Carnegie Hall Opening Night

The shock of the 5th

How do you shock an audience with a performance of Beethoven’s 5th? It is the most often performed symphony, by the most often performed composer of symphonies, its opening notes perhaps the most recognized theme in all of classical music. So, how do you make that sound fresh, and relevant? Last night, at Carnegie Hall’s opening night concert, Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra showed us one way to do it, quite convincingly. The final two works on the program were Imam Habibi’s Jeder Baum spricht, and the 5th. The Orchestra commissioned Habibi (b. 1985) to write a companion piece and overture to Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies. The title refers to a passage in one of Beethoven’s diaries from 1815:

Allmächtiger im Walde! Ich bin selig, glücklich im Wald; jeder Baum spricht durch dich. O Gott! Welche Herrlichkeit! In einer solchen Waldgegend, in den Höhen ist Ruhe, Ruhe, ihm zu dienen.

(Almighty in the forest! I am blessed, happy in the forest; every tree speaks through you. O God! What glory! In such a forest, in the heights is peace, tranquility, to serve him.)

And so, inspired by Beethoven’s vision of the trees speaking through God (and not, interestingly, the other way around), Habibi’s piece is a reflection and call to action on the climate crisis facing our planet. The piece contains echoes of both the 5th and the 6th: the storm scene, motivic allusions—including that very famous one—and is scored for the same forces as in the 5th. Habibi builds to a stunning cadence in Bb major, and then comes the shock: Beethoven’s 5th is played—attacca subito—on the final notes of Habibi’s piece.

There were actually some gasps in the audience!

So now Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestra have completely re-framed the opening of the 5th. It was really quite brilliant, as if a bridge was created across the more than two hundred years separating the two pieces. This framing also solves a musical conundrum, namely, what to do with that opening phrase? I was brought up on the heavy German guys, whose interpretation of the 5th (especially, for example, Klemperer’s) evokes the image of a lone genius on the podium, taking a solemn moment to contemplate fate, and then, forcefully comes that knock. Does it start on an upbeat? “No, you fool, that is an illusory anacrusis!” Nézet-Séguin did away with all that and launched into the piece with no fuss. If anything, Nézet-Séguin’s interpretation treated the first three movements lightly, giving the effect of three movements collectively acting as an anacrusis to the triumphal fourth, thus extending the opening motive across the entire span of the piece.

The premiere of Jeder Baum spricht, together with Beethoven’s 5th and 6th can be viewed here.

Nézet-Séguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra will be returning over the coming weeks to complete the Beethoven symphony cycle, which had originally been planned for 2020, and then subsequently cancelled.

A welcome return

The evening began with a piece by Valerie Coleman (b. 1970). Seven O’Clock Shout hearkens back to the days of COVID-19 lockdown, and the nightly 7:00 pm cheers for healthcare and frontline workers. The piece was also commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra who, astonishingly, gave Coleman only two weeks to complete it! (Coleman had previously been commissioned by the orchestra for their season opening concert in 2019. This ultra brief commissioning period demonstrates a profound mutual respect and trust that must have developed through that first commission.) The piece was commissioned in lockdown, and premiered in lockdown, with each musician recording their performance solo, the whole brought together in a video. Fanfares lead to lush Debussy-esque passages, to a rollicking 7:00 pm cheers.

Mid-century modern

Two pieces from the mid ‘50s formed the middle of the program. Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was performed with Yuja Wang as the soloist. This was my first time seeing Wang perform live. I had been unsure of what exactly to expect from her playing, but am happy to report that she gave a nuanced, technically flawless performance, without any kind of bombast or theatrics. The audience loved it and went fairly wild at the end.

(We noticed that Yuja Wang had something red on her right arm, but from our seats, we couldn’t make out what it was. Looking at the video of the concert, now I see that it was a temporary tattoo of the new Carnegie Hall logo! A very nice touch.)

Next up was Leonard Bernstein’s overture to Candide. This piece is a staple of orchestral repertoire, and for good reason—it’s brilliant, the tunes are great, it’s brief. At its conclusion, I whispered to Nora, “Now that’s an overture!” Nora told me later one of the tunes was actually used as the theme music to The Dick Cavett Show!

Necessary precautions

Carnegie Hall should be commended for taking several steps to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread. All concert-goers had to show proof of vaccination status, along with photo ID, in order to enter the hall. Ticket holders were directed to specific entrances, with a specific early entry time, in order to reduce congestion. Masks were required for everyone in the audience (they were optional for the performers, and several wore them), and this was actually enforced by the ushers. I suspect that the ushers were monitoring the audience using video cameras, because several times an usher would rush up from the back of the hall to tell someone to mask up. I have to say this was all very welcome.

You can watch the entire opening night concert here.

Barry Harris at the Village Vanguard

How early do you have to arrive to be the first in line at the Village Vanguard? I found out last weekend, two nights in a row. The first set at the Vanguard starts at 8:30, and the doors open at 7:30. On Saturday night, we gambled that 6:45 would be early enough. And it was, but just barely, because the line began forming behind us within a few minutes. We always run into nice people on line at the Vanguard. We met Dan, who had flown in from Detroit just to catch Barry Harris. Dan is a Barry Harris superfan, but not a musician himself.

Dan flew in from Detroit just to see Barry Harris at the Vanguard. The first time I saw Barry, the chap sitting next to me had flown in from Dallas, and was catching every set that week. On a later date, the person in front of us on line had flown in Toronto. We had a nice chat and it turned out he was Elvis Costello’s guitar technician. Ok, so why are people flying in all over to hear a pianist in his late 80s?

In order to understand that, you need to know a couple of things, one is Barry’s place in jazz history, and the other is his role as an educator. History first. Barry was born in Detroit in 1929, and based there through the end of the 50s. While in Detroit, Barry served as a mentor and music teacher to all the young players who were around the scene at the time, including Paul Chambers—much like Monk had been doing in New York in earlier years. Barry moved to New York in 1960, and his recording career began in earnest. Since then, he’s recorded twenty-five records as a leader, and appeared with a long list of greats, including Cannonball Adderley, Donald Byrd, Benny Golson, Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins, Sam Jones, Hank Mobley, Lee Morgan, and Sonny Stitt. Odds are, you have at least heard him play on Lee Morgan’s hit, The Sidewinder.

Stylistically, Barry has strong links with two other pianists, Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. Of the two, Barry’s playing is closest to Powell’s in harmonic approach and melodic approach. Powell’s melodic language is classic bebop; if you could imagine Charlie Parker playing the piano, you would wind up with Bud Powell. Monk’s own style was of course unique, but he and Powell were friends and certainly admired and influenced each other. But Barry had a much closer personal connection with Monk—they lived together in Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter’s house in Weehawken in the 1970s until Monk’s death in 1982. (Nica was a patron of jazz, and bebop in particular, perhaps most famous for her relationship with Charlie Parker. When Bird died on March 12, 1955, it was in Nica’s apartment at the Stanhope, across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) Barry still lives in that house in Weehawken.

So Barry had already been a teacher and a mentor in Detroit in the 1950s. In the 1970s, he started teaching workshops in New York. From 1982-87, he taught at the Jazz Cultural Workshop, which he co-founded. Since then, he has maintained his own weekly workshops in New York. I first started attending them off and on about five years ago. They take place every Tuesday night when Barry is in town, from six until midnight, divided into sessions for pianists, singers, and then at ten, improvisers on all instruments. The only reason I don’t go every week is that I already have enough of Barry’s materials to work on for the next few decades. When Barry is on tour internationally, he conducts workshops there too. Through that process, he has developed a couple of generations’ worth of acolytes. One of the most prominent of the younger generation is the brilliant Italian guitarist Pasquale Grasso, who has standing set at Mezzrow every Monday night. If Bud Powell is like Charlie Parker playing the piano, Pasquale is like Bud Powell playing the guitar.

We settled in for the first set on Saturday night. Having arrived first, I was able to grab the seat directly to Barry’s left, maybe two feet away from him. Barry came on with his trio of many years, with Ray Drummond on bass, and Leroy Willams on drums. Barry began his banter. It had been a tragic couple of weeks for master jazz pianists. Harold Mabern had died on September 17, Richard Wyands died on September 25, and Larry Willis died on September 29. Barry sang a tune dedicated to all three. For the rest of the set, Barry narrated an improvised story that he used to introduce each tune. “You are walking down the street, and you see someone who looks really fine, and you think to yourself, ‘I Want To Be Happy.’” Hit it. Later on, Barry played Blue Monk, and I still have goosebumps thinking about it. The set wrapped up with one of Barry’s audience participation numbers, which he referred to as “jazz karaoke.” “Ok, we need a number from one to eight.” Someone calls out, “eight!” and we all feel bad for that guy. “No, man,” Barry laughs, “something better than that!” Barry is asking for musical intervals, out of which he will improvise a new tune. I think that night the pattern was “two-four-five-three.” A few members of Barry’s choir were in the audience, and they sang along. I sang along too. I always look forward to Barry’s tune Nascimento, which will often end a set and is another tune that the audience sings and claps to, but he ran out of time.

The set ended too quickly, and we only had tickets for the first one. I arranged to meet Dan for the first set Sunday night. I only had a ticket for the second set, Dan was gracious enough to gift me the extra ticket he had. How early to arrive Sunday night? I really wanted to make sure I got there early enough, so this time I arrived at 6:15. Again, I was first in line. But this time, I was joined even more quickly, and then more and more people arrived. Several people from the workshop, including some of the choir members. Dan arrived. It started raining lightly, and the person working the door told us we could stand under the awning, but only up to “this line,” gesturing to a crack in the sidewalk. A woman from Germany came over and asked if she could share the awning. She wasn’t trying to sneak in, honest, just keep dry. She was dressed for an evening out, and wearing Chanel No. 5. Her husband stayed back in line in the drizzle, it was OK, he had a hat on.

7:30, time to sit down. Dan and I grabbed table one, right at the stage. Barry seemed a little happier and a little more relaxed on this night. Through two sets, he brought out several guests, a couple of his piano students, a trumpet player, a singer. I had an extra ticket for the second set, and I was able to pay it forward to a gent sitting in the back who needed one. He was, our server told us, another Barry superfan. Ethan Iverson came in and sat down at the table to our left. Towards the end of the second set, the gentleman who had been second in line hopped up on stage and did a beautiful modern jazz dance to one of the tunes. As always, the second set of the last night featured the choir for most of the numbers. It’s such a sweet, glorious sound, evocative of the choral jazz of the 1960s.

The set was over, the week-long stint was over. Barry and the band milled about the stage and Barry kept on joking around with the audience. He finally ended his patter with, “We’ll be black…” And then, “we’ll be white… black.”

Dave Stryker Trio at the Bar Next Door

Smalls lives up to its name, and Mezzrow is even smaller. The Bar Next Door is even more intimate than either. When you’re sitting at the tables directly in front of the musicians, you’re almost close enough to boop them on the nose while they play. We settled into one of those tables to catch Dave Stryker and his trio Thursday night. The Bar Next Door, is “next door” to, or more accurately, in the basement of La Lanterna, a nice Italian caffe and wine bar on Macdougal in the heart of the Village. The pizzas are good, the wine list is big, and there’s not a bad seat in the house, so it’s usually a good place to listen.

I first met Dave at the Jamey Aebersold summer jazz workshop in 2014, and since then I’ve been doing workshops, masterclasses, and online lessons with him, in addition to working through his books. He maintains an active teaching schedule, teaching at Indiana University and Montclair State. That’s on top of a very busy touring and recording schedule. I’ve learned a lot from him over the last five years, but more than that, I’m just a huge fan of his playing.

Originally from Omaha, Dave moved to New York in 1980 and had his first big break touring with Brother Jack McDuff in 1984-85. McDuff’s groups had included Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, George Benson, and Pat Martino. As Dave likes to tell the story, when he joined up, McDuff was luckily to have finally landed a “good guitarist!” From there, Dave spent a decade working with Stanley Turrentine. He’s firmly rooted in the hard bop tradition, and all the organ quartet and soul jazz pedigree infuse even his more abstract work with a down home groove.

The group launch into their first set. Jared Gold is on organ, and McClenty Hunter is on drums. I’ve seen this combo a few times and they gel together from the first downbeat. Gold has been playing with Dave since 2004 and the trio has been the foundation of Stryker’s records since 2013’s Blue To The Bone IV and 2014’s Eight Track. That last record launched a terrific series, with Eight Track II coming out in 2016 and this year’s Eight Track III and Eight Track Christmas. The concept is to treat the pop songs of the 1970s (Superfly, Wichita Lineman, We’ve Only Just Begun) as new additions to the great American songbook and work them into jazz numbers. The more I hear this approach, the more I think it’s a good idea, and I think it’s especially welcoming for younger people who don’t know dozens of the old tunes.

Dave Stryker and Jared Gold
Dave Stryker and Jared Gold

The band starts playing. A typical Stryker set will include originals, standards, bebop and blues. They play Autumn in New York. A woman and her parents walk in, sit down, and begin talking loudly in Italian. Dave calls the tune, “Too High,” insisting that it doesn’t describe the band. He’s trying to draw the Italians in, but the woman says it’s no use since her parents don’t speak a word of English. At the end of the tune, I helpfully call out to translate, “Troppo Alto”–maybe they thought I was shushing them, because they did quiet down for a few minutes after that.

The band is really cooking for the second set. I saw McClenty looking a bit tired in the break, but he really caught fire now. The set features a couple of blistering bebop tunes, including a super high energy take on Donna Lee. In honor of Thelonious Monk’s 102nd birthday, Dave does a lovely solo rendition of Ask Me Now. The set wraps up and we all go off into the New York Autumn night.

One For All celebrates Art Blakey at Dizzy’s

We are now in an era of jazz centenaries. Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald had theirs in 2017. Charlie Parker will have his next year. Barry Harris is just shy of ten years away from his. On October 11 2019, the honor goes to Art Blakey. Several events in New York this week will serve to commemorate. I caught One For All at Dizzy’s on Tuesday night. This supergroup sextet features Eric Alexander, Jim Rotundi, Steve “Stevie D!” Davis, David Hazeltine, and Joe Farnsworth. Eric had just flown in from Vancouver early that morning, and Jim had just flown in from Vienna.

I know Eric, Jim, and Steve from the Jamey Aebersold summer jazz workshops. I’ve played in combos supervised by Eric and Steve, and to put my cards on the table, they are both heroes of mine. I’ve been a fan of Eric’s ever since I first heard him play at Smoke in 2005 with the Mike LeDonne quartet (and which I wrote about at the time).

Steve had the honor of getting picked by Blakey to join the Jazz Messengers right out of college. Steve played on the last two Messengers albums, his tune, One For All, became the title track of the group’s final record. There’s a story that Steve likes to tell about his early days with Blakey. Art took Steve aside, put his arm around him and said, “Listen, when you solo, you make statement, you build to a climax, then you get the fuck out!” “You got that?” Steve: “Yes.” Art: “Then fucking do it!” Truer words were never spoken!

Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola

One For All first got together for a gig at Smalls in 1997. Since then, they have recorded sixteen albums together. I have to admit not knowing those albums previously, but I am looking forward to digging into them.

Through the course of two sets, the group ripped through a bunch of Blakey favorites, including Benny Golson’s Along Came Betty, and Blues March. During Manteca, it was all I could do to stop from shouting out the tune’s name, just like Dizzy and Chano Pozo did. Joe Farnsworth acted as MC for most of the night, and this night being about a great drummer, took several extended and thrilling solos.