You gotta love a three ring circus-if you're in the audience, not necessarily if you're one of the acts-even if it means sweating and thirsting, sitting as if in sawdust, crowded up with fellow thrill-seekers to marvel at the miracles (i.e., witness what unfolds). At the Knitting Factory Saturday night, June 25, JVC Jazz Festival New York banners hung large in the Main Space, the Tap Bar and the Old Office, and for $35 audiences were privy to 16 bands of mostly top-notch if not (yet) commercially bankable/venue-filling artists.
If JVC JF-NY calling this cornucopia its own seems opportunistic, like the groups could have been presented more respectfully in concerts than in a club or paid better or promoted in JVC JF-NY ads, lighten up. JVC JF-NY has tried several times to encompass "downtown," and has seldom gotten it right. I don't know what the big fest did to help this mini-fest (none of the above), but here we were, and it was pretty good.
Sets had staggered starting times, so in theory those of us with short attention spans could catch a bit of everyone, and the organization of this blow-out was admirable, so the vibe was relaxed, though the Knit's air conditioning had broken down and there's hardly any waitstaff. You've got to go for your own drinks and the bartenders aren't uniformly pleasant, which is no way to sell booze except to masochists. The bathrooms are considerably improved from the long lost era (two years back? three?) when the Knit was a meeting hall for downtown jazz, improv and experimentation. There were empty chairs in the Main
Space balcony, teensy tables in the Tap Bar to rest your beer on, almost enough seats for everyone in the Old Office. It was actually possible to listen, closely, almost intimately. That's what going out for music is supposed to be about, besides social interaction.
The evening started with the conceptually dubious Bjorkestra led by confident pianist Travis Sullivan, approaching the Icelandic hottie's material like Maynard Ferguson (brassy, brash, high-note big-band trumpeter) meets Xena, Warrior Princess. Diana Kazakova did the singing, which seemed secondary to the roaring ensemble and soloists who started at Spinal Tap volume (11) and couldn't get much higher. Down one flight, hyper-serious pianist Jean-Michel
Pilc's trio tricked up a medley of Thelonious Monk's indestructible themes to give them the clickety-clack air of a Jacques Tati comedy soundtrack. Interesting, though not profound. Deeper down, violinist Jenny Scheinman, a tallish woman with large eyes and cabaret cool, plucked simple themes then put her bow to them, supported just right by her Shalagaster trio bass and drums; when the lights failed she didn't miss a beat, but segued from a quasi-Brecht-Django Reinhardt number into a vocal rendition of Jelly Roll Morton's "Winin' Boy Blues," which I doubt was played at any other festival in Manhattan in June.
Back upstairs, bassist-composer Ben Allison's Kush Trio was distinguished to begin with by his use of a flat pick strumming a drone, and drummer Michael Sarin's deliberate rhythm at least equal in musical weight to the Middle Eastern kind of riff that Michael Blake repeated, with not too many notes or too far abstracted variation. The piece was focused on one nice idea, which invited and allowed one (me, you) to listen and follow along, rather than panning through a flood of notes for the fulfilling phrase.
The Tap Room, by then, was standing room only for saxophonist Tim Berne's trio Hard Cell. Berne, his sound more thoughtful, less abrasive than I'd anticipated, was also focused, but on a path he seemed to be clearing at that very moment with the brilliant and under-appreciated pianist Craig Taborn and his solid drummer Tom Rainey.
Timings had slipped by then, and instead of checking out Gary Lucas, guitarist behind the Captain Beefheart tribute ensemble Fast 'n' Bulbous, I returned to the Main Space for saxophonist Marty Ehrlich's Sextet, which offered accomplished, original yet accessibly bluesy writing and strong but tempered blowing (by trumpeter Ron Horton as well as the leader) on stouthearted themes, underlined with appropriate oom-pah by tubaist Howard Johnson and a hard-swinging rhythm section. Now this was music to sit for, not take in on the run; a feast in itself, and the best argument for giving Ehrlich, a guy who always delivers more than he's required to, several nights somewhere nice to hone the pieces, fine-tune the band and attract the tragically hip who'd dig it.
There was more, but my ears were too full. More next time. Since new management at the Knit imposed its alt.rock booking policy, jazz, improv and experimentation has been home downtown at Tonic, CBGB's Gallery (the Sunday evening series, FreeStyle Jazz, with Roy Campbell, Steve Swell, Sabir Mateen and Liberty Ellman, among others, from 7 p.m., ends, sadly, July 31), Avenue C's C-Note, and now John Zorn's The Stone. However, on July 11 former Knit booker Glenn Leslie has Boseman, Montana pianist Bob Nell's Trio, guitarist Ron Jackson's organ project (hyped as funk with crunch), and Lower East Side power saxophonist Andrew Lamb's trio. No promises, but maybe the AC's been fixed.
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