Lucid Culture


Concert Review: The JD Allen Trio at Puppets Jazz Bar, Brooklyn NY 6/25/09

Seemingly a low-key warmup gig for the JD Allen Trio’s upcoming weeklong stand at the Vanguard this coming August 11-16, they were practically jumping out of their shoes to be playing together again after a break of almost a month. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen’s compositions and sense of melody are so strong that he doesn’t have to be ostentatious, and he wasn’t. Allen has concretized his style: he’s exactly the same as a bandleader and composer as he is a sideman, always finding the melody, always finding the most elegant, terse way to make his point – and his songs all make one, often very vividly. This group works perfectly as a trio because there isn’t room for anybody else, the rhythm section being as ferocious as it is. Allen’s articulacy as a player matches his writing. He spent the duration of the set tossing off crystalline eighth-note runs and edgily precise, minor-key motifs loaded with implied melody while the rhythm section ran amok. Rudy Royston has to be the most exciting drummer in jazz right now (no disrespect to any of the other good ones, you know who you are, we’ll be reviewing one of you next week). Puppets is a small room, and Royston felt it, leaving the intensity  just a notch below pain level. Where Allen speaks in phrases, Royston speaks in chapters – but they’re meaningful chapters, and bassist Gregg August seemed only too glad to jump in and go along for what became a wild ride from the first few rolls across the toms. August is also a first-rate composer with an ear for a memorable narrative, which makes him a particularly good fit for Allen, but this time out it didn’t take long before he went unhinged in tandem with Royston while Allen struck a striking stance in the unlikely role as melodic leader also charged with carrying the rhythm and organizing the songs’ architecture. Backwards, no doubt, but that’s part of what made the show so fascinating to watch.

The trio mixed songs from their two brilliant albums, last year’s I Am I Am and the just-released, equally melodic Shine! On the records, most of them are brief, barely four minutes long, but the group elongated  their shadows so they almost disappeared and then spun back in a split second, looming large and ominous. I Am I Am is a theme and variations, and Allen worked its impatient, angry insistence for all it was worth, using the central hook as an anchor to keep the low-register rumble from lurching and destroying everything in its path. Royston didn’t steal the show – he was the show, introducing not one but two unexpected, instant crescendos with press rolls. He worked his snare not with a snap but a boom, at one point during a solo building a defiant nine-note phrase artfully as a horn line. August has a great feel for latin rhythms, which in tandem with Royston’s reckless yet judicious rides across the cymbal heads added luminosity to some of the growlier I Am I Am passages. At the end, they swung, August running scales madly while Royston careened through the underbrush, Allen to the side, surgically incisive – and then bringing his cohorts back up and onto the road with similar precision. If jazz is your thing, you’re out of your mind if you’re in town and you don’t catch these guys while they’re at the Vanguard this August.

June 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Memoriam: Hilly Kristal, 1931-2007

Right place, right time. A hippie who worked as a mover and then as booking agent for the Village Vanguard jazz club, Kristal opened his bar in what was then no man’s land, the lower Bowery, in 1970. He changed the name to CBGB/OMFUG in 1973. CBGB stood for Country and Bluegrass Bar: OMFUG stood for Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers (the word gourmandizer was apparently a stoner invention of his: it’s supposed to mean connoisseur). The Ramones stumbled upon the place a year later because their drummer Tommy was (and still is) a bluegrass fan. And the rest is history.

In typical New York club owner fashion, Kristal did nothing to promote the scene that sprang up there: it was a spontaneous, underground, word-of-mouth thing and he left it at that. Never particularly ambitious, Kristal let the bands who played there spread the word. Lest any of you oldtimers out there try to romanticize things, the CBGB scene, even in its prime, wasn’t much better than the music scene in New York in the present day, such that it is. Bands didn’t play CBGB because they wanted to: they played there because they couldn’t get a gig at Hurrah’s, or Gildersleeves, or Max’s. Most of the CBs acts were pariahs in the more mainstream clubs because in the late 70s and early 80s, most New York bands sounded pretty much like New Jersey or Long Island bands: everybody wanted to be Aerosmith. As Bob Gruen recounted in the documentary NYC 77, the CBGB clientele was basically just musicians coming out to see their musician friends. Your typical NY music fan didn’t go there because most of the bands who played there weren’t that popular and the club was in a scuzzy neighborhood.

As punk gained popularity, so did CBs and Kristal. A brief stab at starting a record label was a failure; however, the development of hardcore proved a boon to the club and its owner, whose Sunday afternoon hardcore matinees brought in thousands of underage kids from the suburbs to beat each other bloody, drink and puke. This was in the days before Rudy Mussolini.

In the late 80s, booking was taken over by the members of Prong, an atrocious heavy metal trio, and the acts playing the place predictably followed in that direction. As usual, Kristal remained a hands-off owner. His greatest achievement was to open CB’s 313 Gallery in 1992, which quickly became the place for acoustic music in New York: the sound and most of the acts who played there were consistently good, and for awhile the place even served pizza (the pizza ovens were still there when it closed last year). Meanwhile, the main venue went into decline, to the point where in the last couple of years before it closed, they were booking cover bands from New Jersey for Saturday night shows. The Gallery somehow managed to remain a first-class venue until perhaps the final two years.

Kristal was a shy, retiring person who let others take advantage of him: relatives meddled in his affairs, employees stole from him and it was only the licensing of the CBGB clothing line that made him a millionaire. In the battle that saw the venue finally lose its lease, he testified that for a time, it had been difficult to make the rent and there’s no reason to believe he wasn’t telling the truth. His greatest achievement? That he was there, openminded enough to let good things happen (he was a hippie, after all) and didn’t get in the way.

August 29, 2007 Posted by | Music, music, concert, New York City, obituary, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments