The first of four nights of jazz in New York City kicked off at Small's, an intimate, funky basement on 10th St. just off 7th Avenue in the Village. Small's has two different bands, playing two full sets, every night before a late night jam session. I made it to the second set of the first band, saxophonist David Bixler's Quintet, with trumpeter Scott Wendholdt, guitarist John Hart, bassist Ugonno Okegwo and drummer Andy Watson. Bassist Okegwo slowly quieted the crowd with a long, very modal solo introduction to what became a tune called "Arise." Like the rest of the music, this was a Bixler original drawn from the forthcoming CD, The Nearest Exit May Be Inside Your Head.
After Okegwo's introduction, the guitar and drums came in, with a slow to mid tempo bluesy cushion for Bixler, playing long notes on his alto sax with a lot of Coltrane influence, and then Wendholdt's trumpet entered in a very moody vein. Bixler, as he often would during the set. explored the low register of his horn before launching into a passionate flurry of notes. But what made the tune really special was the inventive chording of John Hart, one of the finest, most inventive guitarists of the last two decades plus. All in all, "Arise" was a most hypnotic piece.
From there, the mood turned jaunty with Bixler's "Vida Blue," named for the Oakland A's pitcher that Bixler rooted for in his young days in the Bay Area. With a march tempo, this sounded like some never heard gem from the late '50s Jazz Messengers, and was a great setting for Wendholdt's trumpet solo, with more than a shade of Lee Morgan in it. Hart mixed greasy chords with impressive single note runs, and then all but the bass dropped out as Bixler entered on alto, with Okegwo's rock solid walking underpinning more low note exploration by Bixler, who, as the drums and guitar entered, played bluesy riffs punctuated by unexpected high notes.
The rest of the set continued at a high level, with Bixler's solo opening of "Cleveland" hinting at early Ornette, and some lovely muted trumpet by Wendholdt, before the tune turned more intense, with repeated riffs interspersed with intense solo passages. The last tune, "Perfected Surfaces," had a funky rhythm, with tasty backbeats from the drummer, some counterpoint by trumpet and alto sax in the tune's head and some dual improvisation from Bixler and Wendholdt at the end of the tune. All in all, excellent original tunes played at a very high level. I'm looking forward to playing this CD when it is released, which should be in late summer.
Met some fascinating people during the break between bands (Small's draws such an interesting crowd), including a woman from Belgium spending two weeks in NYC on one of her regular jazz pilgrimages. And when she is in New York, she spends every night at Small's - which is not a bad choice at all. Also, a young woman from Hamburg, in town seeing her NYC based jazz pianist boyfriend, the very fine Xavier Davis, though Xavier was not there that night.
Sam Newsome, with Andy Milne on piano, Gregg Austin on bass, and E.J. Strictland on drums. This music was much more abstract, with Newsome frequently exploring overtones on his soprano, and very impressionistic playing by Milne on piano. While I appreciated it intellectually, the music did not really engage me emotionally. So, it was off for late night dinner and music at the Bar Next Door, on
MacDougal Street, affiliated with the restaurant La Lanterna Caffe. Excellent food and music in an elegant setting. I was there to see one of my favorite of the younger guitarists on the scene, Lage Lund, a Norwegian who studied at Berklee in Boston and then moved to New York City a decade ago. He was joined by the 36-year-old English bassist Orlando le Fleming, who was a mainstay of the London jazz scene before moving to New York in 2003 to join singer Jane Monheit's band, and has since worked with a who's who of jazz, and is currently part of the David Sanchez Quartet, and one of my very favorite drummers today, Johnathan Blake (who was recently at the Topeka Jazz Workshop with Kenny Barron's trio). Caught part of the first set by the second band, led by soprano saxophonist
Already this was turning into a long weekend of great guitar playing, with Lund's particularly limpid approach used to good effect on the opening tune, "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You." The heat was turned up on a great tune by Kenny Dorham, "Short Story," with a powerful bass introduction and extensive use of chording by Lund in his solo. From there, a beautiful ballad, "Stairway to the Stars" (I always hear Johnny Hartman's voice in my head on that one), and the one original of the night, a quite wiggly Lund tune aptly named "Worms." The set wrapped up with a hard bop number, Sonny Rollins' "Solid," which I associate with the late great guitar player, Grant Green. In visiting with Lund afterwards, he shared that Green was his inspiration for playing that tune, as well. While I have not mentioned Blake's drumming until now, he was masterful both in propulsion and coloring of the music. By the way, Blake's recent CD, the Eleventh Hour, is one of the most played CD's the last two month's on KPR's Jazz in the Night. Lund also passed along to me his new CD, Live at Small's - you can expect to hear a lot of that one on Kansas Public Radio in the weeks to come.
The first night of my NYC jazz trip showcased just a slice of the great music heard here nightly, but it was a good representation - a set of challenging, interesting but accessible original music by David Bixler, the more abstract work of Sam Newsome, and a trio that focused mostly on jazz standards, but played at a high and inventive level.
Three more nights to look forward to!