Well, it was quite a week for live music. There are a lot of things that can be substituted or forgotten. If you wanted, you could get away with never speaking another word to another human being. Never read an actual bound book. Forget seeing a movie in a theater. But there is no substitute for live music.
The week came to an end with Brian Blade, Bill Frisell, and Jenny Scheinman at The Village Vanguard. Well, it was Thursday, but who’s counting. The Vanguard is a NY institution, that looks nearly exactly as it did in its heyday. Every legend of jazz has played there, and the more spiritual among us like to imagine that there is a little spirit of those left behind.
It was a fitting week to visit, as Paul Motian had just passed away, the Vanguard was his home for the last few years, and Frisell was a member of his long running trio with Joe Lovano (who else would have the balls to have a trio with sax, drums, and guitar??)
One of my favorite shows of all time was the Brian Blade Fellowship at this venue a few years back. I couldn’t see a thing (which happens if you sit anywhere except the very front) but it made no difference. Everyone in the venue was straining their necks to see what Blade was up to behind the vast array of musicians on that tiny stage. This evening was a little easier, there were only 2 other up there.
The set was less experimental than you would imagine. Frisell had his pedal board, some looping devices, probably a magic pedal that allows him to play a Statocaster at the Village Vanguard and not look ridiculous doing so…and probably not a Boss Metal Zone. Scheinman was leading the band, playing most of the melody, but in truth, you can’t have Brian Blade on a stage and expect him not to be the focus.
It’s not even through showmanship or excessive display of chops. Blade could probably play just a ride cymbal with a broomstick and most of us would have been captivated. The man has something most do not. It goes beyond time. Its not speed, or some Dave Weckl-esque shit, he’s just operating on a level different from the rest of us. I commented to my friend that this is what Elvin Jones must have sounded like at the Vanguard. You can see everything he’s doing – he’s using the same tools available to anyone else. But he’s just extracting something different from them. He’s from New Orleans, let’s call it Voodoo.
This week it will continue, at a much more relaxed pace, with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, also Peter Lugers steak, and while that is not music, it is certainly worth noting.
New Years Eve. Its the one holiday that I completely understand. Once you start mixing religion into things, it just gets confusing, so lets keep it secular around these blog related parts. We have all agreed to observe the same calendar, so lets all have a party when it turns over, world wide, time zone abiding. Its a recurring opportunity for disappointment, when the whole world is counting on you to get out there and tear it up. But the older we get, the less that seems to matter, so once my Quarter Century had passed, I don’t feel I need to bear that burden anymore. This year, it was time to get some work done.
As mentioned in my previous post, I was on the crew for the NPR Toast Of The Nation Broadcast. The producer of the show mentioned that he had seen this here blog and referred to me as “Bilbo Bloggins”, thanks Josh, I feel good about that. There were a few shows broadcast throughout the country, but the New York Crew was in charge of The Bad Plus at The Village Vanguard. One of my favorite bands at one of my favorite venues, it was win win. Since there is always the likelihood that you will have to work while at work, I made reservations earlier in the week to see The Bad Plus at the Vanguard, just to relax and see the show. My previous experiences with this band at this venue have always been fantastic. Exactly one year ago, they played a stellar version of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” which completely blew my mind, followed by an encore of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” which I would bet is the only time that particular song has been played at that particular venue by any band at any time. I also witnessed owner Loraine Gordon completely put an obnoxious tourist in his place for complaining about the line outside, which was one of my favorite New York moments of all time.
But that was then, this is now. And the Bad Plus is a “Now” band. They are most widely known for their interpretations of cover songs, everything from “Smells Like Teen Spirit” to Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” to Wilco’s “Radio Cure” but they go far beyond a novelty act. I feel like they are the leaders of a very small number of jazz artists actually doing interesting and relevant things, rather than just repeating the past. I’m sure they could play every standard known to every professor at Berklee School Of Music, but they don’t seem to be interested in doing that. Covers aside, listening to their original material, you feel yourself being pulled forward into new territory. There is all sorts of rock influence in the backbeats drummer Dave King throws in, Reid Anderson’s rhythmic and melodic basslines always remind me of Motown meets Led Zeppelin, and Ethan Iverson is pretty much the Eddie Van Halen of Jazz Piano. They must have some type of telepathy with the way they change time signatures and tempos on a dime, they never seem lost. Go youtube some Bad Plus and you will agree with me. That is a statement, not a suggestion.
So we settled in on the opening night of their week long run to see some craziness. Was I surprised they delivered? No I was not. Was I 3% disappointed we did not hear any covers? Yes, I might have been. But the musical virtuosity more than made up for it. Reid Anderson took the prize for the night, with some innovative bass solos, never lacking melody. I think the fact that he uses a kick ass bass amp in addition to being miked (something i have not always seen at the vanguard) gives him a little push, but I’m just as sure he’d be fine without it. I saw Iverson and Anderson with drummer Paul Motian there not too long ago, and it was the same situation, the bass really made the whole night. King on the drums just went nuts. You could spot the drummers in the house, who would all give a little laugh every time he pulled some crazy shenanigans. King laughs along with the crowd, which I always find reassuring, I always respect a musician who doesn’t take themselves to seriously. So it was a short hour long early set on a tuesday night, I left feeling good and ready for more on Thursday.
My plan to stay up all night on Dec 30th in preparation, fell through when Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings sold out Brooklyn Bowl, preventing me from having anything exciting to do, so I went to bed at a reasonable hour, woke up, made some Cheese Grits (take that Matt Shampine, Iblogwhatieat too!) and headed to the venue. At their soundcheck, King introduced a new tune, and the band learned it well enough to play it that night. Lets just say, it solidified the fact that I will not likely be a jazz musician. I’m going to think of that next time I’m in a musical situation where someone cannot pick up a 4 chord progression. (that someone might be me, I’m just puttin it out there) We had a good low key dinner with the band and crew, and returned, ready to tear it up, in a slight food coma. At this point, The Bad Plus did something that will make them forever hold a special place in my heart: They got us Magnolia Cupcakes.
Now let me explain. No disrespect to Matt Shampine’s list of cupcake supremacy, but Magnolia fucking rocks, I don’t care what you say. Dessert is such an essential part of a meal, its like the roof on a house. Calls were even placed while at the dinner table to see if Magnolia would still be open. Any band that is down with this concept, is a band I can respect both on and off stage. Beyond that, an essential professional rule I learned early on, is to always make sure the crew is fed. They actually taught us this in college. A film professor once mentioned, if you feed your crew well, they will work harder, and in the long run it will save you far more money than you would save by not feeding the crew. I have had one boss who did not believe in feeding his crew, and for that I wish many bad things upon him, such as fishes and other items in his piano, but lets move on.
The crowd band and crew all seemed in good spirits upon returning to the venue. This was definitely the “loosest” I’ve ever seen this band on stage. I dont mean musically, but more in terms stage presence. They discussed which songs to play for a bit, made some jokes to the crowd, everyone was feeling good. The production assistant and myself were perched in the best seat in the house, recording the first set. Things moved along well, no standout musical moments come to mind, everything just seemed to be working.
The live broadcast was for the entire 2nd set, which started at 11. By this time, the crowd had a fair amount of alcohol in them, and its never fun to be sober around a bunch of drunks, I find myself easily irritated. But in this case, everything was kosher, I was hanging out next to a serious band, just kickin it with a bunch of mic pre-amps, settled in for the night. It seemed as soon as we went on air and the host did the band intro, they just kicked it into high gear. Especially Dave King, he just went completely nuts from the first tune of the set. Even Iverson commented “Nice Drum Solo!” between songs, he was clearly feeling it. Sitting maybe 2 feet from him, I was especially psyched to watch what was happening. It gave me some new insights into the way they play, especially watching his bass drum foot. I can’t explain it, because I am not that technical of a musician, but the way they keep time made more sense after being able to see the bass drum pedal. Anyhoo, they were on fire.
The actual countdown to midnight was on time and went well, the house was alive, everyone feeling good. I might have been the only new years eve when I did not actually acknowledge the fact that the calendar had just turned over, I was keeping an eye on that recording gear! This brings me to my next point. I got to be on stage with the bad plus. “WHY?” you ask? “You sat in because you are totally awesome!?” No dear reader, no. Although please rest assured of my awesome-ness. At 12:13, the recording gear went dead. The power off, the lights dimmed. I did not want to crawl behind the narrow passage between the rack of gear and the drums, but that shit was live, and dead air was happening. The power supply fell out of the outlet during the soundcheck, we re-secured it and everything was cool, but apparently it happened again….although when i was at the back of the stage near the power, everything seemed to be plugged in. I have no idea what happened. By the time the gear had been turned on, there was a sync error with the master clock….you wanna talk Digital Audio? I didn’t think so. That being said, we lost 2 minutes of the broadcast, the important part happened. That shit is stressful man, 2 minutes feels like an eternity in that situation. I was using my phone as a light to make sure everything was plugged in, and it kept vibrating with “Happy New Yrr!” text messages, from people far drunker than I, and it was getting slightly irritating. By that time, the set was nearly over, and our work was done. I think we all felt a little defeated, but it was nearly 1am, and there are worse things in the world.
Loading out of a venue is never fun, but on new years eve, when there is evil ungodly freezing slush raining from the skye, and everyone on the street is at the tail end of their wildly intoxicated evening, things are certainly interesting. I had entertained plans of gallivanting well into the wee hours of the morning, but at 2:00am, there is nothing on earth I wanted more than to be at home. I would have battled a wild rhino to get chicken sandwich at that hour, but alas, nothing was open. So, I rung in 2010 back at the house, with some chocolate covered raisins after a night of great music and technical snafu’s. If thats anything indicative of the year to come, bring on the music and the drama.