Avant Jazz, or whatever you want to call it

by Jeffrey Bishop


Village Vanguard on night of Blizzard, Chris Potter Quartet keeping things warm inside, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop


Returning to Gotham this past December following a year of living in Hong Kong,

the thing I longed for most was getting back to the intense NY music scene…


So the day we returned, thoroughly jet lagged, we nonetheless lugged ourselves up to the Japan Society to hear NY’s fiercest New Music ensemble, the Bang on a Can All Stars.  They performed a program including Japanese composer Mamoru Fujieda, Somei Satoh, and a work by one of my favorite pianists Vijay Iyer. It was a riveting, sold out performance to welcome us back to New York City and appropos since we had stopped in Japan on our way home. We were disappointed to have missed Bang on a Can’s  founder David Lang’s “Love Fail” at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) a few days earlier but pleased to see glowing reviews for such a deserving composer.

A week later we took in Michael Gordon’s “Timber” performed by newcomers Mantra Percussion at BAM’s latest performance venue, the Fisher Space. This was an intense and innovative minimalist percussion piece using tuned and amplified 2 x 4’s by another Bang founder that had us mesmerized for its full 50 some odd minutes.


Dafnis Prieto Sextet at Jazz Standard, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop



At the Jazz Standard a few weeks later, I caught a couple of riveting sets by virtuoso Cuban drummer Dafnis Prieto and his raucous but so tight sextet. This got me excitedly back into my jazz groove and I was delighted to subsequently take in three straight nights of Mary Halvorson at Cornelia St Cafe, each night with a different lineup. Halvorson is one of the most original guitarists to emerge on the scene for some time. She studied with Anthony Braxton and has been highly sought after ever since! She especially shines while  leading her own ensembles, my favorite of which is called Thumbscrew with Michael Formanek and Tomas Fujiwara. This is electrifying stuff, lyrical but rough and frequently veering into heavily percussive almost punk like delirium. Some of my favorite players without question.


Thumbscrew at Cornelia St.(Mary Halvorson, guitar, Tomas Fujiwara, drums, Michael Formane,k Bass), photograph by Jeffrey Bishop



The thing about current contemporary avant jazz, or whatever you want to call it, is that for decades now, it plays to such small audiences that on any given night you can be in a very small club with your feet on the bandstand and the musicians practically in your lap. I’m not talking about the Blue Note or any of the fancier uptown joints like Dizzy’s in the Time Warner Center where steep covers and endless regurgitation of standards have largely atrophied jazz out of existence. Small clubs like the Jazz Gallery, the Stone, Cornelia St, Small’s, Barbes, Shapeshifter Lab (the latter two in Brooklyn) are among dozens that are consistently booking extremely committed and intelligent players who continue to revitalize jazz vocabularies drawing from all kinds of stimulating new sources from within the tradition and from around the globe. I would be remiss not to mention the Village Vanguard which seemingly forever has been the indispensable flagship in the jazz world and where I first heard Monk forty years ago. Caught a wonderful set there by Chris Potter some weeks ago while a blizzard raged outside. Speaking of Monk, up on 63rd St there had been a dust up over the misspelling of Thelonious’s name on the circle named after him. Miscue corrected reports the Times. Whew!


Patti Smith at MoMA, photograph by Jeffrey Bishop




From a friend I got a tip that Patti Smith would be reading Jean Genet at MoMA. I got there early even though this was clearly not a publicized event. But when I saw Lenny Kaye walk though the crowd with his guitar I knew there would be music in addition to poetry, and indeed there was, and plenty of it.

She read Genet and sang “Beneath The Southern Cross”. Of course she forgot the words to her own songs and laughed shyly at her miscues. Then, as it was Christmas time, she broke into “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”. What a memorable endearing event!

Playing to a much larger audience recently was John Cale (Velvet Underground, Dream Syndicate, etc.) playing two remarkable and distinct gigs at BAM that turned out to be truly memorable. Night one was a Nico tribute night with many guests, most notably for me, Sharon Van Etten. Night two he played primarily from his best known work “Paris 1919” and his new release “Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood”. When he closed the set on night two with “Venus in Furs” it pretty much brought the house down.

I’ve been listening to him in heavy rotation ever since and have pulled out other old heroes from his generation like Tony Conrad and Terry Riley. So now is as good a time as ever to mention a set by Glenn Branca at Public Assembly in Williamsburg last August during a brief NY break from the summer heat of Hong Kong. Branca lurched around the stage in his inimitable conducting style propelling six or seven electric guitarists to louder and louder crescendos of roiling sound, closing the evening set suddenly by stumbling drunkenly into the drummers’ kit.  Kaput and out, and thoroughly spent – he nonetheless staggered through the crowd thanking all who came. Two opening acts for Branca really impressed me, Neptune and especially Christina Carter. Check her out!

Never one to pass up an opportunity to float down nostalgia lane I couldn’t resist catching the Golden Palominos at Le Poisson Rouge, another downtown venue that has perhaps the most eclectic and interesting booking of anyone in town. They’ll honor Elliott Carter (who left us this year at the age of 104) or Steve Reich one night and then Anton Fier’s long evolving Palominos on another. Had heard the later with the lovely Syd Straw a year or so back. This incarnation had Lori Carson and Lianne Smith. Remember them from their heyday in the 80’s with Arto Lindsay? Mudd Club?

Oh well, still backtracking, I’ve got to mention catching Mike Watt who led The Minutemen back in the day and last seen by me in L.A. in the early eighties. The more recent gig was here at the Mercury Lounge where you can get close enough to get your head blown off which is what I did with my 20-year-old nephew who was more than duly impressed. Can I mention recent gigs by The Gang of Four and Wire among other older acts that still sound better than many younger rock acts out there today? Hell yes! if you’re 64 and more than occasionally looking backwards!

For a change of scenery we took in a performance by the NY Philharmonic conducted by a very animated Andris Nelsons who poked and prodded the Orchestra through some sweet Dvorak and Bela Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra which sandwiched Brahms’ violin concerto, a long time favorite, featuring Christian Tetzlaff soloing. The Times rather savaged his performance but it was fine with me. We let the music wash over us in the cheaper seats, eyes closed and very contented.


Author with Cecil Taylor at opening of “Blues for Smoke” at Whitney Museum, photograph by Sofia Urbino



Two nights ago the Whitney Museum opened a major new show called “Blues for Smoke”, a tribute to the influence of jazz and blues on the visual arts in the 20th and now 21st century. Everyone from Romaire Bearden to Michel Basquiat and David Hammonds among many others included. Highlight of the densely attended and celebratory opening for me was meeting long time hero of mine Cecil Taylor who I first saw at Slugs in the lower East Side in the late 60’s. What an honor. Talk about avant garde work that still blows out the lights: check out “Bulbs”, “Pots” and “Mixed” on Gil Evans’ “Into the Hot” circa 1961. Oh, and do turn up the volume!


Just last night we went to the Jazz Gallery’s new space on Broadway at 27th. Luis Perdomo on piano with McArthur award winner Miguel Zenon on alto. Wonderful new space although we lament the loss of the old gem on Hudson at Spring. This is a great non-profit space that truly supports and nurtures generations of jazz musicians. They’ll surely work out a few kinks in the new room.

Ok let’s look forward for a moment:

Following the success of last year’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”, I am really looking forward to brothers Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National as they return to BAM for year two of their genre-spanning festival, line up not yet published, but sure to be 3 nights of wandering through very contemporary and multifarious soundscapes. And I am always scanning the scene to find the more interesting musical dates out there.

What else? I have surely missed so very much, I can only get out every so often! But be assured that on any given night in NYC you (a hip Boulevardier) can find bold and innovative, eclectic music to satisfy just about any taste imaginable.

Artist and Boulevardier Jeffrey Bishop lives in Brooklyn, NY.

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