and a little room for originals. Placement of the acts playing the roughly four-hour festival was perfect. There was none of the sonic competition you get between stages at, say, a Lollapalooza or Warped Tour, yet the distance between bands was short enough to encourage ambitious spectators to catch several and maybe compare interpretations and arrangements.

Pianist Arturo O’Farrill, leading his explosive Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra from behind a real grand piano on the Naumburg Bandshell, sardonically thanked the promoters for “Telling us what songs to play,” although he hastened to add that this had been a valuable learning experience. Unhappy with one arrangement they’d devised, they’d tossed it out and come up with a new one on the fly. Toward the end of one characteristically high-voltage Afro-Cuban romp, he gave his bassist a solo – who says that playing bass in a big band is a thankless task? They eventually went off set list for Las Vegas Tango, doing it as a psycho mambo that practically outdid Gil Evans and was too much fun to be vengeful, although a crescendo or two more might have pushed it past redline. Then they did their “We Live in Brooklyn Baby Milongo,” as O’Farrill put it, mambo-izing Roy Ayers’ many-times-sampled groove.

To the north and west, alto saxophonist Yosvany Terry was playing a similarly groove-driven set, leading a quartet with bass, drums and electric piano through a mesmerizingly pulsing, tropical take of A Night in Tunisia, swapping Eastern Hemisphere for the west. Then they kicked off Ray Noble’s Cherokee as brightly trad, tiptoeing swing before fattening it with a Nuyorican sway, Terry eventually swapping his sax for a chekere and adding another layer of irresistible rhythmic energy. A little further south, Brian Charette‘s organ “sextette” turned in one of the funniest and least expected moments of the afternoon on the turnaround out of the chorus of an otherwise aptly moody, shadowy Harlem Nocturne, where the horns all went crazy for a bar or two before the verse slunk around again  They also made sly ghetto lounge jazz out of Take the A Train, swung Coltrane’s Grand Central Station hard with solos from alto and tenor sax, flute and bass clarinet, and gave Terry a run for his Cuban money with that same Dizzy Gillespie tune, Charette playing basslines with his left hand since he didn’t have his Hammond B3 with the pedals.

Meanwhile, just up the hill, bassist Russell Hall was leading the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars – in this case, a quartet that seemed to be a mostly student ensemble – with a purist but puckish touch, at one point wrly kicking off a solo with some unexpected, sotto vocce high horn voicings when the tenor saxophonist passed him the baton. And it was good to be able to catch the tail end of the string-driven Marika Hughes & Bottom Heavy outside the Delacorte Theatre, featuring the bandleader on cello and vocals along with Charlie Burnham on violin plus bass, guitar and drums. Hughes sang without a mic, but she didn’t need it, wrapping up her set with a richly bittersweet, darkly bluesy “love song to New York and Gil Scott-Heron.” By now, clouds had settled in overhead and fingers were getting cold, so the conclusion was timed perfectly. There were many other A-list bandleaders playing across the park, including but not limited to drummer Kim Thompson, baritone saxophonist Jason Marshall, klezmer-jazz trumpeter Frank London, bassist Gregg August, guitarist Joel Harrison, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and over a dozen other groups. If jazz is your thing – and if you’re reading this, it probably is –  and you’re in New York a year from now, don’t miss this festival.

November 10, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment