The Jazz Gallery
In a preview of the upcoming JVC Jazz Festival in New York in the Sunday Times Arts section of June 10, Ben Ratliff notes that many Big Apple jazz cognoscenti don't feel they're missing much by skipping George Wein's concerts. In fairness to Mr. Wein Ratliff does indicate that JVC programming includes more than the old reliables, but Ratliff does lament the suspension of the Knitmedia summer festival based in Michael Dorff's Knitting Factory due to the withdrawal of corporate sponsorship. "It did serve a community," he says.
So where (else) does this community go to catch newly breaking talents, sounds of artists not yet noticed by big labels?
The Jazz Gallery is one place. This fifty-seat recital room, upstairs at 290 Hudson Street, just north of the Holland Tunnel, has been presenting cutting-edge small-to-large ensembles since 1995. Cover is fixed at a reasonable $10, and you go there to listen. If you want a drink, there's a bottle of wine in the rear; you can pour yourself a glass and leave three bucks in a bowl. Sometimes the place is filled, most times not quite, but the community is definitely onto it.
Owner-impresario Dale Fitzgerald cleverly organizes his shows into catchy categories, alternating with each other through his 4-5-per-week performances. "Pianobility" features pianists; "Heart Song" features singers, and "African Kitchen" featuring African percussion masters in the Gallery and African food in the restaurant below. There is no series name when horn players lead the pack. He also sponsors "Sundays on the River" aboard the ferry Yankee at Pier 25 from 4 to 8 p. m.
The programming is varied and daring. You'll catch recognized names, like Roy Hargrove, Steve LaSpina and Frank Lacy, but Fitzgerald is reaching for quality over fame, and gives the stage to jazz musicians from all over the world he deems worthy of hearing (locals, too, of course). So you may hear alto player Rudresh Mahanthappa with his quintet, or vocalist Claudia Acuna, or pianist Dario Boente with his quintet, or Senegalese percussionist Abdou Mboup-not exactly household names, but the low cover and serious listening atmosphere make it worth the risk. The place is sometimes jammed, sometimes rather sparsely attended. The idea is to trust Fitzgerald's taste, and the number who do is growing. This is just the kind of incubator that joins adventurous ears to undersung talent, and that makes for a healthy growing, well-nourished jazz community.
My maiden voyage there I caught "Pianobility" feature Marc Cary on the keys, accompanied by drummer Woody Williams on several skins, a bass drum and one crash cymbal. It was an absorbing show: Cary has very much his own sound: percussive, meditative, incantatory, with flashes of virtuosity. His lack of interest in thematic development made his pieces seem unnecessarily extended, and those flashes consisted of pretty much the same material from piece to piece: rapid-fire descending runs on a scale of Cary's devising-impressive at first, but predictable by the fourth or fifth time around. Yet although one might fear the pieces as a whole would repeat themselves, each one emerged freshly forged out of Cary's energy and vision. His use of minimal variation on a percussive vamp succeeded at concentrating the listeners' attention, and also giving drummer Williams some space to stretch out. The best moment of the set came about two-thirds of the way through when they fell into a compelling groove together, and I realized that the reward for Cary's focus, concentration and repetition, and for Williams wide dynamic range and highly nuanced accompaniment was the eventual finding of this freshly original percussive duo sound. The absence of a bass was critical about half the time. Cary does not have strong left hand; he's not into countermelodies, walking bass, bass ostinati. If he does any more work with just drums, he might profit from listening to some Henry Butler.
The piano, incidentally, has a noteworthy pedigree: originally belonging to Paul Desmond, it was the piano at Bradley's, the late-lamented piano room on University Place, which felt the need to place cards on each table requesting silence during the performance. Jazz Gallery patrons need no such admonition. Titles of records/CDs should be in italics.
Joel Simpson is the producer of DICK HYMAN'S CENTURY OF JAZZ PIANO CD-ROM (103 tunes/60+styles, videos, MIDI Studio, great graphics, extensive bios etc.). An interactive demo can be found on his WEBSITE: www.jssmusic.com. To order via phone call: 800 557-7894.